For many Americans, November’s election results were (and continue to be) incredibly disheartening — but for some of you, they were also galvanizing, inspiring you to enter the fray and be an agent of change. Fantastic! But where to start? There are things to do if you’re considering running for office in the next few years that will help you get your foot in the door of the political process. Your presidential run might be a long way down the road, but, by making some important resolutions now, you can put yourself on the path to elected office, and you can do a lot of good in the meantime.
There have been a lot of think-pieces written in the wake of the election, and no doubt experts will continue to unravel the forces that brought Donald Trump to power for a long time to come, but one thing is clear: Our government could definitively use fresh blood, on both sides of the aisle. It’s especially important that more women become involved in the political process. Women make up more than half of the U.S. population, and yet they fill only 20 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress. The underrepresentation of women in government starts at the local level: A 2016 report from the CUNY Institute of State and Local Governance found that, in the largest 100 American cities, only a third of city council members are women, and only 18 percent of mayors are women. The issue isn’t that women can’t get elected — they can and do — but that they don’t run in the first place; CUNY found that only 19 percent of mayoral candidates are female. The report cites a number of problems that keep women from running, including “gendered social roles, negative self-perceptions, limited exposure to politics, and lack of support.” And, of course, this lack of women getting into politics on the ground floor is bad for gender equality on the national level — because there simply aren’t enough women making it into the top echelons of government.
So if you’re considering running for office some day — even if that day is far down the line — good on you! Make a few resolutions this year that will equip you to make an impact now and in the future.
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I know, I know, this seems really, really simple — but it’s important. If you’re going to get involved in government, it’s essential to be informed about what’s going on in the world, on every level. Commit to knowing what’s happening on the big stage in Washington, but don’t ignore the events and controversies happening locally in your community. Chances are, your political career will start out in local government, so you’ve got to be well informed of what’s happening close to you. Reading up on local, state, and nationwide news may also help you to find opportunities for volunteering and getting involved in the political process in your area.
Try to identify what you feel are the most pressing needs of your community, and volunteer for a community organization, activist group, or nonprofit that will allow you to address those needs. You’ll help your community, gain valuable experience in public outreach, and potentially meet local leaders.
It’s easy to feel like unpaid labor doesn’t “count,” but it does. Just ask Regina Monge, one of Bustle’s 2016 Upstart Awards honorees, who ran for and won a political office while still in college. “Volunteering helped me meet the people I needed to know in order to get my internship,” she told Bustle in September. That internship would end up being her first political job. “Women are often expected to work for free or for little pay, especially work they're passionate about, like activism,” she said. “So, volunteer if you can, and make sure you quantify that as real work, because it is. And make sure you put that on your resume, because it is life experience and you have to make sure you're capitalizing on that, especially if you're not getting paid.”
Join the local chapter of the political party you support in your area and get involved in its activities. If there is a candidate at the local or state level whose work you support, see how you can get involved in his or her campaign. You’ll be supporting a cause you care about, and you’ll make some important contacts on the way.
If you can find a career that also allows you to support public causes you care about, you’ve hit the jackpot. Look for work or internship opportunities at nonprofits or government agencies in your area. And if your job is further afield of politics, there are still ways that you can use your career as a path to public office. Say, for example, that you work in business — find out if there is a business leadership organization in your area and get involved.
I get it — the word “networking” fills me with dread, too, but having a full and diverse group of contacts will be essential to running for office down the line. Use your volunteer and work experience as opportunities to meet likeminded people, especially ones who already have a foothold in the political life of your community. Their experience and advice will be invaluable to you as you navigate your own path into the public arena (and, BONUS, you’ll make friends, which is never a waste).
You have opportunities to vote a lot more often than every four years, and for a lot more positions than the U.S. President. You have elections for the Senate and House of Representatives, your state government, your local officials, and for ballot measures on specific issues that are important to your state and your immediate community. If you want to have a say in how things are run, the first step is to exercise your right to vote in all levels of the government. Local elections are especially important (though too often forgotten) because arguably they’ll have the most immediate impact on your everyday life.
We all know that the internet is forever, and that rings especially true of people who are in the public eye. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites can be great ways to find connections and build a following, but it’s important to be mindful of how you present yourself on these platforms. That doesn’t mean that you have to lie about who you are or refrain from expressing yourself in a way that feels authentic, but it does mean that you will want to think carefully about what you say online and how you use your own image. And, honestly, in this day and age, being careful about how you craft your social media presence is important for any line of work, political or otherwise.
If you’re starting to think about running for specific offices, take the time to find out what the eligibility requirements are for those positions. You don’t want to get invested in running for a particular role, only to realize that you live in the wrong district.
When you feel ready to run for office, start with local elected positions like the school board, city council, or community boards in your area. If you want to be a voice in politics, even on the national stage, it’s probably a good idea to start small and local. When you feel like you’re ready to run for office for the first time, look at the positions available in your community, like the school board or city council. Also look for community boards (such as a library board or sustainability committee) in your local government, and find out how to get involved.
There are a number of national organizations that provide support for women running for public office at every level. She Should Run is a nonpartisan organization that seeks to inspire more women to run for office by providing resources for guidance and support. Running Start encourages young women and girls to consider careers in politics through a number of educational programs, fellowships, and internships. And EMILY’s List has been supporting the campaigns of female, Democratic, pro-choice candidates for over 30 years.
Possibly the most important resolution you can make if you’re thinking of eventually running for office is to be bold. Don’t back down, and don’t give up. Running for office is undoubtedly a daunting task, and any potential candidate will experience setbacks along the way, but the world needs smart, passionate, good people to step up to the plate and make a difference. The hardest part is simply to make a start — so get going, and good luck!
Check out the "You IRL" stream in the Bustle App starting on January 1 for daily tips on how to have an empowering 2017.
Images: Hannah Burton/Bustle