In a post-Roe v. Wade era, we are forced to question how, when, and even if we want to run for public office when the very institutions we seek to serve don't seem to serve us. We as leaders in a society that has yet to achieve gender equity and equality are constantly having to fight against a system, instead towards our collective liberation as diverse women from all facets of society.
Despite these efforts to limit our interest and engagement, and the evident need for our diverse leadership, women across the country are showing up as leaders in their respective communities. Whether we are aware of it or not, we each uniquely demonstrate our individual leadership in our daily lives as leaders in our local community, as public school teachers, or even if we are audacious enough to challenge the powers that be—as elected officials.
I understand it can be difficult to grapple with how exactly one can hold public office–from a local city council to Congress–and yet stand firmly against those very oppressive forces that seek to limit women and girls from realizing their fullest potential.
At least that’s how I, as a young Latina grassroots community organizer of Guatemalan and Mexican descent, rooted in a desire to dismantle oppressive structures, systems, and ideologies, always viewed the role of public office. Not simply because of the unfortunate social conditions of my youth, but rather the lack of empowerment I received and the impact of an oppressive government and policies that did not seek to serve young women of color like me.
This pessimism grew within me merely because I could not actualize or foresee how having a role within a governmental entity could serve people like me at all—merely because I couldn’t imagine someone like me even having a seat at the table.
Upon engaging in conversation with Erin Loos Cutraro, CEO and Founder of She Should Run, I discovered how organizations like She Should Run are central to empowering everyday women—many like myself—to realize that we, too, can engage in public leadership roles if we so choose to, because, in many ways, we’re already doing it.
From a national nonpartisan movement to a local grassroots organizing framework, we explored how essential it is for society’s collective well-being that women be in all forms of leadership roles, whether that’s an elected position or something less “official,” though no less important. Even though our approach to the work may differ, the similarities in our why and purpose for doing go hand in hand, and in order to attain gender equity and advocate for community, we cannot attain it alone, but rather as a collective of women.
Below, excerpts from our conversation with some continued thoughts:
IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO EMPOWER YOUNG WOMEN
Irene Franco Rubio: How did this idea of a women-led and woman-run focused nonpartisan organization take shape? More specifically, what moment or life experiences sparked your life’s commitment to empowering women to have a seat at decision-making tables?
Erin Loos Cutraro: Now having two daughters, I’m constantly trying to enforce in them the importance of connections with community, with purpose, with self, in a way that is such a gift I can give them. In thinking about education for my kids, in comparison to my own experience growing up, as my sister and I were the first in our families to go to college, the idea of college touring was so foreign to us because it’s not something we experienced.
I bring this up because they're [daughters] always asking me, “Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?” I believe that I wanted to be based on who I saw around me. A lot of them are educators or care workers, my mom was a secretary, my dad was a construction worker, this is what my exposure was. And I tell them that what is amazing for them is that they have access to so much more. And for politics, it’s either something you come to yourself, or it’s the people you know.
Cutraro’s story of self resonated with me in that I too felt limited in exposure, but eventually found a sense of community, led by women, who inspired me to imagine what could be, despite never having been previously exposed to it. Inspiring young women to imagine that they too can engage in politics or pathways that allow them to take up space as unapologetic leaders is perhaps the first step to empowering them to recognize their leadership is critical to our communal development.
IF YOU CAN SEE IT, YOU CAN BE IT
I asked Erin: How do you envision other young women of color like myself will be able to find their voice and their interest in politics when these systems and institutions are not designed to allow for it?
“You have to be able to imagine yourself in the role, and for somebody to come up with that on their own is pretty mission impossible,” says Erin. “As soon as we have one example we can say, ‘That’s us. Here is an extraordinary story, often in an ordinary woman, but an extraordinary story that she has risen to [fill in the blank position], and the difference she is making for so many others.’”
At this point, I mentioned “The Squad” and the critical role they played in my understanding of policy-making, having diverse female leaders, and the power of representation. From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, IIhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib to Deb Haaland—Latinx, Black, Muslim, Palestinian, and Indigenous representation changed the game for how I could visualize public leadership.
“The work at She Should Run is all about helping women from all types of backgrounds really see their potential, and the need for their voices in elected office, and the only way we will get there is by centering their voices,” says Erin. “It’s not my voice, it’s those who are least represented so that others who are like them or can identify with them can see their potential. It’s rare for people to fully come to that on their own.”
In fact, representation is precisely one of the most critical elements for young women like myself who seek to aspire to envision themselves in these positions, too. Regardless of one’s background and all the labels imposed on diverse women that do not make one “qualified enough” is in fact the key to challenging the societal perception of those who are often denied the chance to pursue public office.
I asked Erin: How do you see the need for intersectionality to occur in pursuit of diverse public leadership and ultimately within the movement for women in pursuit of leadership?
“Race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, identity, socio-economic background, immigration status, you name it, all come into play when women are in the position—if we are so lucky—for them to be considering political leadership, and we seek to determine what would actually move them forward.
“The evidence is clear. Diversity of experience and diversity of thought make for better policy. And we are holding ourselves back as a country and world when we are not tapping into the full talent pool this country has to offer. The more we can grow and normalize seeing women with unique experiences and backgrounds, the more we can lift up the intersectionality of who they are. I’m always having to say, women are not a monolith.”
In centering diverse leadership with women from all backgrounds, I realized just how critical it is that I value the multifaceted and intersectional parts of my identity that remain central to who I am as a growing leader. Despite being told to think we cannot show up with our full selves unapologetically, Erin reminds me that it is precisely why we must be that representative for the next young woman seeking that power within herself.
IF NOT YOU, THEN WHO?
“We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” says Erin. “In order to find the woman who is not currently thinking about running for office, the reality is it often doesn’t start with the woman herself, it starts with those around her. Understanding the roles that we play in society to either encourage or discourage people from using their voices is so incredibly important and it's this huge under-tapped opportunity.”
We cannot fail to acknowledge the various roles we play and the unique power we each have to empower, inform, and inspire one another. Erin reminds me how I too would not have found my engagement in advocacy if it were not for those I eventually found who inspired me to believe that I too could be part of this movement—that I too had a role to play.
“People often say, ‘politics isn’t for me,’ but we can’t do that,” says Erin. “Even if we aren’t interested in running for office, or serving in office, we all still play a role in finding that woman or person of color whose voice is not represented and helping to give that spark.”
In what came to be an enlightening conversation on just how essential women’s engagement in and pursuit of public leadership is, Erin positively challenged my perception of elected office for the better in understanding the role it has in empowering women from all walks of life.
In realizing my belief was systemic and rooted in the very effort to keep women out of public office, to never fully realize our power or have a say in the policies that impact our lives, I’ll admit I felt inspired to consider running for office one day.
Nonetheless, we cannot fail to acknowledge we are far from achieving gender equity though we must acknowledge how we show up as leaders in our daily lives, and regardless of how we choose to show up, we can all have the chance, if we so choose to, protect and advocate for our rights as diverse women as community leaders or elected leaders, for our collective well-being as a society.
Written by Irene Franco Rubio for Youth To The People