When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2009, a wave of hope swept through the country. For the first time in history, people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations had concrete proof that the president of the United States didn't have to be a white male. American democracy had lived through 44 presidents—none of which were women and only one was black. It took 220 years.
Despite white men comprising roughly 30% of the population, they represent approximately 65% of elected officials, according to a recent study. Women consist of 50% of the population, but just 19% of Congress. Minorities make up almost 40% of the population, yet Congress is 81% white and 81% male.
This extends to more than just the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. As Alaa Murabit, MD, told MyDomaine last year, it even spreads to the highest levels of the United Nations. The young Muslim woman, who is a high-level commissioner, was once mistaken for a support staffer after sitting down in her seat at the UN, which read "Dr. Murabit"—and she could see why: After looking around the room, it became clear that it was predominantly filled with white men.
As a result of this diversity gap, women and people of color often get treated as special-interest groups, when in reality, they are the majority. Imagine if Congress were 50% women and 40% people of color. Imagine if the issues that Americans face every day were addressed by a government that was representative of the American population as a whole, not just a lucky few. Imagine if every young girl could see herself as potentially becoming president of the United States one day, regardless of the color of her skin or her sexual orientation.
We've come a long way from the days when only land-owning and tax-paying white men had the right to vote. But just as the pendulum swings forward, it inevitably swings back the other way. As President Obama reminded Americans during his farewell address: "For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forwarding motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some."
It may have taken 44 presidencies to show Americans a glimpse of diversity at the highest levels of power, but since the 2016 election, people are showing up like never before: women who have seen their reproductive rights rolled back; immigrants who have seen their families torn apart; Muslims, Mexicans, and other minorities who have experienced discrimination—not just from regular citizens, but from the president of the United States himself.
In the nine months since the election, more than 16,000 women have reached out to Emily's List, a nonprofit that encourages women to run for office. In the two-year period from 2015 to 2016, the group had only heard from a total of 920 women—back then, a record-breaking number. We chatted with Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily's List, and three other nonprofit founders determined to bring equal representation to elected office.
Sayu Bhojwani founded New American Leaders after realizing Congress looked like "a 1950s country club" and something had to change. Erin Loos Cutraro founded She Should Run to ensure her two daughters would see themselves equally represented in the world. Susannah Wellford founded Running Start after realizing that too many young girls believe—like she once did—that they are unfit to run for office because they lack the role models to prove them differently. These four incredibly resilient women are not waiting for change to happen—they are the change.
Erin Loos Cutraro, Founder of She Should Run
After being involved in politics for a number of years, Erin Loos Cutraro, founder of She Should Run, decided it was time to change the playbook. "We needed different outcomes with who we saw on the ballot across the country," she told MyDomaine. As a mother to two daughters, she simply couldn't sit by without doing everything in her power to ensure that, in their future, they would be equal to everyone else.
Her overall goal when founding She Should Run was to encourage women to run for office regardless of political stripe, ethnicity, location, or professional background. The organization provides community, resources, and growth opportunities for those aspiring political leaders. "We know that when women are on the ballot, they win at the same rate as men, which is why we created our Ask a Woman to Run tool. This tool provides a way for individuals to tell us about great women leaders they know who should consider a run for office," she explains.
"Women bring unique perspectives and experiences to all issues. Our democracy and our policies enacted are stronger when we have equal representation among sexes, races, and ages," says Cutraro. She believes women tend to be more collaborative and bipartisan, often reaching across the aisle to work together toward passing legislation. "In general, women provide a key perspective that is needed to have a truly representative democracy."
How can we encourage our own network of women to run for office? "The first and easiest thing for people to do is to become informed," says Cutraro. "Do your representatives represent varied backgrounds, ethnicities, and experience? If not, think about running yourself or find someone who brings a new perspective. Encourage women to run for office by letting them know why you think they would be great leaders. If you have experience with campaigns or expertise that would be useful to someone running for office, volunteer your time with them. No one runs for office alone; they will need a team of people supporting them every step of the way."
Sayu Bhojwani, Founder of New American Leaders
"Congress looks like a 1950s country club," Sayu Bhojwani, founder of New American Leaders, tells me without restraint. "In 2010, when I started the organization, Congress had been unable to address immigration reform in a humane and meaningful way, and state legislatures were passing anti-immigrant legislation. New American Leaders was born out of the understanding that everyday Americans need a voice at the table to make better policy and create systems change so our democracy serves everyone and not just a wealthy few."
Issues around immigration and equal representation were particularly close to Bhojwani's heart, who was once New York City's commissioner of immigrant affairs. "Democracy is supposed to work for everyone, but it primarily serves the interest of those in power, who happen to be predominantly white and male," she told MyDomaine. "The issue I care most about is access—to opportunity, to education, to democracy, to dreams."
Immigrants and people of color face challenges every day that many others don't—a unique perspective that is indispensable to American politics. "We bring our experience of having limited access and understanding how it limits not only our ability to achieve our dreams but to fulfill our basic needs," says Bhojwani. "We bring the ability to navigate worlds that are different at home than at school or work. We bring the emotional intelligence and practical knowledge that comes from these experiences and that helps us to be more effective at governing for today's America."
To help minorities run for office, New American Leaders has a campaign training called Ready to Lead, which helps participants understand they already have what it takes to run for office and that their personal journey and connection to their community makes them uniquely qualified to be public servants. Bhojwani fiercely advocates for everyone to encourage people in their own entourage to run: "Work for their campaign, give them financial support, or introduce them to your networks," she says. "Tell them every day that they are the ones who best know the issues and can work on them once in office. Point to the person in the White House and ask: Don't you think you could do a better job?"
Stephanie Schriock, President of Emily's List
"Women still make up under one-quarter of elected leaders in the United States," Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List tells me. "That is unacceptable. As a Senate chief of staff, I saw firsthand—when there were only 17 women in the Senate—how important each of their voices was on every issue from national security to healthcare. I believe America will be stronger when we have a government that looks like this country, in all its wonderful diversity. Half of Americans are women—they should be at the very least half of our elected bodies."
Schriock is deeply committed to closing the diversity gap in politics: "Women bring critical perspectives to tables of power. They know what it's like to raise a family and balance a budget, to struggle to pay off student loans, to deal with sexual harassment or pay discrimination," she explains. "With those perspectives, they are able to offer a voice to groups that traditionally haven't been represented in government. They can fight for good, progressive legislation that helps women and families. They can act as role models to the millions of young women and girls who deserve to see themselves reflected in their leaders."
Given the unprecedented wave of women interested in running for office since the 2016 election, Schriock and her team have been hard at work to accelerate and grow their reach. "One of the biggest barriers for women is lack of information on how to be an effective candidate and how to run a campaign," she explained. "We tripled our state and local team so we could support more women at the local level and created a new training and outreach department to help harness this new energy. With those changes in place, we launched Run to Win, an effort to give women the basic tools and information they need to run for office and get them connected with our campaigns staff to provide them with strategic advice on the best opportunities to run and win."
Schriock encourages everyone to support other women who are running by volunteering, helping in their campaign, taking care of their kids, or simply being a sounding board. "In our training, we tell women that the only requirement to run for office is to have a commitment to your community and to be a principled leader. We need all kinds of experiences represented in our decision-making tables. Different perspectives matter and they make for better policy. Our government and political institutions need to reflect who we are as a nation."
Susannah Wellford, Founder of Running Start
Susannah Wellford's résumé is impressive: A lawyer by trade, she founded two nonprofit organizations and worked for many years lobbying for state and local governments, foreign governments, corporate entities, and trade associations. She also worked for Hillary Clinton's Health Care Task Force. But before it all, she was just a shy girl who believed she wasn't good enough: "The reason why I love what I do so much is that I was once that really shy, awkward, and insecure young girl," she told MyDomaine. "I now have the opportunity to work with a lot of people like the girl I once was, change their lives for the better, and help them not make the mistakes that I made—like being quiet and not speaking up and not advocating for myself."
To her, the biggest problem with the diversity gap today is that everything is seen right now through one lens—one that is mainly older, white, Christian, and, yes, male. "Every issue would benefit by having more diverse people looking at it, thinking of solutions, and bringing their experience to the table. It's hard to run as a woman; it's even harder to run as a black woman or a Muslim woman because you have to convince people that even though they haven't seen a lot of people like you leading, you have what it takes."
This is why she founded Running Start, an organization that encourages young women between 14 and 23 to run for office. For her, the biggest setback young women face is believing they aren't good enough. "I can't emphasize enough how pervasive impostor syndrome is in the young women we talk to. They say, 'I'm not a good public speaker,' 'I can't do this,' or 'I don't have the skills to be able to ever do this.' It's so interesting how, because we haven't seen many women in leadership, we doubt that we belong there. If we get more women elected to public office, especially young women, we can change the whole idea of leadership."
To help change this skewed idea of leadership, Running Start offers seminars for college students on running for office and student government and hosts high school students in Washington, D.C., to train them in political leadership skills: public speaking, messaging, networking, and fundraising. "This helps build skills even in 14-year-old girls who may not run for office for 10 years," she explains.
"A big part of what we do is showcasing the women who have made it, like Danica Roem, who won a seat as a transgender woman in Virginia. We have a campaign called #ILookLikeAPolitician, where we ask everyone from our young students to elected officials to pose with the #ILookLikeAPolitician sign because we want that message to be so clear: You don't have to be an old white man in order to be in power. I think the more examples out there, the more people will think that they can do this."