Rachel Earnest has racked up $5 million in medical bills since she became an adult. She’s been diagnosed with lupus, received two hip replacements, been forced to carry around an oxygen tank, and is regularly worried whether she’ll have insurance to cover the care she needs to survive.
Dealing with all of this by your 30s is enough to discourage anyone. But Earnest was inspired to run for office.
“I am running because I believe that health care is a human right. I am running because I have needed health care to be a human right,” she told dozens of women who also planned to run for office during a recent multi-city workshop at WeWork 80 M St SE in Washington, D.C, held by campaign and leadership program VoteRunLead.
Earnest’s workshop was just one of VoteRunLead’s 20 concurrent training sessions, nearly all of which took place at WeWork locations in cities nationwide, from Atlanta to Seattle and everywhere in between. More than 1,400 women attended, all with the goal to learn how to run for office—and win.
VoteRunLead, which trains women to run for office, was founded in 2014 by Erin Vilardi, a member at New York City’s WeWork 8 W 126th St in Harlem. With VoteRunLead, Vilardi set out to change the fact that despite making up 70 percent of Americans, women and people of color then held only a third of elected positions. Today, having trained more than 35,000 women (including Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Ohio Representative Lauren Underwood), VoteRunLead is the country’s largest and most diverse initiative of its kind. It’s also effective: The organization notes that 80 percent of their alumnae advanced in the 2018 primaries.
Over six hours, event attendees participated in panel discussions, workshops, group activities, and networking sessions led by six VoteRunLead trainers, as well as local and national politicians, strategists, and business leaders. Advice ranged from practical (“Don’t be afraid to have coffee with public officials you admire”) to humorous (“Rewatch Schoolhouse Rock!”) and also the inspirational (“Never apologize for your ambition”). Read on for four of the day’s key takeaways.
You’re qualified to lead right now—not after some future milestone
The challenge with getting women into public office isn’t that they don’t win—female candidates win at the same rates as their male counterparts—it’s that they don’t run. Only 57 percent of women in careers that often lead to politics (law, business, or activism) think they’re qualified to run for office, compared to 73 percent of men. More generally, women are also less likely to consider running for office.
VoteRunLead trainers emphasized to participants that women don’t need to wait for another promotion or degree—they’re already qualified to run for office.
“You are ready to run now, based on your life experiences and with your own powerful story,” Jehmu Greene, a media and advocacy strategist, recent candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee, and founding member of VoteRunLead, told the dozen women gathered at Austin’s WeWork 600 Congress Ave, just blocks from the state’s capitol. “This is the pink wave.”
A female candidate’s most potent weapon is her story—and it just might give her an edge on the competition
“The [difference] between male and female candidates is that we run for a reason. We run to change our community. We run to tell our story,” said Katie Groke-Ellis, a VoteRunLead certified national trainer, in D.C. “We are more real in public. We tell our stories in a more authentic way, and we’re more vulnerable.”
The stories of the women in attendance were indeed potent. In Washington, college student Halle Gugsa, whose family found safety in the U.S. after a crackdown on dissent forced them to flee Ethiopia, said she wanted to run because she found today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric discouraging. Evelyn Baker, meanwhile, is about to retire from her job as a senior budget analyst for the federal government. Upon her retirement, she plans to return to her hometown in Arkansas to launch a second career running for the school board, then city council, then mayor.
Incoming college freshman Ashley Santiago attended the Los Angeles event at WeWork Gas Company Tower in the Bunker Hill neighborhood. “I see a lot of people who look like me who don’t have a lot of opportunities,” said Santiago, who plans to one day run for city council to help the Latinx community. “We are underrepresented and underestimated, and we need to start seeing ourselves in leadership roles.”
At New York’s WeWork 500 7th Ave, Althea Stevens, running for New York City Council, shared her story of becoming pregnant at age 16 and raising her child as a single parent. The challenges she faced led her to take the LSAT, go back to school to receive a master’s degree in Urban Affairs, and become director of a Bronx-based nonprofit working with children—and are also what motivated her to run for office.
These are the personal details that voters remember, and women shouldn’t shy away from sharing them when crafting their stump speeches.
Never compromise your story, even under pressure of public scrutiny
“Do not start changing your viewpoint or what you’re passionate about to make other people vote for you,” advised Groke-Ellis.
In Austin, trainer Adrienne Bell, a fourth-grade teacher who ran for Congress in Texas’ 14th District, shared her story with trainees. “I spent three months in a women’s shelter because of an abusive marriage, and I’ve been bankrupt,” she said. “My opponents may want to use that against me, but that’s my story, and I’m not afraid to tell it.”
Stay true to your beliefs and your political affiliation
“It’s not about all of us agreeing on the same issue and all thinking the same way,” said Crystal Patterson, VoteRunLead board chair and Facebook’s government and politics outreach manager. “We’re stronger when we have different viewpoints at the table.” As a nonpartisan organization, VoteRunLead is committed to getting women into office on both sides of the aisle.
It’s all part of what makes VoteRunLead an ideal partner for WeWork. “What VoteRunLead does is so parallel to what WeWork does,” said Hannah Schon, who leads community events at Austin’s WeWork 600 Congress Ave and helped organize the location’s VoteRunLead event. “VoteRunLead helps women connect with others who will support them in their goals and provides them with information and a community. Similarly, WeWork creates an environment for people to come together, get engaged with each other, and create something. It’s a natural fit.”
With additional reporting by Kavita Daswani in Los Angeles, Ashley Edwards in New York, and Tula Karras in Austin.