Our assistant editor attended VoteRunLead’s Austin workshop to learn more about how to run for political office.
By Courtney Runn, Photos courtesy of VoteRunLead
8 a.m. is too early to talk politics. But on a July morning this summer, that is exactly what I signed up to do.
VoteRunLead trains women to run for political office through workshops throughout the country and, on July 21, the group came to Austin. Since 2014, it has trained 30,000 women—and 70 percent of its first-time candidates have won. With the tagline #RunAsYouAre, the ladies behind VoteRunLead believe every woman can run for office exactly as she is.
When I learned about the workshop, I was intrigued and thought it was something our readers would want to know about, which is how I ended up on an empty Congress Avenue at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.
As I rode up the elevator at co-working space WeWork, I had no idea what to expect, and honestly, I wished I was back in bed. I sat down at a table where several other women were already munching on breakfast tacos and guzzling coffee. The same question followed each introduction: “So, are you running?”
Some asked the question confidently, some with a laugh in their voice and sometimes the question was almost whispered, like it was hard to believe the women in the room could someday be leading the city, the state, country. Some women were ready to run. Some were there to support a friend. Some simply wanted to learn.
The first panel, Called to Lead, featured politicians and former candidates from both parties.
Jenifer Sarver, a former congressional candidate, kept contact information for everyone she met for years, biding time and supporters for when she was ready to run for office.
Austin City Council member Delia Garza almost quit her campaign when she found out she was pregnant but kept campaigning, thanks to support of other women who had been in a similar situation.
Texas Rep. Mary Gonzalez and her family faced criticism and discrimination as she campaigned.
“What superseded discrimination was authenticity,” Gonzalez said. “You should always be the most authentic version of yourself.”
Each panelist came back to this same message: Be yourself, believe your message, share your dreams.
I was in awe of their tenacity and perseverance. I could not imagine campaigning for so long not knowing whether victory was even possible.
Once everyone was sufficiently inspired, the next session turned the tables. It was our turn to learn how to campaign.
Colorado Rep. and VoteRunLead’s national program director, Faith Winter, took the floor. She led us in a series of exercises to write stump speeches. We formed groups, filled out worksheets and offered feedback to each other based on a variety of questions: What is a story from your childhood that shapes you as an adult? When have you overcome fear? Who is someone that inspired you? Why were you inspired?
I thought about journalism professors and mentors who had encouraged me to pursue this field and modeled that women don’t have to be brash and aggressive to succeed. While I don’t plan on giving a stump speech anytime soon, I appreciated the moment of reflection and made a mental note to give those people a call.
After workshopping our speeches, it was time to practice in front of the whole group. A few brave souls stood up. One woman powerfully shared why her childhood riddled with abuse, homelessness and mental-health struggles inspired her to run for office. Another woman shared an all-too-familiar story for fellow moms: She tried to be involved with her community and attend local council meetings but felt limited and unwelcome with her baby stroller. She’s running to change that.
The last woman to speak stood quickly and launched into her speech about her immigrant background. Her speech lacked the warmth and power of that of her predecessors, and while everyone clapped, it didn’t have the same effect. The staff asked for feedback. Several women affirmed her passion and kindly offered constructive criticism to slow down, focus on her personal story and engage with the audience.
We asked her to give her speech again. And this time, Winter told her to lean into the applause. Women are quick to deflect praise, Winter said, so instead of immediately turning away at the end of a speech, she suggested the woman stand still, face her audience, lean into the applause.
This time, the woman spoke slowly, making eye contact. She added personal details that brought weight and depth to her platform. When she finished her speech, the room erupted with applause. And she stayed, in tears, leaning into it.
I thought of this moment last month while at a Taylor Swift concert. After each song, she surveyed the stadium cheering for her, taking it all in. She’s leaning into her applause, I thought.
The rest of the day included more workshops, a visit from congressional candidate MJ Hegar, lessons about raising funds and more. At the end of the day, I was surprised I genuinely felt equipped to run for office. I can only imagine how empowered the women who actually want to run felt.
Politico reports the number of women running for Congress has doubled since 2016, with 20 women running this year in the general election. After spending the day with VoteRunLead and this group of women who are now ready to run, I’m sure the numbers will only keep growing.
I still believe 8 a.m. is too early to discuss politics but I’m glad I did. If you’ve ever thought about running for office, visit voterunlead.org to access campaigning materials or attend a workshop. In the meantime, start practicing leaning into your applause.