April 2010 marked a momentous milestone for me: I had finally settled on a post-graduation plan. I was going to be a Star Fellow with the Running Start organization based in Washington, DC. While this was a huge cause for celebration for me, my friends were a little more “vague” in showing their excitement for me. I’ll get straight to it: when I told some of my friends about Running Start and my fellowship, mocking smiles slowly spread over their faces. In fact, some flat out laughed when I mentioned the “running for office” mentorship part of the program. My response, typically the “I’m serious” face, promptly elicited varying comments about the necessity of taking up any opportunity that crosses my path “in this job market.”
“Do they cover housing charges?…Well then, that is great – you should make the most of this chance to live in DC.” By and large, these were the comments I received. This fellowship was perceived to be a good segue into finding my niche in DC; the program itself was not to be taken seriously.
Maybe all this indicates is that I need some new friends. Or maybe it indicates a much larger problem than just one within my own friends circle; it concerns the fundamental issue that women’s ambitions are rarely taken seriously in our society. Female political ambitions are especially vulnerable to mockery and criticism, and through our Friday seminars for the Star Fellowship, we’ve thoroughly covered the different reasons for why this is the case. But here, I will write only about my reasons for why serving my community as an elected official never crossed my mind.
My own career pursuits have long revolved around social justice issues and the desire to impact real change regarding our society’s marginalized communities. Throughout college, I had significant exposure to this field, through both my on and off-campus activities, but I had never considered entering a government or politics-related path. Community service, international advocacy and nonprofit work were the top fields on my radar of interests, which seemed to coincide with the suggestions I received from professional personality assessments, career counseling and personal mentors. If everyone around you seems to be urging you onto the same career path, they must be right, right? Wrong. Well, at least they are not necessarily right.
I’ve interacted with some of the best career counselors, and when I sat in front of them and said that I wanted to help X population, and change the way Y is done, they pulled up a list of advocacy groups and non-profit organizations that I can join, and I graciously accepted. No one mentioned that I can consider running for office, neither in the short run nor the long run. Not even my most liberal, open-minded mentors thought politics for an “appropriate” field for me. My tunnel-vision for grassroots advocacy work came to a startling halt when I came across Running Start by chance, during my senior year of college. I pored over the organization and its various programs and began to consider my past research on the feminization of poverty, international policy affecting women and female empowerment in developing countries. The more I explored the subject of women in politics, the faster things fell into perspective. I felt a sudden sense of hypocrisy when I found that a mere 17% of women comprise Congress, which reportedly makes up only 2% of the American government since 1789.
Further reflecting on my interest in international projects such as “the Girl Effect”, I began to wonder: how can this country and its institutions ever aim to help girls in developing nations when we face a severe lack of female empowerment at home? How can I go on and settle as a grassroots advocate when I did not consider myself capable of affecting real legislative change around the issues?
I consider myself immensely lucky to have “stumbled” upon Running Start. I do not think there is anything I could have said differently for someone to actively encourage me to run for office earlier in life. It has got to be the least suggested course of action for college students. And yet, being elected to office, especially within the US Congress, is the most decisive path to becoming an effective and sustainable changemaker. I’ve quickly learned this fact within the past 6 weeks of my internship in the office of a successful Congresswoman, one who has been in office for a decade now. The entire experience so far has been a steady source of inspiration, and her own background in social work is even more encouragement for me to work (rather, run) my way up the Hill.
-Arpitha P., Star Fellow Fall 2010