The Activist Who Never Thought She’d Be President

“You need to do something with your hair,” my friend said hesitantly. I blinked, my feminist principles assaulted. During my decade as a grassroots activist and campaign operative, I’d kept it real with blue jeans, simple hair, and no makeup. Well, now, casual wasn’t cutting it, because I was running to be the first African-American President of the Young Democrats of America.  If occasionally styling my hair was the price of admission for a seat at the table to change the way the game was played, then so be it.

I heard from another black woman elected official who had similar struggles while running in a district with a majority white electorate. Traditionally, she kept her hair in braids. Her final decision: She didn’t want anything she could fix to stop her from being the person she believed she was meant to be, which she believed was serving the public good by running for higher office. If putting her hair in a weave made her a little less “threatening”, than so be it. As a feminist who has overcome struggles with her image to embrace herself, compromising on my appearance was the last thing I wanted to do.  But I knew that I wanted to be the change that I wanted to see in an important organization that could do good, and I didn’t want being unwilling to style my hair or do my makeup limit the good I could do.

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Being President of the Young Democrats of America means you are President of the largest national youth partisan organization in the country with 46 state chapters and over 2300 local chapters across the country. YDA has seats on the Democratic National Committee, and the President sits on the DNC executive committee as part of the national Party leadership. As President you must be comfortable in public and at meetings with other progressive and Democratic Party stakeholders. If you aspire to become a leader and spokesperson in national Democratic politics as a young person, YDA is one of the best ways to do so.

But the racial and gender politics of asking me to do something with my hair so that it was “acceptable” as an African American woman was bothersome (and a novel of a topic which has already been written many times). Throw in all the other criticisms, and I felt sucker punched.  Name It. Change It. is a non-partisan project that works to end sexist and misogynist coverage of women in the media. Recently they conducted research on what focusing on the appearance of a woman who is running for office does to them in the polls. Let me give you a hint: it doesn’t help.

But, I conceded on some changes because from this experience and so many others I’ve had working in politics I knew this:  women have come far women in politics, but we haven’t come that far. When I picked my executive vice president candidate, I picked a woman—the first time two women had ever run together at the top of a ticket in YDA. Many in the organization whispered about gender balance. Well, no one had bothered to before when countless male presidents of YDA had picked male vice presidents. And she was qualified as a fundraiser and political leader in her own right. This experience drove home to me why it was important to have more feminists leading in politics. I had the ability to make that call which I wouldn’t have had I not run for President. Why sit on the sidelines when for centuries that was the status to which women were relegated

After a four day retail politickin’ convention that culminated my six month campaign traveling to 15 states and making hundreds of calls to voters, the men and women state leaders from across the country lined up for the roll call delegation vote on my election, and the majority cast a vote for a woman led slate.

It is important to be an activist pushing from the outside, and for some that may be a better role to play. But it’s also very important to have more feminists at the table as leaders with other decision makers.  Every time I hear from younger women, specifically younger women of color who said I carved a path for them they never thought was there for them before, I am renewed in my certainty in what I did. The more of us are there, the more we can change the way game the way is played and seen.



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