Plainfield, New Jersey, is a moderately small town located south of New York City. Part of Union county, it has a population of 50,000 with a 70 million dollar operating budget. It’s the hometown of my soror and linesister, Annie McWilliams. A young Black woman who ran for the city council in 2008 at the age of 24 and won not only the at-large seat, but also her peers unanimously selected her as the council president for two years in a row. Like Annie, many Black women possess a desire for social change. If we want to have a long-term impact, we need to consider elected office. Annie’s story debunks misconceptions and offers practical information about the process.
“Being a Black female is kind of this double negative working against you.”
While directing a nonprofit youth organization, Annie noticed the absence of local policies to meet both the needs of children and their families. Soon, she questioned, “How do you make communities safer? How do you build parents up and give them the resources they need?” These inquiries motivated her to take action. She explained, “There were not enough structural support options available for the parents of children. I felt being involved in government would be an opportunity to explore improvement that would help children, but in an indirect way.”
Research shows when Black women are in office, they represent and champion the interests of Black communities and other under-represented groups. Notably, they promote progressive agendas that focus on healthcare, education, and economic empowerment. These findings from a report released two weeks ago, entitled The Status of Black Women in American Politics sponsored by The Higher Heights Leadership Fund, highlight the complexities of Black women in office. Contending with the intersection of racial and gender stereotypes, the report indicates Black women have a more challenging road to political office: “Black women are ‘doubly disadvantaged’ by [voters’ and the media’s] expectations, noting negative stereotypes about personality traits, competence, and leadership ability rooted in both racism and sexism.” Annie’s experiences reflected this finding, she shared,“Being a Black female is kind of this double negative working against you.” Yet, she believes Black women’s experiences navigating mainstream environments prepare us for the complexities of elected office.
In business school and in her professional banking career, Annie negotiated the complexities of being the only Black woman in the room. She attended the prestigious Wharton School and worked at Citigroup for two years after completing her bachelor’s degree. In the city council, she was yet again the only one, the youngest one. “[The] experiences of being the only one, or token, can allow you to be someone who is comfortable being independent-minded and different, which I think was really helpful in running for office. It makes you hear the lone voices, and it helped me to appreciate listening to everyone’s voice whether or not they were views strongly represented,” Annie explained.
Research shows when Black women are in office, they represent and champion the interests of Black communities and other under-represented groups.
Whilst Annie had both educational and political advantages-her dad was the Mayor of Plainfield for eights years, and therefore, she benefited from the name recognition- she still faced gender and age stereotypes prevalent amongst Black women candidates. Annie’s age became both a positive and negative attribute during her campaign. Her youth excited people who wanted a new voice to replace career politicians corrupted by playing politics. For others, it elicited narrow opinions. Annie recalled, “The men my age, who were volunteering for my campaign, were referred to as young men. I felt, in many cases, people viewed me as a little girl.” Her solution to dispelling this stereotype: Embrace the youthfulness and craft an image exuding maturity and competency.
As a result, Annie became overly cautious of what she said, and she joked carefully as unsure of how people would perceive her. Also, she studied the issues; understood the statistics and the existing policies; and mastered her talking points. Annie secured her image, but she faced another difficulty. Her experience paled in comparison to the experience of her opponent.
Annie’s party opponent, an older Black man who held the council presidency, obtained the party support and possessed more financial resources. A common scenario according to the Higher Heights report, “Women are more likely than their male counterparts to face primary competition and report fundraising as a hurdle on their paths to elected office.” Relying on pure hard work, Annie overcame the disparities in financing. She explained, “I walked 75% of every block in Plainfield, New Jersey. I talked to so many people, and I asked them to donate and put up signs for me. It was really hard and challenging, but you can’t underestimate the grassroots efforts of walking and talking to people.” Voters’ positive reactions to her grassroots strategies became her greatest advantage.
How Black Women Can Prepare for Political Office
The United States is a participatory democracy. Citizens have to rely one each other to make change through such actions as community service and voting. Black women registered and voted in higher rates in every election since 1998 and surpassed other race and gender subgroups in voting in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. We are critical to improving communities. However, we possess problematic perceptions of political office.
Women of color who are well situated to run perceive running for office as having high cost and low rewards. In Annie’s case, campaign challenges fueled her efforts, “What I actually loved about [the campaign] was talking to people. I walked a lot, knock on so many doors, and made phone calls. Talking to people and checking my own assumptions at the door helped me to learn how to really listen.” As a result, she drew new ideas from issues originating from the community. They determined her strategy, she explained, “I knew I could be that voice and shake things up. I could be representative of what I was hearing.”
The Higher Height report concludes with a request for national efforts to recruit, support and elect Black women to all levels of government. I contend before that can occur, Black women must believe in the benefits of political office. Here’s Annie explaining the value inherent to public office: “If you are an elected official, you can set vision. You have the bully pulpit to get up, talk about what needs to happen, and motivate the troops to action and your support.” Additionally, there are personal rewards. Annie expounded, “I was able to do something to impact a family, a district, a street, or a school, and that felt good and meaningful. Being someone who is purpose-driven, it spoke to who I am at my core. I loved those aspects of [being in office].”
For Black women considering public office, Annie recommended a focus on preparation and self-awareness: “There’s nothing like getting to know the issues, the community, and the key players. You have to understand whom you want to represent and how you want to represent them. Know what you can offer, what ideas you have, and what’s been done in the past. You have to do your homework.” The benefits for Black women and Black communities are well worth it for more of us to consider this path. What major issues would public office position you to change?
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Quanisha M. Smith is a writer, speaker, trainer and social justice advocate based in Philadelphia, PA. As a macro social work master’s candidate at Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work & Social Research, she explores issues centered on Black women, leadership, and social change.
Photo Credit: Blackdoctor.org