By Ashourina Slewo
Growing up as a person of color in the United States, I regularly struggled to find people in positions of leadership I could identify with. Where were the people that looked like me? The people that knew what my community needed?
Positions of American leadership were not for us, I thought. They were not created for us to hold or to be represented by. The system was not designed with us in mind.
I found this to be especially true as I became increasingly involved in political campaigns following my father’s release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention. People of color running for office had to take into consideration what white candidates would never have to take into account: how would their brown skin and cultural background affect their chances of being elected.
In the words of Sayu Bhojwani, author of People Like Us and founder and president of New American Leaders, “American leadership remains overwhelmingly white, male, moneyed, and Christian.”
Even as I worked alongside qualified and driven candidates, I felt disheartened to find that folks looked past their qualifications and everything else that made them worthy candidates to ask about what they were and where they came from as if that were the ultimate qualifier.
In the introduction of People Like Us, Bhojwani asserts that while the founding fathers may have envisioned a representative democracy “by the people, for the people, and of the people,” we are not the people these leaders had in mind.
Which left me questioning how people like us would ever be represented in today’s democracy.
We push and challenge the status quo.
This is where New American Leaders (NAL) comes in. Founded by Bhojwani, NAL is the only national organization that specifically focuses on preparing immigrant leaders to run for public office.
In February of this year, I participated in the organizations Ready to Lead program in Dearborn, Mich. Ready to Lead was an introduction to owning my immigrant story and using it as an asset. The program is designed by immigrants, for immigrants.
During this program I learned how to use my experience as a first generation American to become a successful candidate. Despite learning how to message, target, fundraise, and own my story, I decided I didn’t want to run for public office.
I like being behind the scenes. I like working to elect candidates worthy of being public servants.
So, when the opportunity to apply for NAL’s Ready to Win program came up, I applied to take part in the campaign staff training.
Ready to Win is a two-track campaign training program for New American fellows and people who want to work on campaigns.
I joined 43 other dedicated individuals in Washington, D.C. for four days where we learned the ins and outs of building a successful campaign. From direct voter contact and targeted universes to babysitting candidates during call time and fundraising, we were equipped with the knowledge and skills we needed to work on campaigns.
Beyond that, we were putting the things we were learning directly to the test as we worked on an intense campaign simulation. As a nonpartisan organization, some groups were tasked with building a campaign plan for a Democrat while others built a campaign plan for Republican.
Working with the republican candidate, I felt, would be the ultimate test of my skills. My group and I poured over the logistics and put together a campaign we believed would give us a win. We strategically created a campaign that broke down every logistic from how many doors we would need to canvass, how much money we would need to raise, what communities we would target and how, when our direct mail program would drop, and so many other nerdy details that I was living for.
Throughout the weekend, I found myself to be pleasantly surprised by how much I actually knew about running a campaign. With each session, I found myself contributing to the conversation. However, it was during our campaign plan presentation that I felt my abilities were reaffirmed.
It also didn’t hurt that my group won the campaign simulation, which was judged by professionals.
My days spent in D.C. were eye opening and inspiring. While I enjoyed working to put together a campaign plan and learning about what it takes to run a successful campaign, what I really took away from the training was that while the system was not created with people of color in mind, we could change that.
Forty four people of color sat in a room with the common goal of making space at the table for everyone that looked like us.
The things we learned are about so much more than winning campaigns. It’s about reaffirming the fact that we belong here. We belong at the table. We belong in all these spaces where important, life altering decisions are being made.
So, yeah, I learned how to put together a badass GOTV program, but I also learned that we can make this system work for everyone. Including New Americans.