Regardless of the calls for deportations, walls, and travel bans, new Americans are here to stay. While our political leaders should reflect the demographics of our country, unfortunately only 19% of Congress are women and a paltry 7.1% are women of color, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The gap persists across our country: women of color hold only 5.9% of all state legislative seats. That’s why The New American Leaders Project (NALP), a nonpartisan organization, is training first- and second-generation immigrants to run for office—from positions on school boards and city councils to state legislatures.
Stephanie Chang, a NALP alumna and Michigan native, was a youth mentor, community organizer, and an activist in the Asian American and environmental movements. Despite years of working to improve her community, serving in public office and championing legislation that would create lasting change didn’t seem like an obvious next step. In 2011, Stephanie took NALP’s candidate training on how to run for office. But even when her state representative, Rashida Tlaib, invited her to run as her successor for District 6, Stephanie was reluctant. She is not alone. When women of color don’t see people who look like us in office, we have a hard time envisioning ourselves there. In fact, political parties often discourage women of color who consider throwing their hat in the ring.
But with the training under her belt and encouragement from another woman leader, Stephanie took the leap and, in 2014, won 49% of the vote in a crowded Democratic primary. Today, she’s serving her second term as the only Asian American woman in the Michigan state legislature.
Stephanie is exceptional, but is not an exception. The New American Leaders Project has been training women of color to run for office for more than five years. In 2016, Isela Blanc, a Mexican American who was formerly undocumented, was elected to the Arizona state legislature, and Marisol Alcantara became the only Latina in New York’s State Senate.
These women are just the tip of the iceberg. Fifty-four percent of our immigrant trainees are women, and 98 percent of them identify as women of color. And every one of our female candidates who ran for state legislature in 2016 won.
But we’ve got a long way to go. That’s why, on June 9-10 in New York City, NALP will train over 100 women of color at “Ready to Rise,” our largest candidate training ever. Of these women, 30% are Asian American, 26% Latina, and 21% Black.
Helping immigrant women run for office sends a powerful message: When women of color have a seat at the table, they can change the menu so it’s more inclusive and intersectional. And their voices can change the conversation to push back against the scapegoating of immigrants, vilification of Muslims, and dismissal of the issues affecting people of color. That’s never been more important than it is today.