by Charlene Weigel –
The list of reasons why I shouldn’t be here is staggering. People say you are too dumb. Too shy,” State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins confided to 43 female high school students from around Westchester County. She reflected on her challenges in running for elected office, “No one looked like me when I ran. But you are already speaking truth to power. Your biggest decision is how far you want to go, and how high you want to run.”
Stewart-Cousins was one of 16 female elected officials who participated in the seventh annual “Running and Winning” workshop on April 19. Members of the State Senate and Assembly and elected officials at the county, town and village levels coached junior and senior students on how to successfully run for office.
“I’m not talking to your neighbor at your table,” said Ossining Town Supervisor Dana Levenberg, “I’m talking to you, and you, and you.” Jane Tilles, a senior at Briarcliff Manor High School was listening closely. “We need to build girls’ confidence. We feel such pressure to be perfect,” Tilles continued.
Rachel Kaufman, a senior at Ardsley High School, reacted to learning that women comprise only 20% of Congress. “I’m reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Women feel they have to know everything before running. We need to learn that we’ll be fine if we cover our bases. More needs to be done to invigorate young women for leadership positions.”
But where to start? Westchester County Legislator MaryJane Shimsky advised students to “base your platform on things you care about. Find organizations for issue advocacy. Step in when your local political party needs a district leader. Get involved.”
Ossining Mayor Victoria Gearity continued the pragmatic advice. “Raising funds for a campaign is one of the biggest challenges. Learning to be an effective fundraiser is essential to ensure running for office is not limited to wealthy people.” She stressed the tangible results of serving locally. “By converting to LED streetlights, for example, Ossining saved over $100,000 per year, making it possible to have no tax increase.”
Rachel Echt, a junior at Sleepy Hollow High School, leveraged Gearity’s fiscal coaching. She was on one of nine teams workshopping a political campaign based on guidance from the elected officials. Her team chose a platform of community composting. “Money we save in composting and sales from community gardens will allow us to finance other projects.” Echt also reacted to the personal economic challenges facing local officials. “I did not realize how little they were paid for what are full time jobs. It is true public service.”
“Running and Winning” is funded by the Westchester Community Foundation and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westchester, the American Association of University Women, and the YWCA of White Plains & Central Westchester.