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Stories of empowerment: Former aide is shaping the next generation of political leaders

Mar 07, 2019 | RBC Wealth Management


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To celebrate #iwd2019 we asked Susannah Wellford to share her empowering stories of growth, leadership, and struggle.

Susannah Wellford talking in an interview

Susannah Wellford has seen firsthand the power of politics. A graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and Davidson College, Wellford worked in the White House in the 1990s. She's also seen the lack of female voices in politics, which is what prompted her to found Running Start, which aims to spark an interest in politics among young women so that they will run for office and become decision makers helping shape the direction of the country.

To celebrate International Women's Day, four trailblazing women, including Wellford, share their stories of empowerment with acclaimed journalist Soledad O'Brien.

Here is an excerpt from Wellford's conversation with O'Brien, which has been edited and condensed.

I find it very interesting that you are all about empowerment, but your vehicle is politics. Why politics?

People don't talk to young women about politics; they talk to them about all sorts of leadership, you know, almost every powerful woman has been a girl scout at some point in their life. But politics is this taboo place, where nobody really wants to go.

What do [the youngest girls in Running Start] ask you? What do they want to know?

A lot of them come from communities where things are deeply wrong and they don't see people stepping up to make change. And so, they want to know how to get the power. They want to know how they can become the person who actually makes things happen for the better. They're so much more sophisticated and in tune with real issues than you would ever imagine. It's really great.

And you do this not just domestically but internationally as well; is there a difference in the kinds of conversations you have domestically and internationally?

If you're in a country like Sierra Leone, you face a lot of external barriers to not just get into politics, but to empowerment in general and just to having a voice in society. And American women, for the most part, we're so lucky because we do have that power. We have that opportunity, but that's not what we talk about. What we talk about, whether I'm here or I'm in some other country, it's all about the internal barriers that hold women back from thinking that they're powerful people.

So, it's really more the obstacles you create for yourself sometimes?

It's not like we're doing something wrong; it's that all along we don't see a lot of role models; we don't see power as a place where we belong and so, it's socialization that says to us that we shouldn't seek power, that we're not powerful people. But it is those things, those voices inside us, I think, that holds women back the most from actually deciding to do something audacious and big and seek power.

A lot of politics today is sometimes about opening yourself up to attacks. So, what kind of advice do you give, especially to young women about that?

We don't sugarcoat it; we don't tell them, "Politics is going to be this wonderful place where everybody's going to be supportive and they'll say, 'You look great all the time.'" It's about saying, “Politics is not going to be easy, but neither is being a leader in any sphere and you're always going to be under scrutiny. People are going to be watching your every move. You're going to have to make difficult decisions. People are going to judge you — but it's worth it. It's really worth it because we need people like you in power."

That's our message all the time. “We need people like you to see themselves as leaders at the highest level because if you don't see yourself as that leader, then we're just going to have more of the same."

Why has empowering women been so important for you?

I'm so passionate about empowering women because I grew up, all of my teen years through college, young adulthood, not feeling empowered myself. And I was feeling a lot of self-doubt. And I got into my 30s, when I went to work for Governor Ann Richards from Texas, who's this incredible, wonderful role model and feminist. And it was in my early 30s when I heard or really understood for the first time that all this self-doubt, all this second-guessing of myself and my abilities and thinking, “Well, I'm a behind-the-scenes person; I could never be somebody who's in the spotlight," that it wasn't a Susannah problem; it wasn't about me. It was something that women feel universally, or they face universally.

And so, working for Ann Richards, she was able to say, “Well, honey, this is the way it is for women; this is something that we need to solve." And that was such an awakening for me, realizing if somebody had talked to me when I was younger and said, “You're going to doubt yourself; you're going to think you don't belong in that room or you shouldn't have a seat at the table. But this is something that women do and you do belong," I would be a different person.

What are your predictions for 10 years from now? Will there ever be a time when we see the same number of women who are serving in the Senate and the House as men?

After this amazing election, people are saying, “It's going to be so great and so exciting," and I think it will be, but then I heard just recently that maybe we'll be at 24 percent [of Congressional seats represented by women], which is not that great. So, I think the more we can do to talk to women, I think that's really important to changing how they feel about themselves and having them recognize the barriers that might be put in their way so that they can overcome them.

But you know what I also think? I think we have to talk to boys too. You need that buy-in from the boys to say, “You want these women by your side because it's going to make a stronger society; it's going to be a better life for you too."

Watch Susannah Wellford’s interview in the video below.

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