Across the world and in the U.S., women are underrepresented in politics. What does it take for a woman to take the leap and get into the arena?
This is part of our “Women In . . .” series, which looks at women in specific fields and how they have gotten where they are, as well as what advice they want to share with other women following similar paths. Below, Jennifer Petersen, a 30-year-old resident of Brooklyn, shares the story of how she won her first office seat, as a member of her district’s county committee. Petersen will hold the office for two years and will be responsible for nominating who the Democratic Party candidate will be during special elections, as well as for voting on local judicial candidates and addressing any local issues as they come up.
Rubina Magazine: What made you want to go into politics?
Jennifer Petersen: It’s been a process more than a direct path. Since I was young, I’ve always been hyper-aware of social power dynamics, particularly between racial groups, which led me to study Sociology and eventually take up a career in Social Work. In that sense I’ve always been a political (small “p”) person.
Through my studies and experience I learned that the issues most affecting individuals and communities are often not fairly represented at the media or policy level. After grad school, I volunteered for a state Assembly campaign and did a lot of canvassing in Brooklyn. I loved meeting and talking with people and hearing about the issues that were important to them. I learned that most people are smart and aware and want to see change but often feel powerless to do so because they aren’t encouraged to participate in the political process or don’t know how to. I saw this first-hand when I wrote a paper about the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. This was something that was going on right down the street from me and there seemed to be a lot of controversy surrounding it, so I wanted to dig a little deeper. What I found was really discouraging–that no one in the surrounding communities got a single vote on whether or not they wanted a giant basketball arena in their backyard. The project was given over to the state so the developer didn’t have to go through any of the local democratic processes to get it approved.
So, when New Kings Democrats explained the process of running for county committee, I was sold and decided to run for office myself. I figured that even if I could make a small dent in giving communities more voice, then it would be worth it.
Was there anything that made you second-guess your decision to run for office?
Definitely. For one, knocking on doors and collecting signatures is hard work and I wasn’t sure I could collect the amount I needed within the deadline. Brooklyn is full of such politically savvy people, so there were moments I wondered if I would be taken seriously or if I knew enough about the issues. I think being a young woman factored into that too. I feared people wouldn’t take me as seriously as they would a man. And I did face some hostility from people who didn’t want me knocking on their door or petitioning in their lobby so those moments were upsetting. But, I guess those moments make for a better story in the end.
How did you pull off your campaign?
I first got involved with running for county committee through a group called New Kings Democrats (NKD). Many of the committee seats are vacant so there’s been a big grassroots push for local folks to get involved. NKD walked me through the process of petitioning and gave me a walking list of registered democrats in the area. I basically set aside 2-3 hours each evening until I collected the 40 signatures I needed. Once I submitted my petitions to the Board of Elections, I was notified a few weeks later that I was an official county committee member.
What was the key to having a successful campaign?
Well, in this case, I ran uncontested so it’s a bit different than your typical campaign. I think the key to my success was really wanting and believing in what I was going after. Community voice and democratic process are so important to me. Each person I talked to gave me hope because they shared the same ideals. So really the key to my success in this case was a willingness to put myself out there and risk things not going as planned. It’s important to not lose site of your core values. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to keep you connected with the people you’re serving.
What would you say to other women who want to run for office?
Do it! If politics or organizing is even a thought in your mind, trust your instincts, find some way to get involved, and go for it. There are plenty of opportunities out there. You can help register people to vote or volunteer in a local campaign or run for office. We absolutely need more women in this field. Women have such a unique perspective and ability to create consensus and listen to people at every level, which is exactly what’s needed to make real change in politics.