“I believe that having more women in politics would change the system” – Susannah Shakow, President of “Running Start”, visits Kayan to speak about Women in Political Leadership.
“I don’t think I need to explain to you why we need more women in politics”, Susannah Shakow said as she introduced her programme, Running Start, to the members of the Haifa Women’s Coalition on 8 September. Little did she know, she was to spend the majority of her presentation doing precisely that. Concerned about the scarcity of young women putting themselves forward as candidates for elected office in the United States, Shakow, together with a group of like-minded members of the “Women Under Forty Political Action Committee”, founded Running Start in 2007. Indeed, in 2011 women account for a mere 17% of Congress and 23% of state legislators in the US. Shakow described Running Start’s fundamental dilemma, whereby although women perform as well as men in elections, they simply fail to run in equal numbers. The organisation quickly came to realise that not only did women face external obstacles but, more importantly, internal barriers, summarised in the common sentiment “yes, women should run for office…but not me.”
Running Start strives to lift the mental blockades of young women between the ages of 14 and 27 who are hesitant to participate in American politics based on a lack of confidence or the fear that political activism is incompatible with personal desires such as starting a family. “Of course”, Shakow emphasised, “becoming involved in politics and having a family aren’t mutually exclusive.” Running Start aims to challenge American perceptions that women are not “traditional candidates” by trying to involve girls in politics at an early stage and by shifting societal paradigms in which women continue to lack the status of natural political leaders. “If you take a snapshot of Congress today”, Shakow jokingly gestures taking a photo, “what you’ll see is a sea of grey-haired white old men.” Running Start aims to inspire and motivate young women by providing opportunities to meet and work with female role models, such as elected members of Congress. Shakow detailed how her organisation seeks to provide women with relevant skill sets through a hands-on approach including public speaking, resource development, debate, media relations and networking: “let’s plant the idea that politics is not a magical formula, but something you can learn. Leadership – to some extent – is something you can learn.”
Running Start currently runs six programmes. Its flagship project, the “National Young Women’s Political Leadership Program” (YWPL), brings female high school students from across the country to Washington DC for training. The programme, which is free its participants, has been extended in the framework of the “Regional Young Women’s Political Leadership Program”, which today includes locations across the US including New York, Michigan and California. This expansion is due largely to the fact that in the year 2009, the number of applications had reached as high as 30,000 for a mere 50 available spots. Furthermore, Running Start encourages young female college students to run for student government through its programme “Elect Her, Campus Women Win”, which brings young women to Washington, DC for the semester-long “Running Start/Wal-Mart Star Fellowship.” This programme allows young women to acquire crucial political skills whilst attending seminars and learning about the legislative process first-hand through an internship with a female member of Congress. An additional programme, “Next Step”, entails an intensive five-day workshop encouraging work-experienced women aged 23-27 to advance their political careers. Overall, Shakow honestly admitted that it is difficult to talk about “accomplishments” following only five years of non-profit, political involvement in schools. “I wouldn’t say it’s revolutionary yet,” she said about her work, “but it is different.”
When members of Kayan’s staff addressed the topic of how an increase in female political participation can improve political systems, Shakow admitted that politics around the world is a “dirty business.” The goal of Running Start, according to Shakow, is to show girls that politics can be worthwhile in that involvement means the establishment of a direct line to change and that a diversification of the system would naturally result in its improvement. She argued that there was value in getting women elected even if one does not agree with their politics. While liberal herself, Shakow claimed that her programme targeted women irrespective of party affiliation and argued that even characters such as Sarah Palin or Anastasia Michaeli – despite their controversial politics – are important to the advancement of female political involvement. When confronted with the argument raised by several Kayan members that women are not essentially better politicians, she replied, “Let’s get us in first and then take it from there.” Naturally, there are significant contextual differences between the political involvement of Arab women in Israel and that of women in the US. Many Arab women in Israel, for example, hold much less trust in the existent political system, both in terms of living as a minority in a self-described Jewish state, as well as in regard to the deeply flawed system of Arab local authorities.
Staff members furthermore raised the issue of sustainability to the initiative’s gender approach. How does Running Start contribute to the sustainable advancement of women within society? Is there such a thing as a follow-up approach, paving the way for future generations of female leaders? Would the girls taking part in these programmes be sufficiently prepared for the double standards they might encounter later on in their careers? While Running Start provides crucial political tools and critical thinking skills, it consciously stays away from issues of “content”; the formation of personal and political beliefs are left to the youths, whose politics are often biased according to their societal and family background. Some members of Kayan felt that, in this regard, there remains a danger that feminist values might to fall prey to the objective of female involvement. Kayan’s approach to leadership development arguably differs from that of Running Start in the way that it aims to train leaders not only by granting tools and methods, but also by providing opportunities to allow women to define feminism for themselves, be aware of its manifestation in their lives, and internalise it in their manner of leadership.