Building our personal, economic and political power by getting educated and organized and taking action for progressive change, that’s what we’re all about at BlackHer!
This week, we were thrilled to catch up with A’shanti Gholar, political director for Emerge America, a nonprofit that is increasing the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office through recruitment, training, and providing a powerful network. Gholar is also the founder of The Brown Girls Guide to Politics.
Me: A’shanti, why and how did you get interested in politics and become the political director for Emerge?
A’shanti: I talked about this in my recent talk for the Truman Project but ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been interested in politics.
Me: Yes, you said that you preferred watching C-SPAN to Sesame Street!
A’shanti: That’s right! And in High School, Mrs. King, my Government and History teacher, really showed us the power of politics. She showed us how we could volunteer with and work on campaigns. Mrs. King showed us that politics was more than just voting. She brought candidates to the classroom to engage with and learn from us.
As an adult, I worked as field director for Shelley Berkeley in Nevada and volunteered for the Democratic party.
Politics impacts our daily lives but most people don’t see it. Politics impacts the water we drink, our streets, the money that comes out of our paychecks. It’s very important that we stay involved in and attuned to the decisions being made on our behalf. Mrs. King taught us that.
Me: Let’s stay with that for a minute. What do you say to folks who say, “I’m just not into politics”? Finance is what’s important. Making money.
A’shanti: I tell people, you are into politics. If you care about clean air, then you care about how we regulate pollution. That’s politics.
If you care about finance then you care about how we regulate the financial markets. That’s politics.
If you care about your health then you care about how and if you can pay for your medical care. That’s politics.
I, for one, care a lot about healthcare because I have a pre-existing condition and I don’t want insurance companies to deny my coverage. So, I have to be involved in politics my health matters to me.
Me: You make a great point. If politics, as a field, seems obtuse or confusing or uninteresting to you, focus instead on the issues you care about most. That is the best way to become more political or enter policy discussions.
A’shanti, you get diverse women elected and that is great because, as we both know, Black women, in particular, are grossly underrepresented at all levels of government. But, at the end of the day, representation is not the end. We also need to be sure that our candidates make progress on our issues. How do you make that connection?
A’shanti: I’m all about collaboration because no organization can do everything. We need the campaign and policy organizations working together to advance our interests. I think of politics as a circle. We need great candidates. That’s the focus of organizations like mine and Higher Heights. We also need great and diverse campaign management. That’s the focus of organizations like Blue Institute and Inclusv.
Me: Ashley Robinson of the Blue Institute is one of our BlackHer sheroes!
A’shanti: Third, we need incredible volunteers and advocates to do field-building work. Finally, we need think tanks to bring the research and policy analysis and proposals to the table.
My role as a political director is particularly important for candidates in down-ballot races and campaigns that can’t afford to hire a policy person. They need a reputable organization and partner when it comes to getting educated about the issues.
Me: Because there are so many issues, especially when it comes to improving our lot. A’shanti, if you were president tomorrow, what would be on your policy agenda for Black women?
A’shanti: I get asked this question a lot and my answer is that Black women care about the same issues that everyone else cares about, we just come at them in a different way.
For example, we care about criminal justice but our focus is, for example, on injustice in prosecution versus the cost of prisons because 1 in 2 Black women has a family member in jail.
We care about health care because we get cancer at higher rates than other demographics.
We care about the environment because so many of us and our children have asthma.
We think about the same issues as everyone else but we think about these issues differently because of our lived experience.
Me: What would you say to a candidate who wants to represent Black women but doesn’t know how to do it?
A’shanti: Hire diverse staff. It’s a simple thing that you can do if you want to learn another perspective. And, as you mentioned, groups like Inclusv and Blue Institute can help.
Me: It’s so obvious, right? Let’s switch gears and talk a bit about the awesomeness that was the Power Rising Summit. You serve on the Steering Committee. I just want to thank you for your leadership and for such a truly impactful event!
A’shanti: My pleasure.
Me: One of the things I really appreciated about the event was the diversity of presenters. For example, I was really moved by the perspective of a transgender woman who participated in a plenary. How did you achieve that diversity?
A’shanti: It started with the steering committee. It was led by luminaries like Leah Daughtry and Minyon Moore. They enlisted us – the next generation. They called us all their kids. I was recruited by LaToia Jones. We then enlisted “our kids.”
We wanted to say that everyone has a voice in this movement, this agenda-setting. All our lived experiences matter.
The other thing we did was make the cost of the Summit accessible.
Me: Yes, it’s amazing that you provided so much value for $75 for the weekend.
A’shanti: So many women told us that this was the first conference that they had ever attended because the prices of other conferences are a barrier.
We were also thoughtful about ensuring that diverse women served as facilitators and moderators.
Finally, I think in the end, the Black women who attended knew that the conference had been designed for them by women that truly cared about them.
Me: That’s beautiful and that energy did come through. Speaking of Black women caring for each other, who are your BlackHer sheroes?
A’shanti: I get to spend time with the most amazing women every day. I’m inspired by Emerge alums like Leslie Herod, the first African American LGBT candidate elected to the State Legislature in Colorado; Attica Scott, the first Black woman in nearly 20 years to serve in the state legislature in Kentucky; Ruqaiyah Morris, who is serving in Vermont; and Yvonne Spicer, the first-ever Mayor of Framingham, Massachusetts.
Me: What would you tell BlackHer subscribers who want to serve?
A’shanti: Just do it! Don’t let anyone dissuade you. You are somebody’s candidate. Also, it’s a myth that we can only run in majority-minority districts. Get an appointment to a board or commission and work on an issue that you are passionate about. This will help you to practice using your political voice.
Me: I hate to be a downer but how do you deal with the issue of money? What do you say to those of us who feel like the exorbitant cost of running for office is a non-starter?
A’shanti: The majority of our Emerge alums get outspent, especially if they are facing an incumbent. But they still win! If you have a good message and a great field program you can win. If you can get 25 women to give you $25 each, you can do Facebook Ads, create literature, and pay canvassers.
You have to have a grassroots perspective. And frankly, that is what a lot of voters now want. We aren’t paying attention to candidates just because we hear their names or see them on TV. We are looking for people who will give us the time of day.
Me: Let me ask you the Miracle Question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up in the morning and it’s June 2019 and the miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?
A’shanti: We’re winning campaigns! We’re celebrating all the women who won their 2018 races. And we’re celebrating the women who lost too because they stepped up and took a chance. That’s inspiring.