Director of NEW Leadership™ at Center for American Women & Politics | Ph.D. Candidate
Since 2017, women have been running for public office in record numbers across the US. What does this trend indicate to you about women’s presence and role in politics?
This year we are seeing everyone running in record numbers, men and women and unfortunately, women are still the minority of candidates and running in very competitive races. In part, I believe the record number of women running and winning nominations is reactionary to what’s happening in our political climate and voters seeking greater representation from the people they elect to office.
We know from the women and politics research that women tend to view themselves as less qualified for office than men do when women candidates are often actually more qualified than their male counterparts.
We also know that women often aren’t recruited by political gatekeepers to be candidates. I believe that now more women are seeing that they need to be the candidates, that they need to be the ones representing the people of this country and people are starting to wake up to that.
We are witnessing an important political moment in the U.S.
You are the Director of National Education for Women’s (NEW) Leadership™ at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Tell us about what you do.
The Center for American Women and Politics was founded in 1971 to immediate pushback because very few women were in elective office at the time. However, the founders recognized, including Ruth Mandel who now serves as the Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, that the study of women and American politics is important and essential to understanding American politics overall. At CAWP, we collect and analyze research on women and American politics, including women’s candidacy and officeholding in the past and present. We also have public engagement programs and offer educational and leadership training, such as our women’s campaign training, Ready to Run.
I direct NEW Leadership™, a program intended to introduce college and university women to public leadership. Our flagship program is a six-day summer institute in New Jersey that introduces students to the study of women and politics and ways to get involved in in the political process. We also connect them with women working in government and politics. It is designed to demystify public leadership and the opportunities that include, and move beyond, running for office.
On a national level, we have over 25 partner programs in our NEW Leadership™ Development Network. Our partners use our curriculum and customize it at higher education institutions in their states. Our goal is to have NEW Leadership™ in all 50 states. I also work on other young women’s leadership initiatives at CAWP, such as our Teach a Girl to Lead initiative for K-12 students.
You are currently a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and submit your dissertation in 2019. What’s your research focus?
My research focuses on Latinas in local politics in New York City. With it, I hope to reveal a larger story about ethnic politics, local politics, and women in politics, and more specifically, the experiences of women of color in politics. The research that explores how women get involved in politics, why women do and don’t run for office, what political ambitions they have, and how women become candidates, often does not note the different ways that ethnic politics, especially in urban areas, play a role for women of color.
My parents were community organizers in Washington Heights, which is a predominantly Dominican neighborhood in NYC. Growing up involved in this community, I saw that women were the majority of those involved in political processes. They had important roles in political campaigns and organizing but they weren’t usually the candidates. Therefore, my research aims to understand why these political women are underrepresented as candidates and elected officials and how to best support them to run and win.
In NYC, ethnic politics is often tied to party machine politics. I apply a gendered lens to better understand what’s at play. My research is comparing the experiences of Latinas in the Bronx and Queens. These two boroughs have several majority Latinx neighborhoods, which provides ample opportunity for comparison. They also have different political structures, especially related to ethnicity and politics with the Bronx having a more Latinx-centered political machine.
When we talk about Latinx politics, it is also important to understand how experiences may differ depending on national origin. In the Bronx, you see a more Caribbean Latinx population while in Queens, you see more Central and South American representation. So, by comparing the experiences and ambitions of Latinas in the Bronx and Queens, I am investigating the many factors that may play a role in their encouragement and hindrance from running for office.
The story of why Latinas are still underrepresented as candidates and elected officials in areas that have strong Latinx representation or large Latinx populations is important. I hope to create a clearer picture of what political ambition and candidate emergence look like for Americans that are minorities and understand how to better support women of color to be the candidates and elected officials that we might need.
Why have you decided to focus on politics and Latinas in the US?
I focus on Latinas and politics in the US because I think they should be supported on their journey to be the leaders of this nation. I believe women of color are the best representation of the American experience, including those who are first or second-generation U.S. Americans.
When I travel overseas, people tend to be surprised that I am American. People tend to have a somewhat white-washed notion of what it means to be American. In regards to the future of American politics, I think about women of color and how their intersectional identities are representative of many Americans. Currently, many of the women of color who are in office are some of the best representatives in our political and governmental bodies and I think there should be more of them in these spaces.
You have experience teaching at the undergraduate level. What has been challenging and rewarding about the courses you have taught?
I have taught undergraduate courses at Rutgers University in pedagogy as well as American Government and Women and American Politics. It has been rewarding and challenging to create the material for these courses and decide what to cover. For instance, the curriculum for American Government usually focuses on things like the Constitution and the American Revolution, but I work to more about the underrepresented American experience in government. Rutgers is one of the most diverse higher education institutions in the country.
I make sure my students feel represented in the material and introduce them to a perspective of American government and history that helps them see the pieces and people that other history or government courses may have missed.
We are experiencing an interesting political moment. While I teach, I try to find ways to marry the history with current events. My goal is to make the learning outcomes fun and relevant to the students. When you are teaching politics in this era, you have to concern yourself with making sure diverse opinions are represented, but you want students to feel like they are in a safe space. It is a fine line to walk.
I want to always encourage student discussion and include multiple opinions that not everyone may agree with, but ensure students aren’t violating the safe space rules of my classroom.
You are a visual artist and coordinate community workshops for young people of color on political expression through the arts. Tell us about your work in arts education.
I am an illustrator and painter and I write poetry and other forms of creative writing. These things have helped me find a voice and sense of community. Art enabled me to learn how to express myself and helped me get through tougher times. I have always wanted to make sure that others can have that experience too.
In college, I hosted an open mic called Verbal Mayhem and volunteered hosting poetry workshops in the area. I was involved in spoken word poetry and performances in New Jersey and NYC. In this world, we felt safe exchanging intimate parts of ourselves with each other. In graduate school, I have continued to work on promoting arts education. Most recently, I hosted workshops on visual arts and creative writing with a program called Artists Mentoring Against Racism, Drugs & Violence, which is a free summer camp for kids in the New Brunswick area that are low-income. I love seeing students faces light up when they are validated and feel their artwork is important and matters. I like bridging the political work I do with art.
Currently, I am working on creating materials and lessons with K-12 educators for our Teach a Girl to Lead initiative at CAWP that incorporate creativity and political education for students.
Tell us about your experience promoting diversity and inclusion in higher education.
As an undergraduate student, I interned for my mentor: Dr. Rosanna Ferro. At Rutgers, she was the Assistant Director for Multicultural Engagement and Learning Communities and I worked with her on multicultural engagement projects that I continued to pursue later in my graduate career. For example, a program I was involved in planning and facilitating called Bridging the Gap was a social justice retreat for undergraduate students, which was a collaborative effort with the cultural centers on campus.
We also ran a series of programs called the Women of Color Initiatives. Each year we had a faculty, staff, and student meet and greet for women of color, a women of color symposium, and a retreat. We created opportunities for students with diverse backgrounds to come together and build community. Higher education can be isolating. Universities are often elitist institutions.
For many students, especially first-generation college students, it can be very difficult to go through these processes at institutions and feel supported and heard as human begins. We wanted to help provide them with space to talk about their experiences, resources to empower them, and to just introduce them to each other and the faculty and staff on campus interested in seeing them succeed.
What advice might you offer to young women interested in pursuing a Ph.D.?
It’s important to take a step back. After completing your undergraduate studies or master’s degree and before pursuing a Ph.D., I suggest taking some time off to gain experience in your field because it is a highly rigorous, taxing, and time-consuming process. You should make sure pursuing a doctoral degree is exactly what you want to do and that you have time for it. I started a doctoral program straight from my undergraduate career and had to take some time in the middle and give myself some space.
I also suggest keeping your mind open. You should enjoy getting your Ph.D. It’s such a great process and rare to have these moments in life to sit and read, converse with like-minded people and be nerdy about the ideas that interest you. Learning and collaborating with others is a wonderful aspect of graduate school.
For women, and especially students from underrepresented backgrounds in academia, when you begin the program it’s crucial to find your community and support system. In my life, I keep two types of support systems. I have a personal support system (i.e. family and friends to talk to about anything) and an academic support system, which is a group of women of color Ph.D. candidates. We keep in touch, celebrate each other’s accomplishments, edit each other’s work, and try to support each other. Find a community to support you throughout the process.