If there’s something I’ve been good at for the past 10 years of my life, it’s being a follower.
I used to be a happy-go-lucky kid who spoke before thinking anything through. I cared what people thought of me, but not enough to let it shut me up for long periods of time. I was also a good combination of confident and shy, which was good for many reasons. First, I could fit in with the popular girls for several years. I knew how to interact around different people and was involved in a lot of activities. Second, I was proud of what I knew. For a 5th grade speech contest, I used the prompt “Before and After” to talk about Galileo (I was quite the astronomy geek) rather than research a topic irrelevant to my interests. Third, I was very ambitious. I knew I would make show choir in 7th grade, I knew I’d be an astronomer some day, and I knew that I would play volleyball for the University of Nebraska. While only one of those three things actually happened, I spent many years working hard to get closer to achieving those goals. Any time a challenge came up, whether it was not winning student body president of Oakdale Elementary or the difficulty of Physics 1301, I took the next best thing (6th grade class representative and a whole new major working for reproductive rights).
So why, then, did I suddenly become such a follower? Two words: middle school.
I don’t know if your 2-3 years in transition to high school were frustrating, but let me tell you, middle school was not fun for me. The mixture of hormones, losing some friends, and cliques suddenly made nerds like me feel like I was out of place. Sure, I stayed active and made new friends. Unlike elementary school, these friends were weird, geeky, and all kinds of awesome. With them, I conformed to the middle class version of social hierarchy. I befriended a few “popular” kids through show choir, but I only let my voice be heard (heh) through song. The times that I did share my opinion/thoughts with non-friends–outside of class discussions, due to how I felt safe in an academic setting–I was hyperaware that I’d say the wrong thing or they’d think I was weird (both of which were sometimes true). Eighth grade was the apex of my insecurity. My show choir friends often ignored me and openly shared their weekend party plans in my presence. Granted, looking back I probably could have done more to jump in and make my presence known. At the time, however, I felt that I had truly become a loser and should stay in my place.
Thankfully, I grew more confident throughout high school. I learned to chat more with classmates, be as active in as much as I could, and build connections. While I was still a bit awkward, by graduation I could successfully share my opinion without feeling stupid.
And yet, I had not become a leader. Not following everybody is one thing, but not leading is something altogether different.
Why now am I talking about the importance of leading if I’ve never really gotten the chance to do so? A couple weeks ago, I attended the Elect Her training sponsored by the Women’s Center. It’s an understatement to say that it changed my perspective on the necessity to get more women elected into office.
Throughout the training, participants studied several aspects essential to running an effective campaign. Things such as establishing a support network, knowing your constituents, and staying motivated are often forgotten when talking about candidates and elections. One of the speakers, State Senator Michelle Benson, talked about her experience in office. She had never intended to be an elected official, but when her senator was not listening to the constituents’ needs, she stepped up and ran for office. Senator Benson reminded us that not everyone who goes into politics does it for the fame and power. Representing a neighborhood, city, county, state, or country can be about developing interests into realistic policies. As women, we are not always encouraged to be bold like men, which shows through election demographics. Regardless of our worries, we must work on being leaders.
I have never considered going into public office and I would rather not get elected to a position that isn’t specific to reproductive rights. Still, Elect Her has given me more confidence in myself as a leader. I could see myself rising in the ranks at a pro-choice organization, lobbying for reproductive rights and meeting with senators. More recently, I’ve noticed a change in my ethic. I’ve been more confident in leading group discussions and being a leader where I volunteer. Also, I accepted a summer position that would put me as a field manager in training, allowing me to develop my leadership skills. Most importantly, I’ve started listening to the people who say I could do something great and be a leader.
After being a follower for so much of my life, the transition to leadership has not been easy. With Elect Her and the support of family and friends, I’m sure that I can set out to do something that will leave an impact.
If you did not attend Elect Her this year, I encourage you to apply next year (if it comes back to the U of M) and/or find inspiration in being a leader. Whether you choose to take the lead in a group project or run for MSA, you’ll be the difference.