Recently, I saw a picture of a little black girl with natural hair standing next to a poster for the movie Home, and the two were almost identical. The caption read “Representation Matters.” I immediately thought of my 7-year-old niece, Hillary, who might finally be able to see herself in that character, something that I’m not sure she’s experienced much. As a woman of color with natural hair, it also reminded me: “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Growing up, it never occurred to me that there were no little black girls in the Disney films I watched. But that lack of representation wasn’t—and isn’t—just on TV or in movies. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, of the 104 women serving in the 114th US Congress, only 33 (31.7%) are women of color. State legislatures across the country are faring even worse—just 21.7% of members are women of color.
When I decided at 19 years old that someday I wanted to run for elected office, it was actually a young male state representative (who would later go on to become Detroit’s youngest mayor) who inspired me to run. I had never seen someone so young make such an impact. I rarely saw young women of color from my community in local politics. I decided then to dedicate my career to changing that.When I ran for state representative last year in Michigan’s 1st state house district, I was told by many (including a prominent African-American woman in my political party) to “wait my turn” or that “so-and-so”—a man—was going to win the seat. I quickly realized that I wasn’t just running to help change my community. I was also running to change the face of leadership in Lansing.
As a national trainer for Elect Her (a program of the American Association of University Women and Running Start) I have had the opportunity to help train young women around the world to run for student government and elected office. A few weeks ago, I led a session at the University of the West Indies at Mona, in Jamaica, and was reminded that the need for increased representation in political leadership isn’t unique to the United States. I came home feeling so inspired to continue this work that my twin sister and I have pledged to create a leadership program for at-risk girls in Detroit. We want to not only provide them with confidence building and life skills, but also inspire them and give them the tools to change their communities. I’ve always lived by the notion that you can either complain about a problem or do something about it. I’m no longer waiting my turn to lead, and I couldn’t be more excited to help other young women do the same.
Rebecca Thompson is the Senior Director of Engagement at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. She also serves on the State Executive Committee for the Michigan Democratic Party. Passionate about changing the face of leadership across the country, Rebecca has dedicated her career to training and electing more diverse candidates to elected office. She led the Front Line Leaders Academy, a national nine-month program that trains young progressive candidates to run for office and become campaign managers. She simultaneously also serves as a National Trainer for ElectHer, which trains college women to run for student government. Rebecca continues to engage in leadership training, participating in the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, the White House Project, the Center for Progressive Leadership and the Michigan Political Leadership Program, among others. Rebecca has been active in numerous organizations throughout the Detroit community including the NAACP, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the 13th District Young Democrats. She currently lives in Detroit’s East English Village neighborhood with her dogs Minnie and Donnie.