The harsh truths I learned managing a race at 17

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After last year’s general election, everyone in my life begged me to take a break. Partly because they were tired of me harassing them to volunteer and to vote and partly because campaign Bella is a little scary. 

In 2020, I worked on congressional races in TN-07 and TX-22, adding up to 40-hour work weeks on top of being a full-time online high school senior. Post-election depression hit me for only two weeks before I was brought onto the Georgia U.S. Senate races to design for the AAPI Coalition, and got an internship here at the Signal. Shortly after the second ballot count in Georgia, a friend of mine asked me if I was interested in helping out with a school board campaign in my district. Of course, I couldn’t say no.

My school district is incredibly diverse, with students from every country and every background you can imagine. Though somehow, our school board looked nothing like our students. One of our board members wanted to arm teachers. Another wanted to send us back to school maskless during a pandemic. One more fell asleep on camera at a board meeting. It’s fairly easy for me to say that I was not going to graduate and leave these folks in charge of the people I had grown up with for 12 years, so I got on board. 

Initially, I was brought on to help increase young voter turnout — a constituency I was fairly good at organizing. I attended one virtual campaign meeting and almost had a stroke. It was all over the place. I couldn’t get a word in. Nobody knew what they were doing. People were yelling about block walks and logos and endorsements and I was ready to throw in the towel. The next day I called the candidate and said, “I know I’m just a kid but I promise I know what I’m doing.” The rest was history.

That was a complete lie. I knew how to fundraise (thanks TX-22) and I could write a damn good field plan (thanks TN-07). I am the president of National Honor Society so I had free labor and a good group of friends who were also tired of being screwed over by the board. The candidate was an extremely dedicated volunteer in the district and had a huge network of Parent-Teacher Association moms who would talk to other parents. I made a cute enough logo and slapped it on some t-shirts and pushcards. We got a plan hammered out pretty easily. The candidate scored a couple of really good endorsements, including the AFL-CIO. I texted and called every single number I had in my phone and told others to do the same. We recruited a lot of volunteers (WhatsApp is a relational tool for immigrants at this point) and got to walking the mean streets of suburbia. Somehow, we came out of this with 59.1 percent of the vote.

So what did I learn?

Young people have to fight for a spot at the table. Getting my voice heard during this campaign was one of the most difficult things I have had to do, and I’m not quiet. When it comes to organizing, I generally know what I’m talking about but my age was like putting a piece of duct tape over my mouth. Even when our team was made aware that I was taking charge and had an opinion that was worth listening to, I was talked over, ignored, and disregarded. I left almost every campaign meeting with tears. Luckily, the candidate valued my perspective and the things that needed to be done were done, but no amount of credentials you have can make people listen to you when you are young. However, nothing can prepare you for being a woman in politics like being a young woman in politics. It can only go up from here. Right?

I am never managing a non-partisan race again. It is naive to think anything is nonpartisan let alone any sort of elected office. It’s a scam. We all know who wants to keep students from getting shot in class and teachers from falling into poverty and there is no point in beating around the bush. 

If you are a young person in politics, you will be exploited. My total compensation for the 5 months of campaign management included a t-shirt, handful of pens, hat, and a button that were all designed, ordered, and picked up by me. I’m going to college next year. There’s not a lot of places that will give you food in exchange for a pen. A “learning experience” doesn’t pay the bills.

Even after all of this, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity. A friend of mine calls me a masochist, but as long as I can fight for my community and communities that deserve better, I am happy.

If you are young and want to talk about getting involved, feel free to email me at bella@texassignal.com.

Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

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