Rashida Tlaib Part 1: Women in Leadership

Rashida Tlaib

Rashida Tlaib is the ideal elected official.  Her priorities are rooted in her constituency and her motives are driven by an intense sense of duty.  My first opportunity to meet Rashida was last year when I invited her to be a guest speaker at MEP.  Since I work in the elected-official sector, I’m familiar with the scheduling process and didn’t hold my breath at getting a response. However, within hours I received an email from Rashida letting me know her assistant would be in touch to set up a date.  The turnaround was incredible.  

Rashida drove in from Lansing to meet with the girls and had an open conversation with them about her experience in the state house and the legislation she was working on that impacted the students’ neighborhood.  My MEP girls have no interest in politics but they were eager to discuss problems with pollution, scrapping and schools. Rashida asked for the girls to help by reporting environment violations they witnessed and allowed them to feel part of the process. 

Prior to this visit, I was impressed by Rashida from the newspaper articles I had read and clips on television, but seeing her in action was truly inspiring.  Due to term-limit laws in Michigan, Rashida will no longer be representing Detroit in the state house but I know she will do great things.  I’m confident a street will be named after her one day and am thrilled to share parts of our conversation on the blog.  The second part of our conversation focused on Detroit but considering the ongoing conversation about women in society, I couldn’t help but wonder about Rashida’s thoughts on the issue of female leadership.

You are a rare elected official because I’ve always felt that you are more of a public servant than politician. Did you always plan to run for office and what influenced your decision?

Absolutely not. I was a community organizer. I worked at non-profit organizations throughout school. After I graduated law school and passed the bar exam I continued to work on federal policies. After 9/11, I really got active in immigrant rights and the Civil Liberties Restoration Act, which was a bill that I was somewhat obsessed with trying to get passed on the federal level. 

That’s when I got exposed a lot more to politics and Steve Tobocman, the [former] state rep for Southwest Detroit. I didn’t even know who was the state rep to be honest. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I had heard that there was someone who introduced in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and going to Southwestern High School, so many of my friends didn’t know that they were so-called “out of status” until junior year. We were starting to apply to college and parents were literally sitting them down and saying, ‘You can’t [go to college] because you weren’t born here and you’re undocumented’. They had no idea because there was no reason to really discuss that with them and so it was something I was always very passionate about. 

Me and a number of other non-profit organizations organized this massive lobby day in Lansing around in-state tuition and that’s when I got the attention of Steve.  When he became the floor leader he asked me to work for him. I initially said no. I couldn’t imagine commuting to Lansing three days a week but I did it and fell in love with his “service politics”. He had a district office and I got to work with the residents doing a lot more social work and I loved it because when you call on behalf of the Representative, DTE called me back.  If there was an issue going on in the city, they actually responded. I saw this tremendous amount of power to elevate the voices of the residents and bring attention to issues. It was amazing but I still never thought about running. 

Then a couple months into it, Steve sat me down and asked, ‘What are you doing to do in two years?’ I said I don’t know, probably go back to the non-profit sector.  He said, ‘You should run for my seat.’ I laughed.

It took seven different people to convince me to run. Ten days before the filing deadline I put my name in.  I put my own money in at first. I sent a postcard out to my precinct. I door knocked. I literally walked every single street in my district twice, sometimes three times, and I won.  It was fantastic. We had no idea it would be historic – being the first Muslim woman – but it was tremendous getting all the letters of support and congratulations from Thailand and California.  It was really neat. I love that people who never thought about running go, ‘Well if Rashida can do it, I can do it.’ They’re not worried about their name or their faith.

The Michigan House is made up of 21% women. The Michigan Senate is an abysmal 11%. Nationally, women make up about 20% of Congress. Do you believe these low numbers reflect women’s decision to not run for office (and perhaps take supporting roles on staff) or do you feel there are outside forces (media, systematic barriers, stigmas) that are at play?

It’s a combination. It takes courage to run. It’s a very lonely experience. Every time I say that people who have run for office nod their head – they know what I’m talking about. It is harder for women. The fact that it’s about how we look. I couldn’t believe the comments I would get, even from my own residents: 

“You were on tv, you should put some make-up on.” 
“What was I talking about?”
“I don’t know but you should put some make-up on.” 

You never get that if you’re a man. There’s this feeling of being exposed and vulnerable. It’s a scary experience. 

For me every time a woman runs, she wins. If you look at how we were able to pick up seats in the Michigan House in the past couple cycles – it was women. Gretchen Driskell, Teresa Abed – these are areas that haven’t been represented by a Democrat before.  It was a woman that did it, not a man. Women can get elected in very competitive seats where there is close to a million dollars being spent on the other side. They win because they work harder. 

I feel that having more women out there telling other women to run is important. When I decided to run my son was not even 3 years old. There was a tremendous amount a guilt. No matter what you’re doing it’s always in the back of your mind, ‘Am I doing the best thing for my family?’ That’s something a man does not have to go through as aggressively. I know they go through it. I hear them talk about the struggle of being away so much but it’s different for women. 

With there being such a small group of women in the state house is there a unity that overcomes the party difference or is partisanship a core identifier?

It’s still a core identifier. It’s funny, at the beginning it wasn’t as strong but now it’s extremely different. When we stand up for equal pay for equal work we’re a little shocked at the other side. It was amazing to me to see women getting up and opposing it. And the rhetoric. I had a republican woman come up to me and say, ‘How are your kids? Those poor things’, as if I were neglecting them. It was unbelievable to me to have another woman judge me that way. They’re very much in line with their overwhelming number of male counterparts in their opposition to choice, equal pay, and even their support of rape insurance.

In your experience, does the small number of elected female leaders affect your ability to legislate or take on leadership positions within the party?

You have to be pretty aggressive and strategic about it but if you work hard and find your niche of what you’re interested in, that takes you to leadership. But still I notice even as part of a leadership team that men still make the decisions on some of the most important strategies. Even in our own party we struggle for a voice and to gain credibility on issues.

What would you like to see happen to increase women’s (particularly girls) interest in leadership positions?I always tell women ‘You should run’. They need someone to build that confidence. Rashida said it or my mentor said it or my professor said it. It’s almost like they’re looking for that permission to run for leadership or to be president of their student group or whatever it is. It’s mind-boggling how women have to look for that green light from others that it’s okay to want it.

I met with a woman this morning and I said, ‘What made you start thinking about it?’ She said, ‘It’s kind of been in the back of my mind but it was the guy that owns the Save-A-Lot.’ She helped with a [neighborhood] clean-up and the business owner said to her, ‘You should think about running for office’. You should see the smile on her face over breakfast this morning. I think no matter anybody’s field women are looking for that [approval]. I think some men do but not as much as women. We’re constantly looking for it.

What lessons have you learned that you would pass onto someone else who is thinking of running for office?

That you can do it. People say, ‘I’m not ready yet. I’m going to wait two years’. No. It’s like having a baby, you’re never going to be ready you just have to do it. I have so many friends and they’re on their fourth election training and I’m like, ‘Just do it’. I’m not saying you don’t need that knowledge but at the same time you can’t wait for that moment. The moment is now. I don’t know why we’re waiting. My advice is don’t wait. Do it. If you know you want to do it, do it.

And find a community  you’re in love with. You have to have passion and the need to want to serve. I want people to know that you do better at running for office and better at being a public servant in a community that you are involved with, passionate.

Rashida Tlaib Mercy Education Project
Rashida Tlaib at MEP

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