More than two dozen female Duke students gathered for three hours on Jan. 27 to participate in an annual on-campus workshop sponsored by Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS) designed to train them to run for political office.
Cosponsored by the Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative, this year’s training was led by Krysta Jones—the founder and chair of the Virginia Leadership Institute.
The nonpartisan organization Running Start, which POLIS hires each year to coordinate these workshops, has operated nationally for a decade, providing the knowledge, support and inspiration many young women seek when considering running for office.
Jones, whose organization has trained over 350 African-American political candidates and leaders, said that another goal of the event was to create a space for networking with fellow women who are interested in public service.
The program featured a 30-minute Q&A with Vernetta Alston, the Ward 3 representative on the Durham City Council, who shared her experience running for office and the need for diverse voices.
“Women are critical to every part of society,” Alston said. “We’re critical to governing and to policy making. Our voices need to be heard, and they need to be loud.”
Alston, who has worked as a staff attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said that being a politician was never a part of her plan, but that she wanted to expand her advocacy beyond her legal work.
“I had an itch,” she said.
Group discussions explored issues that would matter to the women as candidates, including environmental health, workforce participation, and the cost of health care.
Jones guided the students through exercises that emphasized the importance of networking and of having an effective message. The event culminated with students making 60-second campaign pitches as fictitious candidates, enabling them to simulate what it’s like to be a candidate and asking people for their vote.
Nathalie Kauz, a senior public policy major who participated in both this year’s and last year’s workshops, wrote her thesis about how the 2016 presidential election affected women’s political ambition.
“This workshop put a face to the data,” she said. “More women are mobilizing not because they’re being asked to, but out of a greater sense of necessity. Workshops like this are incredibly important because they empower this sense of urgency I felt in the room, building this almost palpable eagerness and greater confidence in office-holding as a vehicle for social change.”
Jones said many women in the room shared that same eagerness and confidence.
“I have trained hundreds of people over the past 10 years to run for office,” she said. “The students at Duke were some of the most engaged and motivated. I am inspired by their commitment to making a true impact on the world, and I look forward to seeing them run for everything from the school board to the presidency.”
This year’s participants included Duke students of all ages, from first-year to graduate students holding viewpoints covering the full ideological spectrum.
POLIS Director Fritz Mayer said the event was supporting a positive trend. “It’s exciting that so many Duke women of all political stripes are thinking about entering the political arena, like the record number of women around the country running for office this year,” Mayer said.