I met the charming, freckle-faced fourth-grader three years ago. Rachel’s dad brought her after school to a polling site with the introduction, “My daughter wants to run for public office. Could you talk with her for a few minutes?”

Who could possibly say no to a young lady wearing a pink “girl power” T-shirt and megawatt smile? It was a real treat to talk with her and hear her enthusiasm. She wanted to be governor or a U.S. senator — or maybe both. When I asked what she wanted to do when elected, she promptly replied (as if it should have been obvious): “Help people.” Duh!

Rachel may be facing serious obstacles to her political dream. Unfortunately, the 2010 elections saw the first significant decline in female state legislators and members of Congress in decades. The U.S. now ranks 69th in the world in the number of women in office, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women make up 17 percent of Congress and 24 percent of state legislatures. Only six states have a female governor.

With the next general election just one year out, it’s worth noting that in presidential election years, there are generally more women voters than men. This may provide some encouragement for women thinking of running for office. The Rutgers study points out that women need more encouragement than men to decide to run, and that about one-third of female candidates report that someone tried to discourage them from running — most often an officeholder or political-party official.

Into this setting steps a new program designed to bring young women into the political process. Ignite Texas, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization geared toward encouraging and training young women to become involved in the political process, has come to Dallas.

Ignite prepares young women ages 14-22 in predominantly low-income communities. “Our vision is to build a movement of young women who are civically engaged, respond to issues in the own communities, and who ultimately pursue elective office,” says Anne Moses, who created Ignite in California just three years ago.

The organization already has exceeded its initial goals, serving about 200 high school and 75-100 college students in California. Anne hopes to have branches in every state.

“In 10 years, we hope young women we are training right now will have assumed the mantle of leadership and will actually be serving as civic and political leaders,” Moses says.

Ignite has already initiated training at DISD’s Irma Rangel Leadership High School in southern Dallas, where it works with 20 students. Ignite is also partnering with the state’s YMCA Youth and Government program, and will sponsor a college retreat in February for 40 college-age, minority women from SMU, the University of Texas at Dallas , Austin College and UT-Austin.

These young women will have the chance to hear from elected officials and to learn how women office-holders achieved success. “Our students want to hear about their journey and the lessons gleaned from the experience of serving one’s community,” says Merriott Terry, a former award-winning high school teacher who is the executive director for Ignite Texas.

Ignite is building a pipeline of politically savvy, community-connected female candidates for the future. Young women and girls such as Rachel, my young friend from the polls, may find a clearer pathway to public service because of such efforts. I keep a photo of Rachel on my office desk. As I look at it, I wonder if she was elected to her seventh-grade student council and if her sights are still set on the governor’s seat. I hope so.

 

Carol Kent, an adjunct faculty member at Richland College, is a former member of the Texas House and the Richardson ISD board of trustees. She is also a Community Voices volunteer columnist.