She can’t vote yet, but Natasha Dupree, 17, already thinks politics—thanks, in part, to Running Start. Last year, the team behind Women Under Forty Political Action Campaign (WUFPAC), a bipartisan group that works to get young women elected to federal office, began Running Start, a non-profit with the goal of engaging high school girls in the political process.
“We want to make politics more accessible,” says Susannah Shakow, president of Running Start. “We need women to run for office. We need women shaping policy because we represent a unique point of view. Men don’t seem to need the encouragement to get involved or to run. Even if you look at student government, men have three-quarters of the positions in college government. I think women need to hear early that it’s appropriate to get involved.”
One way the bipartisan group introduces high school girls to the political process is through summer workshops. Their fi rst was a three-day event for 20 girls, held this past July. Twenty-one girls from the D.C. metro area, including Dupree, spent a few days learning what it’s like to be a candidate. They got debate and media training and met women involved in all sectors of the political sphere.
“The idea is just to plant the seeds,” says Shakow, who hopes to expand the program to include girls from outside D.C. this year. “The girls we chose for the program were already doing leadership things. We want to channel that toward politics.”
This year, Running Start will double the attendees at its summer workshop. And in 2009, it plans to take the high school trainings national. This is in addition to Running Start programs already underway for young professional women in the D.C. area. Initiatives like these fill an important gap in encouraging political activism, explains Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.
“There’s always been the notion that little boys can grow up to be president,” says Walsh, who works with a similar program for high school-age Girl Scouts. “The more opportunities we can give young girls to think about politics and understand it’s a possibility for them, the better.”
For Dupree, the July workshop was incredibly engaging. “I thought we’d be observing and didn’t expect it to be active,” she says. “I assumed it would be a seminar on the history of women in politics. It was completely the opposite. There was a lot of interaction between the adults and the girls.”
One of the highlights for Dupree was an internship with Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wisc. “I learned you can get to politics through a lot of different routes,” she says. “I want to work in neonatal care for Doctors Without Borders and then go into politics. Seeing that Congressman Kagen could work in internal medicine and then go into politics was really interesting.”
Running Start found a way to link the issues Dupree cares about with politics. Making that connection remains the ultimate challenge for such groups, according to Walsh. But one thing that may offset that challenge is Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. “It will get them thinking that this is a world that is a possibility for them,” she says.
Whether Dupree runs for office later in life or not, she gives Running Start a vote of approval. “It doesn’t make you say I’m definitely going to be president one day,” she says. “But it does show that you need to get involved.”