Alumni Share: Running for Office
Shabnam: Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and public service enthusiasts. In today's episode we will be speaking with Charisse Davis, a 2000 Boren scholar to Brazil. Charisse is a graduate of Spelman College and since Boren she has been an educator, public librarian and most recently elected to her local Board of Education. Thank you for joining us Charisse!
Charisse: Hi! Nice to be here.
Shabnam: Of course! You know what I find so awesome about your journey post Boren is that after you completed your service requirement you continue to serve your community in a way that very many may not have the opportunity to as an elected official, so that's really awesome.
Charisse: It's something I certainly never thought I would do but you know it's kind of like, duty calls, and here I am
Shabnam: How are you currently serving your community as a board member?
Charisse: So I was elected in November 2018 there was some exciting political things going on in the state of Georgia and Stacey Abrams running for governor and all of the candidates really did a great job of working together and bringing other Democratic candidates along with them. They would campaign for those people and so we really felt like we were a part of this club and I certainly benefited from having the support of a lot of fellow candidates and also elected officials. You know it was a lot of work, and you know come November 2018, we actually that night found out that we did not have as many votes as my opponent from the in-person voting but so many people had voted by mail that by 1 a.m. those results came in and we won by over 1,000 voter which was incredible. I am currently the only woman on our school board out of 7 members and I'm a mom and someone who has been in the education field for 15 years and so this is just kind of an extension I think of the work I was already doing, but as a board member I am here to represent kids, here to support the staff that work with those kids, but my experience and of course being a mom, I have a lot to say about how we can best help our children so it's an honor.
Shabnam: What motivated you to take that plunge?
Charisse: Yeah I mean I had a little nudge, a big nudge from a group, Leadership for Educational Equity, and you know they asked me about running and I just thought “no way.” It's just, again, not anything I would ever do, but there was this built-in support you know as soon as I said yes, there was this built and support to be able to carry it out because you just don't know, you don't know what you don't know right about running, and you know what does this even mean? You don't - you look at people as being the type of people that do that, but that's actually kind of been the problem because you always look at certain people as being the one's to run for office and to be elected officials and more of us need to say “you know what, that that should be me, that needs to be me.” and “let me run let me give voters a choice and you know let's see let's see what happens.” but it definitely started with you know someone else saying “hey you should think about doing this.” and it was you know what's a little bit of a back and forth for me internally because I just didn't know what I was getting myself into but there's not a day that goes by now where I don't - where I regret running. I think my voice was needed and I'm just so glad that I'm here.
Shabnam: I know you're also a mom and you have so many other responsibilities and campaigning is not an easy thing to do, especially when you're not a part of the establishment to begin with, so that process I'm assuming - you know what was that like for you?
Charisse: Yeah, the best thing you know what I would tell anyone is just that you have to be you, you have to be authentic and because what happens is people will buy into what you are trying to do, and they will support you, they will knock on doors for you, they will tell their friends about you, their neighbors, they will give you money, I mean that was the most insane concept of all of this to me, and I had donated to candidates, particularly running for offices like president, but you think about it and you're asking people to buy into you and your ideas and your plans. I also had a full-time job while I was campaigning, so you very much are - you have to have a plan, but you also just have to do your best and you don't turn down invitations, and there were a lot of really late nights, my kids knew you know Mom would be home much later often times after 10 p.m. if not later attending events and just you know being out there in the community and letting people know “hey I'm here” and you know it actually does work. I beat a two-term incumbent you know and then again to be the only woman I did look at that board, the makeup of the board and there was one woman there before who was rolling off of her four-year term she was not running for re-election. I just thought “we are 80% of the workforce” you know, women in education, we are the majority of the parents supporting our local schools and it would just have to be a travesty I thought if there was not one woman on our local Board of Education, so that kind of gave me a little extra little push to go ahead and jump into this.
Shabnam: So what does your day today kind of look like as a board member?
Charisse: Yeah so I mean obviously now you know with the shutdown because of the virus things are a lot different. I'd actually just stepped away from my day job as a public librarian it so that I could I spend more time in my school board role, which is part time, it is a paid position, often times it's not, it just depends on you know that the size of your district and so you know it's definitely not a full-time job, it’s not full-time pay, but I just felt like there were so many events that I was having to turn down and really you're just kind of like an ambassador almost, I mean you are showing up to everything. I have been invited to career day as the school board representative, I've gone and supported awards at different schools that my district has won, I go to my kids local school and you know I'll help with carpooling for really any one that asked, that doesn't have to be my kids school. You are just out in the community and you're hearing from parents and kids and teachers and other staff members all the time and so of course I get calls and I get emails. My job is really to facilitate that person who’s reaching out to me as a school board member, getting in touch with the person that's going to best be able to help address their concerns, because it can't be me, you know as a school board member all we should not be just dealing with the day-to-day operations of the schools, but you know we can definitely help people get the information that they need. I really enjoy that part of it, being able to just people. I have also kind of been on this - I'm always a teacher, I’ve kind of also been on this crusade of helping people understand how our schools are funded. I've got my Holo PowerPoint, and I will travel with my PowerPoint to help people understand how this works because a lot of it we don't know, you know we don't know because people don't really take the time to explain it to us. I think there's so much power and information there, that has been one of my biggest tasks here.
Shabnam: What are some of those hard truths that no one really tells you about what you're getting yourself into when you become an elected official that you know, might have been helpful to know before?
Charisse: You think about why you decide to get into something like this and you're so earnest about it and you just think “everyone's going to love me” and of course that's not true and you know we know at levels like president and governor and you know there's mudslinging and you’re never going to make everybody happy, but in the position like this where every decision I make, everything that I do is for kids, it has been really hard to think that there are people who don't agree with that, who are looking for things to just pick a part and you know I've been in the local paper plenty of times. I was a kindergarten teacher for a really long time and we love – we would do cartwheels in front of kids and then we get in front of adults and it's like “ehh”, getting in front of the parents you know. I think our unique group, the idea of like being kind of blasted in the local papers you know it hurts, it stings a little bit more for us than someone who probably has been in business or a politician their whole life, you know maybe they’re a little bit more used to it, but you know you get over it because again you know “why are you here?” right? You're not going to let stuff like that keep you from the work at hand. It's just something I was expecting, I wasn't really thinking about it, it's not something that came up when I was campaigning just in terms of - people aren't going to like that you shook things up in a way that you're not really welcome and you know I didn't come in thinking that, but that's been my experience
Shabnam: It's harder when you are the underdog. I mean you don't have the establishment support, but I'm sure you learned a lot of things about yourself, and you know the reality of public service during this journey.
Charisse: You know again just this idea of - you're fine in front of a group of kids and you know you love your friends but you know, you're not trying to get in front of a large group of adults and talk about anything. That's my life now you know, so I went from being that person who did not feel comfortable - I remember my very first forum with my opponent, I was so incredibly nervous, and it actually wasn't just the first one, there were several later that you know, there would be so many people and so many other candidates and some of them seem so polished and they knew all the things to say and I would - I mean my stomach would be in knots, I would just be so incredibly nervous. Now, I mean just to think about that whole idea of like, if you do something enough times you just - how much more comfortable you become, and now I mean I get in front of any group. If you just focus on what your story is and what your message is and the thing that you know is important and what the work you're trying to do, there's no reason to be nervous. Don't compare yourself you know, that's the advice that I think I've learned for myself and what I would tell anyone else. You are doing great things and just to be able to talk about it is just a part of that. I would say I kind of had that in me the whole time. I take in a lot of information, I read a lot, and I you know like to really understand topics at a level that I don't think your average person is going to make the time to do and that's okay, but then that's where I feel like I come in. We're in this together, I'm also a parent, I'm also a member of this community and you know, and here are some things that we should know.
Shabnam: That's a really good perspective to have. Would you say that anyone has the capacity to run for office?
Charisse: I think - when I go in speak to kids, my message to them is “you've got two options you know I want you to either run for office or support someone that is running for office.” I would never - this is not easy stuff here, and I know how hard it is, it's been hard for me at times. I also - that idea of when you can't do something, it just gets me going. I think there's certainly some personality traits that lend themselves to actually coming out of this feeling like you’re doing a great thing. It could be really hard, but I do believe that wholeheartedly. You may not be the type of person who's willing to run for office and put your family out there and do all the things that that entails, but please be someone who supports a candidate. That means more than sending money, money is great and money is necessary unfortunately in campaigning, but you know you can write the check but you can also knock on doors, you can host the meet and greet for a candidate and encourage your neighbors and friends to vote for this person, just getting involved in the process, encouraging people to register to vote and then actually going to vote, those are the things that are so important. Elections have consequences and so and I hope that message is out there but I certainly wouldn't tell someone anybody could do could do this or should do this you know? You have to feel in your heart that you can do this. For me, that one piece was just again that I felt a sense of duty to do it, I thought if I had not run, again there would be no women on the board and that's important. I think most people, not everyone, but most people would say that is important.
Shabnam: So what would you say to somebody who really wants to fall into that first category, that really wants to be that person to run for office, but might have imposter syndrome, might think they're not qualified enough to run for office or be living in this capacity?
Charisse: What I've learned is like there's only certain people that say that, often times you say something like “I can't do this, I'm not one of those people” and oftentimes it is women unfortunately. Men that I've worked with, that I've encountered like they do not say that, they are like “why not you know, why shouldn't I be chair?” and all of these things they just think it and they take it. You know we as women I think we do that all the time, and I hope that just some of the people there are saying like “hey enough for this.” I had Stacey Abrams running for governor, she became closer in votes than any other Democratic governor - candidate in history. She was like “why not me?” and so having that inspiration was certainly incredible. I think - for me, I look at myself as someone who I hope is inspiring other women to say “okay, I can do that” and we actually have several women running in this next election, some of our seats are up for reelection in 2020 and so that's very exciting. It takes that - we are not impostors. Often times that the people who are doing this, and if you're a woman, like you are so qualified, your overqualified it's not even funny. It's just a matter of saying “I'm just going to do this thing that's going to have repercussions for years to come.” There are going to be people who saw that you did this and they're going to think they can do that too. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but you are actually like making a difference and altering history I think for years to come with these kinds of actions. This is really powerful stuff, and I would say if you're thinking about it, just tell somebody, tell somebody outside of your family. If you have a relationship - and don’t have to have a relationship with an elected official because elected officials are there for the people, set up an appointment with someone you respect and admire, a local elected official, and just talk to them about it, and then talk to somebody else about it. You'll start hearing people say to you like “oh wow.” they may not say that it will be easy to do, but they'll say wow, you're going to do that? You’re thinking about doing that? That'd be pretty great.” you know and asking them questions, picking their brain and you know it's amazing what you can do from there.
Shabnam: How did you kind of overcome that first jump? What was your first step?
Charisse: Yeah. I'm giving this advice but certainly from experience. The first person I know - one of the first people that I told that I was considering running for office was one of my kids principles, my youngest son's principal. I think she thought it was pretty out-there just because again you've got people in office who have been there going on decades now or a decade-plus. I told her, and that I did that very thing, I went down to my local Senator's office, but again this was somebody who broke the mold, nobody thought she would win, and talked to her. Then I had that conversation with my family because even if your family is not necessarily knocking on doors, which I hope they are because that will be your volunteer base for the most part, they have to buy in, we’re all running as a family, because mom's not going to be here a lot of time, and you know any number of things are going to be going on and so it's just talking about it. The more you put it out there the less likely you are to like to backtrack from that. I mean I wasn't going to go talk to my senator and the principles and my family and everybody who would listen and then say - and then when they asked me about it say “after all that I decided not to”. It was a lot I guess of building myself up to go ahead and do it. Then there's this qualifying period you know, where you have to go and fill out the paperwork you pay the fee and there’s know there's no going back from that. I just had to get to that week in March where we qualified and after that, you're in it you're going to be on the ballot, so you're either going to work for it and get some votes or you just going to be somebody whose name is on the ballot that nobody knew, and I think that's a waste of time.
Shabnam: Yeah it's kind of like, once you come to the terms and make that decision for yourself, then your community and your base kind of buildup gradually from there.
Charisse: Yep that's exactly it yeah. They want to see you succeed. At that point you feel, again that word, duty to the community who's supporting you and the people that are writing you checks, again the funding part boggles the mind you know, you're giving me money, it's not a tax write-off to you, but they want to see you succeed and money is a part of it at this time. I didn't want to let those people down, I mean they're giving me their hard-earned money because they want to see me do this and so I had to give it my full effort. At the end of it whatever the results are if you can say to yourself “I did everything I could, I did it, I did the work and it's just not the time right now” then that's one thing. To get to the end of it and you don't succeed but then you think “I could have done more of this, I could have actually went to these events” and all, that to me wasn't a place I wanted to be in, and I felt like the people that were supporting me deserve more than that. They definitely lift you up, your community or supporters, they lift you up for sure.
Shabnam: Was there ever a moment in your time campaigning where you realized that “this is really where I need to be?” Maybe somebody said something nice to you or gave you some type of reinforcement that really made you feel like this is the work that you’re supposed to be doing despite how hard it is?
Charisse: Yeah. I love visiting with kids. They don't know we know political stuff, about the school board or anything like that, but you know when I'm sitting there with them and we're just having like really frank conversations, which is how I was as a teacher, I just - they just gave me so much hope. It sounds like a cliche but I just love having time with them. When I'm presenting about my job as a school board member, I'll put up a picture of the school board and there's always at least one girl who will say “you're the only girl” and I say yes that's right you know, I am for now, I'm the only woman for now and that's why more of us need to run for office and you can kind of see the wheels turning in their brain and just seeing how quickly they pick up on that, because representation matters you know. I've been in a parade for homecoming, and a later of mom told me, it was a mom of color, and her kids were on the parade route, and she's told me later, she was like “I make sure that my kids saw that you were there, that you were on this parade route representing our schools as a family of color in a predominantly white community” and that meant so much you know. To hear stuff like that, again it just reinforces that any of the bad stuff any the hardships it's all worth it. I feel very honored to be to be their board member, to be here and I'll be fine. I love to hear when someone says to me “I never knew that, I never knew that.” It's just so simple but again I was an educator for a long time and you never stop being an educator. There's so much information, so much power and information and so people when they learn something for the first time and it actually helps them make other decisions, that just to me is everything, I've been really proud of that.
Shabnam: Yeah and it's amazing that you've had this opportunity to be able to serve your community in this type of capacity. Thank you for joining us today and for sharing your experiences.
Charisse: Thank you, this is incredible. When I studied abroad with my Boren scholarship which was crucial to me doing so, I remember feeling like I had become a different person, I was so much more independent and it was life changing, it’s the highlight of my college career and to be doing this podcast now as an elected official I think all these things are connected and the things that you grow yourself, this is why I'm here. Thank you so much for having me and I hope that people will remember that if you're not willing to run for office, please support candidates that you believe in.
Shabnam: Thank you so much again so much Charisse.
Charisse: Thank you.
Shabnam: You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email email@example.com with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!
In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will discuss the experiences of Ms. Charisse Davis, a Board of Education member, in her pursuit to public service. Charisse discusses her experience taking the plunge into local politics and the importance of public service and civic engagement.