College of Liberal Arts

Female Texas Students Reach to Shatter Glass and Find Their Voice

Tue, Jun 14, 2016
Soto addresses NEW Leadership™ Texas class of 2016.
Soto addresses NEW Leadership™ Texas class of 2016.

Thirty-six young women from 21 colleges across the state brought their thoughts and ideas on the current political landscape and how they hope to add their voices to the future of U.S. politics at a six-day NEW Leadership™ Texas seminar at The University of Texas at Austin.

With Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, 2016 is a notable year for women in U.S. politics. Unlike last November, when the number of women in the U.S. Congress passed the 100 mark for the first time, gaining only five female voices from the previous year for a total 76 female Democrats and 28 female Republicans in the House and Senate combined — only 19.4 percent of the 535 member Congress. 

This summer, the UT Austin Center for Women’s & Gender Studies hosted NEW Leadership™ Texas as part of a national NEW Leadership™ Development Network, a national nonpartisan initiative developed by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University to educate the next generation of women for public leadership. The institute offered young women the chance to network and learn from current female leaders through a series of discussions and workshops, including a keynote address by Kiki McLean, director of the Walton Family Political and Communications Office.

“I came to NEW Leadership™ Texas because I wanted to see what it was like for a woman to pursue democratic engagement, and my eyes were open to endless possibilities,” said Natalia Hazelwood, a junior at Lone Star Community College. “Here, we are taught to reach a little higher to hear the sound of shattering glass.”

One presentation by Mexican American and Latina/o studies lecturer Victoria DeFrancesco Soto encouraged students to assume the role of political ambassadors, breaking the large group of students up to brainstorm ways they could encourage political participation within their communities.

“Many millennials seem disenchanted or apathetic about politics, but you don’t fit that mold,” DeFrancesco Soto said to the group. “You are here because you are political ambassadors, and it’s your job to develop that ambassador muscle. Recognize what ignites people and spark that.”

Civics lessons lead to political participation, DeFrancesco Soto said, adding that many people have the raw materials, the civics skills, to impact their community. They just need help finding their voice and sustaining it.

“People don’t care because they don’t see how the issues politicians are talking about relate to them,” said Rachel Jessie, a sophomore at Brookhaven College. “We have to find the issues that pertain to them.”

DeFrancesco Soto taught students to recognize those who were already involved in their communities and help them “bridge the gap” between civic duties and politics. Her message began to resonate.

“So many people don’t know that they care,” said Jessica Spohn, a graduate student at the University of Texas at El Paso. “In undergrad, I worked in an LGBTQ office. I was a voice for one side of political debate, without even realizing it. We need to find people in those positions and help them find their voice.”

As the session progressed, the students identified several channels through which they can enact change, but one very important method was left off the table: running for office.

“Running for office is the ultimate form of political participation,” said DeFrancesco  Soto, leaving the students with a final mission. “There is no stronger bolt to the bridge between civic skills and political participation than having a seat at the table. I want to see all of you on a ballot one day.”

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