This piece is part of the Arkansas Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics, “That’s What Girls Do.”
While driving both of my young daughters to school, my 8-year-old asked, “Momma, if a teacher asks me what you do for work, what should I say?” I answered, “I’m the trainer director for Vote Run Lead.” She quickly came back with, “What does that mean?” I wanted to tell her that I recruit the nation’s top women leaders to train women to run for office and win. But then, I thought of a simpler answer: “Just tell them I help women.” We both smiled, knowing this was the right response.
After three years as a stay-at-home mom helping my husband’s career, I now dedicate my life to advancing women in politics. I went back to school and obtained a master’s degree in public service from the Clinton School at the University of Arkansas and secured a job at the nation’s largest nonpartisan women’s political training powerhouses in the country. But it wasn’t that simple.
When I began graduate school, I was a young stay-at-home mom. I often fought an internal battle between being a traditional mother and going after my career ambitions. I wanted both worlds and deep down inside, I knew I could have them both. After months of struggling with pursuing my passion, leaving my family and a multitude of obstacles, I finally found the rhythm to balance both my career and my family without having to neglect either.
Who I am today is not the person I always tried to be.
My career changed from accountant to activist. While accounting was not my career of choice, it is what I fell into to pay the bills and support our family’s dreams. After a decade of monotonous accounting work and creating social change as a hobby, I came to the realization that I wanted to pursue my hobby as a full-time career. After extensive research, I realized that the ideal school to help me achieve my career goals, the Clinton School of Public Service, was literally at my backdoor in my downtown Little Rock community. Given that I was not the traditional age graduate student and had a young family, I knew that I had to use the marketability that the Clinton School could offer to relaunch my career in women and politics. During my two years of course work at the Clinton School, I purposely directed every research paper and project toward furthering the advancement of women, including being a team member that created Arkansas’s first Gender Equity Scorecard for the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. My research confirmed my commitment and passion to work towards the empowerment of women in politics, and thus led me to Vote Run Lead.
In my first semester at the Clinton School of Public Service, I was asked to attend a candidate’s roundtable discussion on women’s empowerment in Arkansas. It is a night I will never forget. I was expected to publicly share my ambitions. As my turn approached, I became more and more terrified of sharing my plan out loud. But I released my breath and shared that I would be completing a graduate course in New York City for Vote Run Lead that upcoming summer. This meant I would be leaving my children in Arkansas.
As the roundtable ended, a local woman, Ashley Hurst, told me plainly, “Don’t let them ‘mom shame’ you.” Up until that moment, I had questioned who I was as a mother. I had no idea how powerful those words were to me and how much I needed them right at that very moment.
In this case, I was doing exactly what a lot of women in my position do, harshly judging myself and coming up with every reason as to why “I can’t.” Instead, I should have been realizing my full potential and those words allowed me to do so.
Off I went. Two years later I am the director of trainer engagement and development at Vote Run Lead. I was able to negotiate a flex-time position doing what I love and I get to pick up my kids from school every day. My husband is happier with a happy wife, too.
At Vote Run Lead, we believe that by empowering women to run as they are, they will build a campaign based on their own passion, their own ideas and their own values. We show women that they have what it takes to run and win NOW, instead of asking them to change themselves. We encourage women to focus on an issue they are passionate about and work from there. Then we provide the tools they need to win — building a team, raising funds, getting the word out and finding the most effective way to reach voters. Most of all, we remain steadfastly nonpartisan, putting women first and politics second. In short, we trust women.
From my own experience as a Southern woman and as a Vote Run Lead staff member here on the ground in Arkansas, the potential for women and politics in Arkansas is so great. I see it every day. The energy is here, too. In fact, there were more Arkansas trainees that day for the Vote Run Lead National Training in Fayetteville than in Dallas, Austin, St. Louis or Nashville!
Thus, I want to speak directly to women with leadership ambition, especially those of you who see yourselves in politics. I urge you to take a step forward, even if only a small step. My first step was talking to my spouse. The next one came from research. The third from believing in my own dreams.
Small steps in the right direction each day will eventually get you where you need to be.
Perhaps running for office is not currently on your radar. That’s OK. We’ll help you take a small step. Join me at VoteRunLead.org. Sign up to help another Arkansas woman that is running for office. Don’t get stuck with all the reasons you can’t; instead, pick a path that feels right for you and choose advancement.
Choose to be a changemaker and help shape the future. Because I know one thing for certain, working as a national women’s empowerment specialist, in the South, there is still tremendous work to be done. Although much progress has been made, it is our responsibility as Southern women to advance each other beyond the imaginary barriers that we create within ourselves and to create a better future for us and for our daughters.
Starre Haas serves as the director of trainer engagement and development at Vote Run Lead. She is a graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service and the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University. Her public service history includes serving on the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission and as president of the Downtown Little Rock Neighborhood Association. She currently serves as an advisory board member for the Little Rock Capitol Zoning District Commission. Starre is a native Arkansan and resides in downtown Little Rock with her husband and two daughters.