Interview with: Tara Dowdell

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At Georgetown’s OWN IT Summit, I attended a panel on Women in Politics. It was at this panel, that I first heard Tara Dowdell speaking about her passion for leveraging politics to make the world a better place. Tara is the President and Founder of her own marketing and strategic consulting firm- the Tara Dowdell Group. Besides being a young entrepreneur, she has extensive experience in different political arenas. Tara was the first African American, and youngest person to serve as the Director of Appointments in the Office of the New Jersey Governor. She has held senior positions on campaigns at the federal, state and local levels as well as worked on issue-specific advocacy. When she was asked about her recipe for success at the panel, she emphasized work ethic, passion and the cultivating of genuine relationships. Her work ethic has allowed her to forge a path for herself, which she uses to help those who come behind her. After being incredibly inspired by Tara’s story, confidence and humility I asked her about her approach to politics, and her reasons for pursuing it. Here are some of her responses:

What got you interested in politics? 

I was one of those who was interested in politics since I was a child. I was class representative in the 4th, 8th, 9th and 12th grades. It sounds like a bad cliché, but I was drawn to it, and drawn to leadership. At the same time as I was interested in school politics, I would even watch the president’s State of the Union Addresses. I think what prompted that interest was that I had this idea that I could use policy to influence the world and my community. When I was a kid, the people I saw in politics were definitely not diverse, I didn’t see people like me in office. Instead, I think I was drawn to the idea that through politics, I could make things better for people.

How does your story, and who you are, inform your involvement in politics?

Both of my parents were teachers in economically disadvantaged areas. My parents are very civic minded and committed to their students and communities they taught. I think I learned to want to give back from them. I also, recognize that I have been very blessed. My parents will give you the shirt off their back, they are incredibly supportive and have always given me the freedom to do what I wanted to do and take risks. My parents really let me chart my own course, some people aren’t given that freedom, and I understand it’s a luxury. My mother went to college, and she was constantly looking for more and more opportunities to provide me with. I’m also blessed to have an extended family that was there for me whenever I was in anything. It was like having my own little entourage there to support me. They were there to make sure I wouldn’t fail. Although I charted my own course, I knew I could fall back on them. A lot of people don’t have that. Because I am so blessed, I feel like it’s my responsibility to try and reach back and give to other people.

What issue(s) are you currently focusing on?

Lately, I have become really passionate about access to capital for women and minority women. When people look at the high unemployment rates in Latino and African American communities, they come up with a lot of possible reasons. I think that the truth is that people hire people who look like them most of the time. I think it’s important to increase access to jobs, and access to capital for those people and communities. Our networks are segregated. It’s one of those things people want to pretend doesn’t exist. There’s also something to be said about the fact that when women entrepreneurs are given capital, they do better than their male counterparts. It’s even harder for minority women to get capital and minority men have a hard time as well. Currently, there is a focus on employment disparity in tech but not about investors and the closeness of their networks. It might not be a conscious thing, but it’s so much harder for minority women to access capital because the ones with it don’t look like them. This keeps entrepreneurs from being able to grow their businesses and create jobs for people who look like them, for people who live in their own communities- people in their networks.

Lastly, have you considered running for office?

When I was a really really young staffer, I definitely wanted to run. That was a big part of my participation. As I got more involved however, I saw how cut-throat it can be. I wanna have more money and be in a better place in my life before I run for office. I think that’s something women do more than men, but I just want to have to ask less people for money. Most people want something if they give you money, it is a corrupting part of the system. Some people want something that dovetails with something that is right, and some people do not. I will wait until I’m older, have more money, and have developed more influence on my own. I’m a big democrat, but the way the party system works, the party picks people. If you have influence, you will get picked, or you can run without that anointment from the party. The truth is, my business is marketing. For me to run, my business would be hit because people would go after it. It’s funny that you added a question about running, though. I live in Jersey City, New Jersey and it has really been blossoming and flourishing. Recently, a paper asked a woman I know, who is also in marketing, who she thought could be the female Mayor of Jersey City if they ran in the next election. She said that she thought I could be Mayor. I will not be running in 2 years, but I am so flattered. It makes me feel good, and it’s good to know that people recognize that if I run, it would not be out of vanity. It would be because I would think I can really improve things for people.

Feminism: Self Reflection is for Everybody

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As a Gender and Sexuality Studies major, I can’t help but to run with circles that praise Bell Hook’s book, Feminism is for Everybody. This summer, I have a little more time on my hands than I normally do, so I have decided to read it in order to further my personal, feminist education. The truth is, as a feminist Latina, I found it incredibly refreshing to read a book about feminism by a woman of color, a woman who took acknowledged and discussed the struggles some women face, within the movement. In my discussion of feminism with people of varying ages, education levels, and across the gender and political spectrum, I have often heard people who try to divorce classism, racism, and ability from issues of feminism. The more I have become personally entrenched in the movement, I have discovered that the truth is, as Audre Lorde puts it:

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

The personal, is political. The contingencies I face due to my identity are no more or less important than those of others. Inequality is a universal issue, and in some form, structural violence affects us all. Privilege plays a role in determining how much or how little obstacles we face in different settings, and I really appreciated the discussion of classism and racism within the feminist movement because some of the other feminist writings I have read have come from women who were white and middle class and were fortunate enough to not become marginalized within the feminist movement (at least not because of class and race).

Feminism: Self Reflection is for Everybody

In the “Consciousness Raising” chapter, hooks reflected on the idea of internalized patriarchal forces as they pertain to women. One particular quote stuck out to me:

“Without confronting internalized sexism women who picked up the feminist banner often betrayed the cause in their interactions with other women.”

This quote to me, made me more critical of my own sexist views. When I started thinking about where this discomfort stemmed from, the first thing that I looked back at, was my childhood. I am Latina, my entire family always supported me in all that I did, however patriarchal values seemed ever-present in our family gatherings (the women did domestic work, men sat at the head of the table, as the eldest granddaughter I was/am expected to serve my Abuelo his dinner when we eat with our extended family on Sunday nights, etc.) Beyond that, I’ve grown up in the United States, which remains a patriarchal society and whose media reinforces the treatment of women as “different” and “lesser” than men by dehumanizing, sexualizing and perpetuating negative stereotypes about them. That is what made me start thinking about my own actions, and how I inadvertently perpetuate the patriarchy through my sexist behavior. After all, complicity within patriarchal systems is just as harmful as the perpetuation of it through direct action!

Self-Reflection

Here’s a list of things I do (which inadvertently reinforce oppressive social structures), and reflected on why I should not partake in these behaviors:

Tying my worth to what I eat.

At first, it seems obvious that we should not tie our value to what/how/when we eat, however way too often I’ve heard and have said I was “good” because I ate healthfully all day or “bad” because I indulged in junk food. Saying those things offhandedly is harmful however, it helps to internalize the idea that what and how we eat makes us better, or worse people; when in fact, what we really mean is that it makes us better/worse at conforming to very narrow, patriarchal views of beauty.

Forgetting to ask people for their preferred pronouns.

As a feminine, cisgender woman, the way I choose to look, act and dress is stereotypical of the gender roles women are expected to fulfill. The fact that people always correctly assume my preferred gender pronouns makes me privileged. I have never been made uncomfortable by having someone use incorrect pronouns when referring to me. This privilege makes it easy for me to forget to ask other people for their pronouns, instead of assuming them. In order to become a better feminist, I must make the spaces I inhabit safe and welcoming to people of all gender identities- after all, gender equality is the goal!

Taking the gender binary for granted.

Working under the assumption that a gender binary exists, gender is discussed in terms of either male or female, which is limiting. Most writings or conversations work under this assumption by default, however the concept of the gender binary discounts people who are intersex, transgender, androgynous, gender fluid or of other identities that do not fall within the binary. The fact that this might feel like the “default”, to me and others, is a result of power dynamics and privilege that favor people who identify as either male or female.  However, in order to become a better feminist, I must do a better job of acknowledging the privileged and oppressive nature of taking this binary for granted and challenge myself to think, speak and discuss gender as a fluid spectrum (with infinite, possibilities) rather than a binary (with a mere two options.)

Getting particularly jealous of other women.

One of the most anti-feminist things I’ve ever done is compare myself to other women, or vie for the attention of men and consider other women as competitors for their attention. The fact is, that jealousy might be human, however only competing against other women for promotions, dates, compliments etc. undermines any sisterhood that may have developed between myself and the other women I interact with. This jealousy also works under the assumption that I do not or cannot compete with men or anyone who identifies as anything other than male or female. The truth is, instead of becoming jealous for the accomplishments of another woman, whether personal, professional or otherwise, I should do the feminist sisterhood justice by being happy for her and considering her accomplishment as one for all women.

In what ways do you inadvertently perpetuate sexism? How can you become a better feminist and activist? Let me know!