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What I Learned About Shame When I Ran For Office — And Won

The moral of the story is this: If you’re thinking about running for office, do it.

In December of 2017, I decided to run for City Council in my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin (a city of 70,000 best known as Justin Vernon’s hometown). We’re a beautiful city filled with trees and rivers and art and music (come visit!), but we also live in the shadow of decaying democratic institutions. In Wisconsin, gerrymandering and voter suppression have thwarted the will of the people, and we have one of the lowest electoral integrity scores in the nation. It’s painful to live with the pretense of democracy, yet feel that your voice doesn’t matter.

Still, it took a long time for me to decide that running for local office might be a way for me to make my voice heard and amplify the voices of others who feel their government refuses to listen. When a local candidate recruitment committee asked me to run, I hesitated. I worried running for office would take a lot of time (it did). I worried that if I became a public figure, I would face sexism (I did). I worried that people might say mean things about me (some did).

So, I said no.

It’s painful to live with the pretense of democracy, yet feel that your voice doesn’t matter. Click To Tweet

And then the committee asked me again. They told me that the average woman has to be asked seven times to run for office (the average man? less than once). That’s what changed my mind. I decided that my worries probably had more to do with my gender than with me, and that my anxiety was less important than our need for women in office. I talked myself down, reminding myself that oops, I was accidentally confusing a shared, public emotion (self-doubt brought about by misogyny) with a personal feeling, and proceeded.

Throughout my campaign, I experienced the trueness of the ‘60s slogan “the personal is political” in different ways — some of them surprisingly pleasant. In the past, when I’ve had to remind myself that the personal is political, it’s been painful. The personal and the political often intersect along the axis of shame and stigma. For instance, 10 years ago I had a tooth removed at a low-cost dental school clinic because I couldn’t afford a root canal. The procedure started to hurt before I even opened my mouth. Shame flared up inside me as soon as I sat down in the gray waiting room, surrounded by other people whose mouths hurt but who couldn’t afford to do much about it. The dental student used his body weight to rock my molar back and forth. While he worked, the shame of being a person who somehow let herself go all the way out of the middle class took root in my mouth.

When I experience shame, I feel like my skin turns inside out, exposing my hot, gunky insides to everyone. Intensely physical, shame feels personal: It’s easy to forget that shame is a social emotion. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes, “it may be wiser to think of shame as a relationship rather than just a feeling: a relationship of domination in which the mocking judgments of the dominant are internalized by the dominated.” As such, shame is the emotional tool of social control.

When I developed my campaign literature (postcards to send to thousands of my neighbors) I felt hot and squirmy, like I was trying to talk my way out of a speeding ticket. I created draft after draft because I couldn’t escape the feeling that I wasn’t acceptable. This surprised me. I hadn’t known I’d been toting this toxic belief around until I tried to stand out front and become a leader.

As an educated, white, straight woman, I’m privileged. The fact that even from my relative position of power, I felt the disciplining touch of shame when I presumed to lead indicates how much work we have to do to empower diverse members of our society to overcome cultural prohibitions against their leadership. Despite my privilege, shame let me know that declaring my candidacy was something I wasn’t supposed to do — certainly not without the necessary financial prerequisites. My struggles with high student debt and low income had yielded me a gig-economy shame, a millennial shame, an avocado toast shame: but it was still shame, and it still gave me sharp — painfully sharp — insight into some of the challenges were are up against as we work for social justice.

The thing about shame is you can’t entirely out-think it. As an Americanist scholar, I’m critical of the notion (popularized by those witch-hunting Puritans, and of course the Trump administration) that people who have money have it because they are worth more, morally and spiritually, than people who don’t. This belief has deep roots in the United States (roots that have wrapped themselves around our hearts, roots that can squeeze). For instance, In Stacy Schiff’s history of the Salem witch trials, she points out that widows with children (a.k.a. single moms) would often become destitute in early America. Their communities responded with cruelty and shaming. Mobs herded these families out of their houses and into the streets and then chased them to the borders of the next village so that they could become someone else’s problem. Sound familiar?

I could connect my feelings of shame with a long history of shaming as a tool for domination, but I couldn’t free myself from them. Not alone. But when I ran for office, I learned that even if you can’t out-think shame, you can out-organize it. The axis between the personal and the political is a two-way street, and shame isn’t the only thing that parades down it.

For instance: In the 16th century, English kings laid their hands on subjects to heal them. The royal touch was thought to cure scrofula, a shameful skin disease known as the “king’s evil.” I thought of this healing touch frequently during my campaign, especially when I met women in their eighties and nineties.

Often, when I shook hands with older women, they wouldn’t let me go. These women squeezed my hand tightly and held on, often for the entire length of our conversation. Sometimes they would pat my hand or draw it close to their hearts as they spoke. Many of these women told me: “We need women in office so badly.” I could feel in their touch, and hear in their voices, their yearning to be represented, and how much it meant to them that a younger woman was pursuing a path that had been closed to them.

These women voters made me realize that the mystical qualities and “healing touch” we associate with the divine right of kings (or maybe with people like Princess Di) take place in a democracy too. It’s just that the magic operates in reverse, with power moving from the people to the person who hopes to lead them.

All I had to do was file some paperwork and send my picture to the newspaper, and people started to treat me like I was something more than I believed myself to be. When people treated me like someone capable of carrying a torch through our darkening democracy, I began to feel capable of it.

The support voters transmitted to me through their warm handshakes and good wishes made me realize that I don’t have to experience myself as a narrow, singular self, fretting about her own desires and feelings, worried that she’s not enough. I can be so much more than that — we all can. And when we work together, we can trouble the roots of policies and belief systems that cause suffering, so that maybe, in the future, people don’t have to be ashamed simply because of who they are.

When people treated me like someone capable of carrying a torch through our darkening democracy, I began to feel capable of it. Click To Tweet

Running for office didn’t take away my shame. But it gave me something like what reading gave James Baldwin, who wrote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” Running for office, I saw how my shame at being the person I am (a female person with more debt than assets) could help me connect with other people to create political change, even if that change were a small one, like the opportunity to vote for a new and different kind of candidate. Early in the campaign, I decided that just getting my name on the ballot and doing the best to get my message out would be a small victory for democracy.

This spring, voters could choose to support me. They could vote for a woman who — thanks to the way shame etches memories into our bodies — will always, on some level, be sitting in a waiting room with people who are hurting and can’t afford to do much about it. They could choose to vote for me, a candidate who wouldn’t let her beautiful city forget that 43% of our school children experience poverty or low income.

They could choose to vote for me — and they did.

On April 3, 2018, I was elected to represent District 2 on Eau Claire’s City Council, along with a slate of other progressive candidates. I now have a name plate and a little microphone with a button that lights up. I’ve voted “aye” and “no.” There’s a huge learning curve — I have to learn everything from municipal finance to parliamentary procedure, so I often feel overwhelmed. But you know what? I’m not the one who decides whether I’m right for the job. Voters made their choice. They wanted my perspective and my leadership, and my perspective is inextricably tied to my experiences. The personal and the political tangle at the tables where policy decisions are made every day, and my hope is that the complexity of my feelings will help guide me toward compassionate, inclusive policymaking even while I am learning.

The moral of this story of scarlet letters and magic touches is: If you’re thinking about running for office, do it. Yes, it’s scary. It will probably draw some of your hidden vulnerabilities into focus. But these vulnerabilities are your secret powers, the keys to your connection with other people and to politics itself. They’re what make your voice urgent and necessary — and when you use your voice to serve others, you help heal democracy, and you help heal yourself.

Running for office, you learn to work with other people to harness the powerful dynamic between the personal and the political. This dynamic often hurts people, but it’s also a force that can energize a group to fight for what they believe in. It’s a force that can sustain you.

So set your intention. Take a deep breath. And run.