USC Price School of Public Policy

Price student-led panel spotlights career paths of ‘Diverse Women in Elected Leadership’

February 6, 2017

(From left) Price MPA student Leslie Shim leads a conversation with City of Sierra Madre Mayor Pro Tem Rachelle Arizmendi, State Senator Holly Mitchell and Assemblymember Cristina Garcia. (Photo by Marshall Andersson)

By Matthew Kredell

Following the momentum of the Los Angeles Women’s March, students from the USC Price School of Public Policy organized a panel on diverse women in elected leadership.

The USC Price Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, in partnership with the Price Latino Student Association, on Jan. 27 brought together California State Senator Holly Mitchell, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia and City of Sierra Madre Mayor Pro Tem Rachelle Arizmendi to engage and inform students about campaigning, civic engagement and the intersectionality of gender inequality, systematic inequity and social justice.

Leslie Shim, a second-year master of public administration student and president of the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, led the discussion with questions submitted by USC Price students.

Mitchell is the fourth black woman in the California Senate since statehood in 1849, and one of only two women of color currently in the legislative body. Garcia is one of 10 Latina women in the State Assembly, but there are none in the Senate. In the legislature as a whole, only 25 percent of members are women.

“Demographics are shifting in California, and we haven’t navigated really well this conversation of who can best represent me,” Mitchell said. “I am of the mind that you don’t have to look like me to represent me, but that a diverse electorate should demand a diverse elected body based primarily on your core understanding of community issues.”

Facing unique pressures in office

The panelists explored topics such as campaigning, civic engagement and social justice. (Photo by Marshall Andersson)

None of the women ever doubted themselves or felt like imposters for being in a male-dominated arena, but Garcia admitted that she was treated differently for being a woman when she reached the state legislature.

“I definitely felt that second-class citizen for being a woman in a very different way than I had experienced before I got there,” Garcia said. “When I first ran, I was told that I wasn’t qualified as I didn’t have enough life experience because I didn’t have a husband, and that was by a woman.”

Women in elected office have more pressure to find a balance with family responsibilities. Mitchell, a single parent with a 16-year-old adopted son, realized that there is no balance between work and home life.

“That’s a bill of goods that we as women have been sold, that the scales always have to be balanced,” Mitchell said. “You never have it all perfectly even. Sometimes family trumps, and sometimes work trumps. So I think juggle is a more accurate term, and your goal is just to never let a ball come crashing down.”

Breaking new ground — and barriers

Arizmendi was the first person of color elected to the city council in Sierra Madre, a small town in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley with no stoplights or grocery stores, and a population of 11,000 that she estimates is 80 percent white. Mayoral duties rotate among the five city councilmembers.

Fear of fundraising can be a barrier for women to run for office, according to the panel. As chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Mitchell has seen how female chairs raise less money than their male counterparts in many cases. She noted that it’s important for women to get comfortable calling strangers to fundraise.

“I’ve never heard a male colleague say that the fear of fundraising almost stopped him from running,” Mitchell said.

The speakers expressed hope that there were future elected officials among the more than 50 USC students who spent their Friday night at the discussion.

“I was really interested in attending the event because it’s hard to see a panel featuring all women of color, especially in leadership positions,” said Monica Santander, a second-year master of public policy student. “It’s empowering to see women of color who ran for office, and interesting to hear what led them to their successes and that they don’t feel a lack of confidence.”