Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women have decided to run. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them examples of a woman who has run. The point: You can, too.
When you hear the phrase “the future of politics,” they’re talking about people like Avra Reddy. At just 19, this Illinois-native University of Wisconsin-Madison student has become the first woman in 26 years—and the first woman of color—to represent District 8 on Madison’s City Council. And like many women who’ve sought to be the first, she faced sexism and doubt along the way. Here, she talks about the women who helped pull her through and the steps to take to follow in her footsteps.
I first started to get involved in politics when I was in fourth grade. My dad and I are both night owls, and he always would watch The Colbert Report, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and then Trevor Noah. I sat with him and watched these shows, and they always talk about politics. From there, I would always ask him questions. I was really interested in the way our government worked and the way politicians function.
Then in 2016, as Donald Trump began to gain traction and popularity, I knew that I wanted to work for a Democratic candidate. I applied for a fellowship in Wisconsin through the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to work for the Hillary Clinton primaries.
I ended up moving to Wisconsin for the summer living with a host family. I was originally only supposed to stay for two weeks, but I ended up staying three months.
Fellows do basically all fieldwork, the grassroots part of a campaign. I was probably making 200 to 300 calls a day and knocking on a lot of doors. Those are the things that turn people out to vote. I really got to see how the groundwork of a campaign is laid.
I remember the feeling, as soon as Donald Trump won; it was obviously very emotional. I think it took the team that I worked with maybe about two months to regroup. After that, we were ready to move forward and decided that we wanted to fight for Democrats in the next midterm cycle. I think that’s one of the things that helped Wisconsin get where we are right now: In the midterms, we flipped our governor, our lieutenant governor, our state treasurer, and our attorney general to Democrat. That was a big turnaround for Wisconsin, which went red in 2016. I had been out every weekend canvassing with friends since I moved into my dorm.
I knew prior to coming to Wisconsin for college that the former alder in my district, Zach Wood, was not going to run again. Throughout the midterms, as I was canvassing, I was really considering running. But I also knew that it was a huge time commitment, and as a student, that’s not easy. Winning the midterms kind of solidified this idea that I wanted to run. It was such a different emotional state from losing in 2016. All of us felt like this work paid off. That mentality, and recognizing that hard work and grassroots organizing can make change, really made me want to run.
Running for this position was not easy. There were times when I did not want to continue. Even if it’s a local election, you feel a lot of pressure, and that got to me. As a young woman, I heard a lot of people doubting my ability and saying things like my opponent was more professional than I was. Just small things that get to you because you’re so used to hearing that as a woman.
It was really a matter of how to overcome that mindset and push through these negative things that were being thrown at me. I relied on my team, and I turned to women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Serena Williams, these wonderful, strong women of color who came out of situations where people thought they could not be where they are today. Turning to women like that—and recognizing that those women were consistently told that they couldn’t and they weren’t good enough—really pushed me to think that my background and who I am will get me to where I want to go.
A woman has not held this seat in 26 years. A woman of color has never held this seat. We talked about this year being the year of the woman, and seeing Congress become so much more diverse over the last midterm cycle, I think, has motivated a lot of people to vote, not just on who they think is best fit for the job but also on diversity.
People often say we should not vote based off of somebody’s identity. I would disagree. People go through experiences that define them as people and that define them in the way they think. For example, it’s really important to get a woman’s voice at the table when you talk about things like public safety because typically women deal with issues of public safety more than men.
Starting at such a young age, women are told that they can’t do things. That they’re not smart enough. That they’re not strong enough. All of this creates this mindset that women should not take risks because then it will allow them to fail, and that they should not fail. Therefore, they should play it safe. It’s important to get a seat at the table and find ways to change that.
For young women who want to get involved, it’s important to understand how the field works—how to knock doors effectively, how to make phone calls—before you get to higher level positions. We obviously have a lot of 2020 Democratic candidates coming up, so that’s a perfect opportunity to go out and canvas and win for Democrats up and down the ballot. Getting involved in local politics is equally as important; for college students and for young people, that experience that you get is invaluable. I have friends that ran for school board this year. I know county boards are a big thing, too. City council is another. It depends on your interests and where you want to invest your time.
If anything, this election taught me to take things one step at a time. I just came into a really big role, and I have big shoes to fill. If I decide to run for another term, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. We’re walking into a huge election here in Wisconsin in 2020, and just fighting for people in Madison on city council is so important to me, and so I want to take things very slowly.
I definitely want to go to law school. I’m not sure when. But I do want to go. I would love to be a lawyer and advocate for human rights and people who don’t have as large of a voice. That would be ideal for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.