Lessons Learned as a 34 Year Old Woman Running for Office

| by Colleen Fanning |

[Editors’ Note: For the SYS team, the personal is always political. We are thrilled to share the story of a woman standing proud as a political candidate because of her personal beliefs. Colleen Fanning is a brilliant, passionate Indianapolis resident and business owner, and we are absolutely impressed with her authentic story of being a woman in politics. The importance of uplifting and electing female candidates cannot be overstated. The reality is that women comprise a meager 17% of the seats in U.S. Congress and in our home state of Indiana, just 21% of the seats in the General Assembly. Just like women will never be equal if our stories and voices aren’t heard and valued, without equal representation, the issues uniquely affecting women will never be truly addressed. We promise to continue lifting the personal stories of women in politics until we are equally represented and heard.]

1. You will have detractors.

No matter how thoughtful, prepared, open or kind you are, there will be a significant amount of critics. These haters take a strange amount of pleasure from knocking you on your haunches, often for unsubstantiated or shallow reasons. Recently, I was categorically dismissed on a social media page by an older gentleman for being “unqualified for office.” To be clear, the office I am seeking is Indianapolis City-County Council. Not POTUS. While every bone in my body wants to defend my qualifications, business experience, and the 11 years I’ve spent in my neighborhood giving the proverbial damn, it simply isn’t worth the energy. You just can’t please everyone. That’s okay.

2. Campaign funding is insanity.

When I was first told how much I would have to raise to be in this race, I was appalled. Incredulous. To even have a chance to win I needed to raise 50-60K. To put that in perspective, that is roughly the median household income for an Indianapolis family (the actual number is $52,268 for 2014, according to the Dept. of Numbers). Excuse me? As a frugal small business owner intimately familiar with pinching pennies both professionally and personally, this continues to be a frightening concept. I can’t help but play “what if” games and daydream about what we could do with that money if it didn’t need to be spent on campaign ads and direct mail. Early Childhood Education? Better technology for our law enforcement officers? Sustainable transit investments? Heck, I’d settle for road maintenance. I hope to be a part of the process that can change the way we campaign and how much money needs to be involved.

3. Politics is a foreign world.

As a political rookie, feeling like an outsider comes with the territory. I had not worked tirelessly on campaigns or even made a single political contribution before deciding to run. There is an entire political underworld in Indianapolis (as in every city). This world is replete with its own players, lexicon, funding sources, hangouts, and yes–scandals. In my experience, political people (I’ve started called them PoPeeps in my head) are adrenaline junkies who love a fierce idiological debate as much as I love chocolate cake or rescue animals. Winning and losing is part of the cycle, and election results make for strange bedfellows and unholy alliances. Special interests and corporations are intimately entwined (shocker!) with the political machinations of every race, from City Council to Governor and beyond. I take it all with a shaker of salt; it can be mercifully humorous. Sometimes I still feel as if I am trapped on the set of a Will Ferrell movie. Did he just say that? Oh, they are talking about me! How did I get here again? I wanted to help my nieghborhood, and then…. BAM!

4. Be a woman, but not too much!

As a female business owner (I bought my first business at 24), I’m used to the whole “woman in a man’s world” paradigm. I typically find it energizing and I’ve always enjoyed the added challenge of being underestimated and prematurely written off. Enter the political arena, and things get much messier. Be feminine, but not weak. Charming, but not adorable. Attractive, but not (gasp!) sexy. Confident, but not bitchy or ungrateful. Funny, but not so funny you don’t come off as serious. Smart, but not so smart you make people around you feel inferior. I’ve endured lots of mild sexism and general inappropriateness. In the business world, it has been easier to just say no or set what I consider a reasonable boundary. When everyone is a potential vote, however, it changes things. Little ripples can turn into tidal waves, so every movement must be thoughtfully considered for both short-term and long-term repercussions. It can be utterly exhausting.

5. Political experience is a slippery slope.

There is an old adage, “there are 2 types of people in politics, those who want to be someone and those who want to do something.” My experience is this; there are some very hardworking people in politics that are there for the right reasons. Let me be clear, there is only one right reason, and it is to be a representative and effective voice for your constituents. Every other reason is unacceptable. It comes as no surprise to me that there are many people in politics who are trying to be someone (powerful, rich, famous) rather than trying to affect change. My lack of political experience has generally garnered a positive reaction. Though my opponent points to my neophyte status as a weakness, I’m confident that it is my biggest strength. I don’t have the lens that sees people as Democrat Diane, Independent Irene, Republican Ryan or Libertarian Levi because I come from the business world. This allows me to evaluate ideas based solely on their costs and benefits instead of authorship, intention or strategy. What a strength this will be when helping my city and representing disparate points of view.

6. It takes a network.

I am in awe of how many people have stepped up to support this campaign. Wearing a t-shirt, donating $25, hosting an event, knocking on doors, making cold calls… the process is cumbersome, tiresome, and well outside most comfort zones. True blue supporters, from every political affiliation and background, have brought me incessant and surprising bouts of humility, gratitude, and appreciation. They are tireless. They are endlessly optimistic. They are excited to walk door-to-door in 45 degree rain. I’ve had old teachers and coaches reach out and tell me how proud they are. I’ve had high-school students tell me they admire me for putting myself out there. Endless women have thanked me for running and being a female voice. There have been hundreds of Hallmark tear-in-the-eye moments. It has been utterly priceless and absolutely energizing.

7. Discomfort is the new normal.

Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I love change. I don’t mind putting myself out there in ways that many people would find anxiety-inducing or even torturous.  I always thought of myself as having a huge comfort zone. Then I ran for office. The easiest way to describe how much sheer awkwardness is involved in campaigning (for yourself!) is to say that discomfort is my new normal. Say something that will ruffle feathers? I’ve already done that 18 times today. Before breakfast. Have a conversation through a door-chain with a man wearing no pants? Check. Been compared to Bernie Sanders? Uh huh. Been avoided by friends for declaring myself part of a political party? Yep (the friend label has become necessarily iterative). Crack a joke to the entirely wrong audience? Dozens of times. The good news is this: after campaigning for yourself, pretty much nothing is scary.

8. Authenticity is the only way.

I’ve learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that authenticity is compelling. People can disagree with your words, your ideas, your viewpoints, but anyone is receptive to someone living her truth and being who she is in her heart of hearts. I’ve had to remind myself of this anytime I feel inferior, put-down, or out of my wheelhouse. Lack of authenticity is why people generally dislike politicians. This is why it is difficult to imagine I will have a long political career, as I’m a terrible liar and perhaps pathologically honest. It’s a good thing that is not my goal. It will be an interesting experiment, nonetheless.

Win or lose – and make no mistake, I plan to win – this campaign has been an experience of exponential growth. I’m proud to be a younger female voice in such an unrepresentative segment of society. I hope my campaign has spurred other women on to follow suit. So many of our voices need to be heard. So many of us are more than capable for speaking for our people, whether it is a neighborhood or any other tribe which you claim. Affecting change is all about doing something you’ve never done to get a new result. Be brave; it is worth it.

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