A photo of Sarah Stankorb, a white woman with brown hair wearing a red dress

First Person

Running for Office Helped Me Find My Voice

A neurological condition affected her speech, but one woman found the courage to run for office so she could be a voice for her community.

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We’d bussed through weirdly muggy Ohio winter weather to join the Women’s March on Washington. on January 22, 2017. Moved by an impulse to take charge of something—anything—I’d volunteered as bus captain for the trip from Cincinnati, Ohio to Washington, D.C. the day after Trump’s inauguration. This entailed simply counting heads and raising my faltering voice over a crowd of boisterous women to detail bathroom breaks and meet-up instructions. I was unsure if anyone heard me, but we all made it back between rest stops. History called, after all.

At the march, I shouted rally cries alongside a crush of women in pink knit hats. My own voice quaked, the result of a neurological condition called dystonia, which affects my movements and the quality of my voice. As I cracked through, “We will not go away, welcome to your first day!,” the gaps in my voice were filled in by the others’, and for those moments, demanding better for our country, for once, I didn’t care about the sound of my voice.

Back home, our city became a storm of women activated by national and local issues—we now populated Indivisible, United We Stand, and Together We Will groups. Like many, during Trump’s first year in office, I craved new political leadership, at any level. Two friends considered running for school board, and it was stirring to see them grow and stretch into candidates. I suggested other friends run for city council in my hometown of Wyoming, Ohio—none could, due to work, kids, care-taking for older parents. A few told me “You should run.” I laughed at the thought of stump speeches in my warbling tones. People like me don’t run for office, I thought.

But then life became the series of crises I can now just remember in snapshots.

The Affordable Care Act came under threat, and I had to explain to my asthmatic son the meaning of “pre-existing conditions.” He worried about his friend’s heart defect. I considered my own expensive treatments. Late-night talk-show hosts wept.

Governor John Kasich signed a bill into law that opened college campuses, day cares, workplace parking lots, and locked cars in school zones to concealed-carry of firearms. The law also allowed cities to expand concealed carry on municipal properties. In turn, our city council expanded concealed-carry on some municipal properties here—then rescinded it after the community loudly objected. I, along with most of the women I knew, were spending hours a day organizing and responding to other people’s decisions, but with little say ourselves.

I was so frustrated that I began trying to picture what it would mean to run for office, any office, and even mentioned my thoughts of running to a man I barely knew who has been in local politics for decades. Just knowing what he could see—and hear—of me he told me that I clearly wasn’t tough enough. He shook his head, “No, no. That’s not for you.” He thought he was doing me a favor.

And I suppose he did do me a favor in a way, because I’d be damned if I was going to let him tell me what I could or could not be. So I finally picked up a petition at our Board of Elections for city council in our small city. It gave me a sense of power, that act of asserting that my voice was worth hearing.

It was exhilarating, but it was also terrifying.

As I was busy feeling bold, ordering T-shirts and palm cards, there was a national unraveling, a hold-your-breath, this can’t be happening in 2017 emboldening of old bigotries that culminated in a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, inevitably led to violence, with 19 injuries and the death of anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer. I found myself having to define “neo-Nazi” for my children. I told them we must fight intolerance—a gentle, kid-friendly word for what felt like a national spiral into toxic white supremacy and fascism. My voice shook, not from nerves, but from outrage.

My little city council race, in some ways, became a proxy battle against everything I could not control nationally. I wanted to provoke grand change. After our kids were in bed, I stayed up with my husband, me perched on the raised hearth of our fireplace, practicing my speech, learning to articulate the potential I see for our Midwestern city and why I should be trusted to help get us there. Just his familiar eyes on me, my cheeks burned. “I hate this,” I told him—loathing the sound of my voice trying to command a room.

He raised his eyebrows. “This is part of leadership. Stop thinking about how you sound. You know what you want to say.” He held my eyes. “You can do this. Try again.”

The campaign was a swirl of personal interrogation: How old are you? How old are your children? Do you have a job? A real job? Do you have time for this? What are your thoughts on evolution? Science? God? But there were also very specific, job-related questions: My taxes are too high—I’m not sure I can continue to live here. How can you make it more affordable? You say you want to grow our small businesses, how? We’re seeing frequent flooding. What are your ideas for mitigating stormwater runoff?

One man scheduled a phone interview to question me, just to determine whether I could earn his individual vote. Another woman scheduled a time for me to sit on her porch and answer her questions. I admired their moxy, their sense that their votes had better be worth my time.

I knocked on hundreds of doors, sat on porches, and really learned my city through hours and hours of questions and hearing people’s stories. And as a result, I plunged into more hours of study each day. If I didn’t have an answer (hypothetically, how much would it cost to bury all our power lines?), I’d look it up and get back to the resident. It was trial by rapid-fire question, and for someone who interviews others for a living, the role reversal, being held under scrutiny, such as doing an hour-long interview straight to Facebook live, pushed me farther—and more uncomfortably—into the spotlight than I’d ever before ventured.

I had to if I wanted to understand what it would mean to represent my city.

I spent Election Day outside polling places, shaking hands, walking up to strangers and asking for votes. It rained from 6 a.m. on. I was soaked, cold, and manic with nerves. Volunteers rotated around our precincts telling people why they trust me, why they voted for me, which is among the most humbling experiences of my life. By the end of the day, most candidates clustered in the rain outside our largest polling place. We mostly joked around together, our campaigns nearly done. I was giddy. I’d always loved Election Day, at least until 2016, but the old hope was returning.

Our race with its roughly three-thousand voters was small, too small to run in a crawler even on the local news. So my friends gathered at my house—we had laptops and cell phones to track results and a long table full of pies to eat. I figured if we won or lost, pie would be necessary. For a few tense hours we hit refresh on the computers, and in the first results from the absentee count, I was near the bottom. After all that work, I wondered what I’d done wrong. Whom I’d missed. With the next round of results I jumped to third, which is where I stayed; the top seven would win. A friend running for school board won her race too as the final numbers came in. I called her. We screamed indecipherably and cried.

I checked results for other women locally around the country who I’d known were running for the first time, the start of the Pink Wave. Some lost a fight that was worth having. Many celebrated victories. For a night, it felt as though we’d won a battle.

In December, I was sworn in, decked in a white dress (a nod to my suffragette predecessors) and sensible blue blazer, optimistic that in my two-year term I’d be able to enact a laundry list of plans. My raised right hand trembled—those irascible nerves—as I pledged an oath to uphold city ordinances and the constitution.

Like every other callow pol before me, I learned quickly how much governing means weighing one’s response to daily controversies—backyard issues involving trees, fences, and speed bumps. That’s not to say these issues are unimportant; they shape the contours of people’s community, their homes. If we succeed, do our very best, people live their lives without thinking much about us at all.

I try to imagine a world where one could live unencumbered by worry over national politics.

In February, my workday was interrupted with alerts of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Again, I knew I’d have to explain violence to my kids, hear from them how they practiced avoiding being slain in their school drills. As my belly filled with familiar grief over more lost children, an email pinged in from a young woman in my city. She wanted better background checks, tighter gun laws. What could I do? I can’t shape state or federal law. But I connected her with a friend from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Within weeks that young woman was planning Cincinnati’s March for Our Lives—not because of me. She would have wound up there anyway. But watching her pulling together youth from around the area, I saw a truth: We can shift power by helping one another find others with whom to link arms. As we marched, my voice echoed their rally cries.

But just months later there was another wave of moral crisis and collective shock, as border detainment and family separation dominated headlines. In Ohio, ICE workplace raids resulted in other parents separated from their kids.

My kids asked why? I could give them no satisfactory answer.

As our national leaders fought over the definition of “cage,” a friend suggested we hold a lemonade stand, something for our kids to do, a way to raise money to cover rent for local families whose breadwinners have been detained. Organizing it felt like a small thing to do—gathering powdered lemonade mix and cookies isn’t exactly the work of statecraft—but standing alongside a dozen kids shouting, “Help families!” felt like a gentle miracle. They raised over $2,000 in two hours. There was power in their efforts—little voices asserting this is wrong. I want to help.

Another lesson: Many little voices have strength together.

I now live in a bridge space where my everyday political life is by necessity bipartisan and hyperlocal, while national news pings through my phone in hourly, noxious waves. I flip between working with reasonable, ideologically different people who I can count as friends to frank disgust over Trump and national leaders who be-pretzel themselves to insist he meant what he didn’t and that the emperor still has his clothes.

My voice, shaky as always, matters not because I’ve achieved some sort of abiding political influence, but because I’ve learned to use whatever noise I can muster to amplify other people fighting for good.

So much is broken. Somehow, it’s made our collective voices stronger. We’re becoming better human megaphones.

I wonder at how we got here—with political parties that voters aren’t sure mirror their interests and representatives drawn from connect-the-dots maps arranged to ensure the most extreme candidate wins. Here, in our small city, representation feels so much purer, because if there’s a problem, we hear about it over donuts or in school pickup or just walking down the street. We get an earful anywhere we go. I now believe this is how representative democracy is supposed to work, each of us with our strong opinions forced to be reasonable by the constant pressure of our neighbors, all of us tethered together.

When all of us demand a voice, the collective scramble toward reason drowns out the barking extreme.

And still new candidates keep emerging, people—many, women—willing to put themselves forward for scrutiny by their neighbors because their convictions require they speak up. I keep meeting women who had their own reasons why they never before considered running for office: people who look like them rarely win in their area, or they are busy single mothers, too young, too old, low-income, still paying off student loans, religiously diverse or atheist, too busy with work and family and a million other reasons. And then they do it anyway, because our times demand it. This new wave of leadership is less about career than calling—less about maintaining personal power than demanding a voice, as we learn to represent our neighbors and what America could be, when this moment is done.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a speech at a local Moms Demand Action meeting. I was up after a long list of candidates—mostly women—who are running for office in the fall. It felt good, not being in the midst of a campaign, that flurry of effort to land votes that already feels so distant. Instead, I stood to talk about why it’s important to volunteer for these campaigns, as practice, looking ahead to 2019, because there will be over 250 local seats open around our county. I wanted the people in that room to learn how to run now, because next year, they should run too.

There was joy in standing there, asking others to stand up, because I was no longer thinking about my voice. I was now calling for theirs.

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