She’s 16 and Wants to Be President: Meet the Teenagers Planning Their Campaigns

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Abby Cumming-Vukovic is going to be a state representative. You can quote her on that.

She is 16, yes. She is a high school sophomore, yes. But she already has more than a decade of political engagement behind her, if you start with the 2008 canvassing trip she took in a wagon pulled by her mother.

“President is the ultimate goal,” she said. “Of course.”

If this is an unusual proclamation for a teenager, you would not have known it last month at the Young Women Run Columbus conference, hosted by Ignite, a group dedicated to getting young women involved in politics. The attendees, from high schools and colleges across Ohio, want to be City Council members, county commissioners, state senators and congresswomen. And if they don’t want to be the first woman to lead the country, it’s only because they would rather be the third.

“I remember being in second grade and looking at a poster of all the U.S. presidents and wondering why there wasn’t a woman,” said Haley Zaker, 17, a high school senior in Lancaster. “I would joke about being the first female president. But I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I’m not eligible to run for president until 2040.”

This is the vanguard of the next wave of American leaders: young women who have already resolved, before some of them can vote, that one day people will vote for them.

They are part of the first generation in which women appear to be more likely than their male peers to be engaged in politics, according to Melissa Deckman, a political scientist at Washington College who is researching Generation Z and has worked with Ignite. And advocates are seizing on this trend, because for all the progress women made in last year’s elections, the numbers are still sobering. If women’s representation in American government kept increasing at the rate it has over the past decade, it would take more than 100 years to reach gender parity.

Ignite thinks the key is hooking women sooner. The goal, made explicit in a segment of the conference called “Declare Your Ambition,” is to build a generation of women who are “flexing their political power and normalizing political ambition,” said Anne Moses, the group’s founder and president.

Kira Jones, 18, wants to run for local office. Cameron Tiefenthaler, 17, wants to run for the Ohio House or for Congress. One Ohio State University sophomore leapt out of her chair and shouted across the room: “My name is Kelsey Lowman, and I am going to be a United States congresswoman!”

In an interview later, Ms. Lowman, 19, said she had not completely made up her mind. But, she said, “I refuse to be meek about saying, ‘Maybe I’ll run for public office,’ because then people grab a hold of that and they want to make you feel small.”

Similarly, many women went into the conference unsure about running. But after holding a mock legislative debate, dividing into groups to practice lobbying, and having lunch with more than a dozen women who hold or are running for office in Ohio, several said they were considering it more seriously.

Ms. Jones, a first-year at Ohio State, said listening to the officeholders had piqued her interest. She wants to be an environmental lawyer, she said, but she has come to realize that in many cases, it is possible to serve in office and have another career too.

“A lot of the women who are in that room did not intend to become politicians or did not initially envision themselves as becoming politicians,” Ms. Jones said.

The students drawn to the conference were overwhelmingly Democrats, as is true of most of Ignite’s programs, despite efforts by the group, which is nonpartisan, to recruit more Republicans.

There are systemic reasons for this. Some Republican women say they don’t trust that nonpartisan groups will actually welcome them. Others are wary of recruitment on principle, arguing that the best politicians are those who come to politics on their own. And the imbalance has only intensified under President Trump because of how many young, liberal women his election drew into politics.

Shradha Parekh, 21, a senior at Ohio State, said the 2016 election had made her realize “how much policies affect my life and the lives of the people I care about.” In 2018, Ignite chose her as its Columbus fellow, and she has spent the past year helping to start chapters at colleges throughout Ohio.

The experience has “empowered me as a woman and a woman of color to find my place in politics, because as we all know, that’s not necessarily a very welcoming space,” Ms. Parekh said. “Ignite has really changed my view on, yes, I do belong here in politics and I should get a seat at the table.”

For Ms. Zaker, the 2016 campaign coincided with an eighth-grade history class heavily focused on government. She said it was invigorating to realize that when her teacher discussed current events, she knew what he was talking about and could engage.

“He took my opinion seriously, and that made me venture into politics more, the idea of an adult valuing you and making you seem like your opinion matters,” she said.

Ms. Zaker founded a chapter of Students Demand Action, a branch of Everytown for Gun Safety, at her school and enrolled in a mock state government program, Buckeye Girls State. She wants to run for Congress — at least until the presidency is an option — and the prospect “seems more tangible now,” she said. “It seems like something I can actually achieve if I want to work for it.”

A few attendees had been interested in politics for years. “As long as I can remember,” said Ms. Cumming-Vukovic, from Westerville, who lost her first tooth at an Obama rally and walked out of a seventh-grade history class after an anti-Black Lives Matter presentation. Others said they had long been active in their communities but were now delving deeper into electoral politics.

Shayanna Hinkle-Moore, 19, a first-year student at Ohio State, spent several years fighting to build sidewalks near her Columbus high school and others so students would not have to thread dangerously through traffic.

She and a handful of classmates mobilized neighbors and church members and secured $2.5 million a year in city funding. Now, she is working with city and county officials to connect the sidewalk project to a bridge project.

“I never thought this could be possible,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like, ‘Wow, look at little old me doing something big.’”

For Sydnee Brown, also 19 and a first-year at Ohio State, the turning point was when school officials in her hometown, in the Dallas area, forbid student journalists to cover a gun violence walkout. With New Voices, a student press freedom organization, she lobbied Texas legislators and was asked to testify before a State Senate committee.

Ms. Brown is not sure whether she wants to go into politics or journalism, but the allure of elected office is strong.

“They have the ability to actually make the decisions and change the policy,” she said.

Ignite, like many other advocacy groups, is also trying to combat the entrenched idea that women, especially young women, should “wait their turn” to enter politics.

In a keynote address, Mónica Ramírez, president of Justice for Migrant Women and founder of Esperanza, an immigrant women’s rights initiative at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the students: “You are not our leaders of tomorrow. You are our leaders of today.” Then she instructed them to stand and chant, “I am enough, and I am what this world needs.”

“That was life-changing,” said Maddy Garber, 16, a high school junior in Lancaster who wants to serve in Congress and eventually run for president.

“You’re kind of told from a young age, especially as a woman and a girl: ‘You aren’t good enough to run for president. There’s never been one. Why should there?’” Ms. Garber said. “You just have to remind yourself you are enough. You are worth as much as you want to give.”

Researchers and advocates have long understood that representation, in gender and race, begets more representation: More women and people of color getting elected, for example, will encourage more women and people of color to run. The same is, in theory, true of young people.

“I think it’s about breaking the cycle,” said Jenna Fawcett, 20, a junior at Wilmington College in southwestern Ohio who started an Ignite chapter there. “I think that young people are afraid or not ready to run for office because they don’t see a lot of young people. So if we just get the brave few that are ready to do it and stepping up, which I think we are seeing more and more, that’ll encourage it.”

To an extent, what groups like Ignite are doing is harnessing the organic energy of a generation that has grown up under multiple existential threats.

It is not a coincidence that, according to research by Ignite and Dr. Deckman, members of Generation Z rank climate change and gun violence as top issues. The urgency of these threats has primed many of them to get involved in politics — and now, they are reaching the age where they can.

“If I would have known about this program even a week ago, I’m sure I would have had at least 10 of my classmates join me,” said Ms. Tiefenthaler, a senior at Columbus School for Girls who signed up at the last minute.

“You’ve seen the school walkouts. You’ve seen our participation at marches and at rallies,” she said. “I think that’s just going to continue to build, because we know that the world in 30 years, 40 years, is going to be ours.”

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