Cecilia Muñoz served for eight years on President Obama's senior staff, becoming the nation’s longest-serving Director of the Domestic Policy Council. Before the White House, she served for 20 years at the National Council of La Raza (now UNIDOS US), and earned a MacArthur Fellowship for her work on immigration and civil rights. She is now the Vice President for Public Interest Technology and Local Initiatives at New America and author of the new book More Than Ready: Be Strong, Be You… And Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise.
What inspired you to write your new book, More Than Ready: Be Strong and Be You . . . and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise.
Through the course of my career, from 20 years at a civil rights organization to 8 years in the Obama White House, I have experienced and observed the challenges that women of color face in the workplace and beyond. Many of us struggle with the same things, like the moments that we doubt ourselves or notice that the people around us doubt that we are qualified to do what we do. I spoke with 7 wonderful women of color who have achieved great things and learned that we all adopt similar strategies. We do the work. We are ultra-prepared. We carry specific challenges when we are the only person like us in the room or the first to occupy our particular jobs. I wrote the book to share these stories and the lessons we learned in order to remind other women, especially women of color, to recognize ourselves for the leaders that we already are, and bring that confidence into the room.
What is your first political memory that made you say, “I love politics.”
We talked about politics and public policy all the time when I was growing up; my dad was the kind of guy who carried postcards in his pocket addressed to his Congressmember and urged his co-workers to sign them. My parents are immigrants from a very poor country, and I grew up understanding that coming to this country made a lot of things possible for us. My career has been about trying to make those things - a good education, access to health care, and financial security, available to everyone in this country.
We talk a lot about being the only Brown girls in the room at The BGG. You have often been the only Latina at the table and sometimes the first Latina to serve in a role. What advice do you have for the Brown girls that find themselves in the same position?
This comes up a lot in More Than Ready, that so many of us feel the weight of being the first woman like ourselves in a particular role, or the only one in the room. It means that we’re constantly calibrating whether we are pushing too hard or not enough, constantly assessing whether we are having an impact, worrying that, if we make a mistake, we will prove to those who doubt us that they were right. Our mistakes feel like they don’t just belong to us as individuals; when I was the only Latina in the room, I felt like my mistakes might reflect on all of us.
One of the stories I tell in More Than Ready is of the time when I was promoted to a senior White House job and the outgoing Chief of Staff said publicly that he had objected. I was the first Latina ever to serve in that role, and the clear implication was that he thought I wasn’t qualified. The women who shared their stories with me had similar experiences, of being told that they weren’t “management material.” That costs us jobs, and it costs us confidence. One of the reasons that I wrote the book was to give a reminder that these experiences are common, and they rob the country of the talent that we desperately need, especially right now. It’s utterly unfair that we have to overprepare and overproduce, just to compensate for the low expectations of others. But the truth is that they need us. And if we can walk in the room with the confidence of knowing that, it makes a big difference.
You have had such a phenomenal career. What has been one of your proudest moments?
I am fortunate in that I have had the privilege of participating in teams that have accomplished big things, like the Affordable Care Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act, the effort to legalize gay marriage, and DACA. But I tend to treasure the accomplishments that nobody sees or celebrates, like the door that opened for a mentee, or the team that accomplished a big goal together, sharing the credit.
Why is it so critical, now more than ever, for women of color to get involved in politics and exercise their political power?
The decisions that affect our lives are made by people who don’t understand or appreciate us, which means that we miss opportunities to make the country a more just and equitable place. I spend a lot of time assessing the ways that even policies that are supposed to be helpful don’t actually reach people, and it’s so clear to me that this has a lot to do with the fact that we aren’t the ones making those policies. We are more than up to the challenge; it’s time to change things.
What is the one key piece of advice you hope everyone walks with away from your reading book?
I hope that the person who reads More Than Ready comes out of the experience with a strong sense that, whatever room she is in, whoever she is with, she is adding value just by virtue of her presence and the experience she brings into the room. The people around her may or may not understand that they need what she brings, but they do. And she is more than ready to bring it.
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