Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk serves Maryland's District 21 (Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties).
What is your first political memory that made you say, “I love politics.”
My community was threatened by a highway project. We organized, went to Annapolis and protested, and we stopped that road. Seeing what we could do if we spoke with a common voice gave me the politics bug.
What made you decide to run for office? There was an opportunity to join the City Council in College Park. I wanted to be more involved in the future of our community, so I ran. Starting at the local, municipal level gives you experience and starts building a network of potential volunteers and supporters that can help you should you choose to move on to other elected offices.
What advice do you have for women that are thinking of running for office? As I said above, start with running for local office and begin building a network. Local politics doesn’t require much money to run. You can print flyers at home and go out door to door to meet with your neighbors and find out what concerns them. Once you begin to serve do some soul searching to see if the sacrifices that elected office demands are really for you. The job requires you to be a public servant – always available to help your constituents. If that’s for you, then search out mentors and others that may help you prepare for the next step.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in elected office and how did you overcome it? I am an Afro-Latina woman and being a woman of color is a regular challenge. Women often struggle to be recognized and it seems we must work twice as hard to earn our place at the table. Women of color are under-represented in many arenas. When my colleagues and I launched the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus in 2014, we struggled against perceptions that our caucus was frivolous. It took several years of hard effort to finally become an officially recognized caucus and now we have 54 dues-paying members in a population of 188 legislators; that’s 25% of the total. Hard work pays off. That’s how you overcome.
What has been your proudest moment in your political career? When I won my first election to the Maryland House of Delegates I was very proud. In that race our campaign had to compete against an organized slate of incumbent office holders in a real uphill battle. Organizing a core team to advise me and help, setting up an office, recruiting volunteers, getting our message out and working closely with my family who helped tremendously – that was non-stop work but also very satisfying.
Why is it so critical, now more than ever, for Hispanic, Latina, and Afro-Latina women to get involved in politics? Simply this: if you don’t have a voice or a seat at the table your needs will be ignored. I have many constituents from all walks of life, and I strive to represent them all. But I come from a minority community that struggled and continues to struggle. So, I don’t forget that background and those needs when I help to shape policy in Maryland. Besides that, we have many children of color in our schools. These young minds need to see women in positions of authority, in positions of responsibility. They need to hear their stories so they can picture themselves in a future leadership role. That’s powerful.
What should politicians be doing better when it comes to engaging the Hispanic community? Politicians that represent Hispanic neighborhoods should strive to have at least one person on staff that speaks Spanish. And then visit those communities regularly, listen and communicate with them about government and how it affects them. That will go a long way to eliminating the stereotype that politicians only care about Hispanic communities during an election year. But it is a two-way street. Latinos need to vote in greater numbers. Stronger turnout would be noticed by the politicians who could then not afford to ignore the needs of the community.
What advice do you have for those trying to enter into politics? I know many women who are proud and loud. Women should speak up and make their voices heard when officials are considering new policies or laws. Women need to run for positions on the local Board of Education or Town or County Council to influence policy, the environment and every other factor that involves our future. Many elected state and federal officials launched their careers at the local level. Focus first on community building. Look at where you live. Do you see opportunities to improve your neighborhood? Start conversations with your neighbors. Leadership is caring about them and working for a better life for them and their children. Start small, perhaps something as simple as working to install a stop sign at a dangerous intersection that will keep children and seniors safe when crossing. With this type of foundation, you will learn how to network and how to plan. Your neighbors will learn to trust you and then, you may have an opportunity to later represent them in an elected capacity. Many of my colleagues also began their careers seeking appointments to commissions, task forces and appointed boards.
My advice is to volunteer for good causes, but do not over-promise and under-deliver. Give each volunteer position 100%. This will make a positive and lasting impression. With a proven track record, seek a mentor to help you plan next steps. Your word and your work are your legacy. Never cut corners. Put in the time to do your homework before any meeting. You are not representing just yourself. You are representing all women, all women of color, and all people of color. Seek help when you need it and offer your help when it is right to do so.
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