Illinois state Rep. Litesa Wallace doesn't mince words when she addresses the reason holding women of color back from running for office: Money.
"There's an economic challenge for women of color to enter into politics," she told Refinery29. "We need the economic policies that will help bring us parity. But because we often run under the existing policies, there's very few of us who are able to break those barriers and become lawmakers."
Wallace is straightforward when she talks about how obstacles such as the gender and racial wage gap, the lack of policies supporting working caretakers, and good ol' discrimination impact the pockets of women of color. In return, she said, they find themselves at a disadvantage if they want to seek elected office.
"It takes us a lot of time and a lot of resources to be a successful candidate," she said. "It's very challenging to take on running for office when your own personal finances are very limited, and they are limited because of policies that have allowed race and gender disparities to exist."
Wallace is an outspoken progressive. She's currently running for lieutenant governor of Illinois, sharing the ballot with gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss. If the duo wins, she would be the first Black woman elected to statewide office and the first Black lieutenant governor in the history of the state. But as passionate as Wallace comes across, the reality is that this lawmaker didn't originally set out to be in politics.
In fact, her heart was elsewhere just seven years ago: Wallace had always wanted to combine human services and higher education — which is why she had pursued several graduate degrees. While looking for a part-time job that would give her the flexibility to write her dissertation in 2011, she was hired by state Rep. Chuck Jefferson in the 67th District. She graduated in 2013 and started to look for a job that would allow her to pursue the path she always wanted.
But then, Jefferson retired in 2014 and Wallace realized that it was important for someone like her — a single Black mother, a domestic violence survivor, someone who as a graduate student had relied on the state's childcare assistance program — to have a seat at the table. She applied to be Jefferson's replacement and ended up being appointed to finish his term. Since then, she's been elected to the seat twice.
"I learned along the way with him and other lawmakers just how important it is advocating for policy for people who don’t have access to policy makers, for communities like my own that are marginalized. Because we're not voiceless — we're silenced," she said.
Biss and Wallace's platform embodies the idea of amplifying the voices of people without a seat at the table: They're championing policies such as universal childcare and healthcare, paid family leave, expanding voting rights, reforming the property tax system, and fixing the Illinois' school funding system. Of course, their progressive values show a shift in the types of policies the Democratic party stands for.
How much talent could be have in the halls of our state capitol and other elected offices all across the nation that we can't tap into because those women don't have the support they need?
For Wallace, that change is necessary. She said, "Are we going to continue to be middle-of-the-road, moderate Democrats? Where some things work for some communities and other communities continue to be left out? Or are we going to inform the party and move it in a more progressive direction, where everyone is included?"
Wallace said she has pushed so hard during her time as a state representative for policies that benefit everyone, and plans to do the same if elected as lieutenant governor, because she wants the world to be a better place for her children.
"Being a mother is what drives me to do the things that I do, so I can provided a better future for her son and foster son," she said. "That's what gives me the energy and the motivation."
But she also recognized she deals with a lot of "mom guilt" because her role as a lawmaker, and now her campaign, takes her away from her children. When we spoke, she was in Springfield for the legislative session, while her sons were at home in Rockford — something that often weighs on her mind. Thankfully, she has a support system including her mother, sister, and extended family to help her take care of them — but she knows that's not the case for a lot of women.
"If I didn't have that support, I'm absolutely certain I would not be able to be a lawmaker. And that's true for a lot of women," she said. "How much talent could we have in the halls of our state capitol and other elected offices all across the nation that we can't tap into because those women don't have the support they need?"
"Having lived certain circumstances helps in our fight for policies that make it okay for women to do what they need to do to balance work and family," she said. "And that's very true for other issues as well: You have people that have lived with disabilities and, if they're able to be there as lawmakers, that changes what disability policies look like. Or people who have survived various forms of health issues, that changes the type of healthcare policies we put out there."
She added, "For them, policy is not theoretical. It's real and it impacts their lives. They understand it and will advocate for issues in a way that other people can't. Empathy only goes so far."
2018 will see an unprecedented number of female candidates in ballots across the country. More than 500 women are currently running for the House, Senate, or governorships— and that's without taking into account the number of candidates vying for local and statewide seats. Refinery29 is committed to spotlight female candidates, but particularly women of color, who have risen up to the challenge to say: "It's our turn."
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