In the Spring of 2017, Paula Phillips was elected to the Milwaukee Public School Board of Directors, her first elected office. A member of the She Should Run community, Paula recently chatted with us about her decision to run, life on the campaign trail, and her work to ensure every child in Milwaukee receives a quality education.
Paula, thank you so much for chatting with us today. You ran for office (and won!) in 2017. How far in advance did you make the decision to run?
I made the decision to run in the Spring of 2016. The woman that was in the seat talked to me about running. I actually said “no” a few times, but she kept asking. I’m so grateful she saw that leadership potential in me. I don’t think I would have ever done it if someone hadn’t nudged me.
After turning down the idea a few times, what finally changed your mind?
I was finishing up school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I was planning to take a consulting job when I graduated. But that April, I had a friend pass away unexpectedly and it really shifted my thinking. I wanted to live my life with the understanding that I would not be guaranteed tomorrow. Instead of thinking “Maybe I’ll run for office when I’m more settled,” I realized there is no time like the present to serve my community.
Once you decided to run, how did you prepare?
I had been involved in local politics prior to running for office, which was very helpful. I had worked in government relations at a local nonprofit organization and I had volunteered for local campaigns, so I had an idea of what it meant to run for office. But there were still things I didn’t know. I had knocked on doors before, but how do you get those lists? When is the window to get signatures to get your name on the ballot? The first thing I did was reach out to people I knew who had been involved in campaigns to start making a plan.
I also looked online for resources. I found organizations that help women or servant leaders run for office like She Should Run, Vote Run Lead, and New Politics. I liked the online element to these programs; it wasn’t a class I had to go to in person, so I could figure out how to fit into my schedule and take what I needed from them. While running for office, I also enlisted in Emerge Wisconsin. This connected me with local women who were interested in running for office and served as a great support network.
What role did your personal network (family, friends, etc.) play in your decision to run and/or your campaign?
My personal network was very important for me. My husband is in the state legislature so a) I know how hard it is to live with a candidate, but b) he also had a lot of empathy for what I was going through and what I needed from him. We also relied heavily on our parents. It’s very humbling, as an adult, to have your parents bring you food or do your laundry. We even had friends who offered to clean our bathroom! You must be willing to accept the help and also learn to ask for it when you need it.
When it came time to fundraise, I took every name in my phone and decided I would ask them for money. That was also strange; there were people in there I hadn’t talked to in-person in years. You have to get over that sense of pride and know that the worst they can say is “no.”
What were some of the challenges you faced as a candidate?
I had an opponent where we had very similar values and we were both in our late 20s. I had to really own my story, believe in my own leadership and leverage that to differentiate myself as a candidate.
I also had to walk the tightrope of being a woman running for office. When do I need to remind someone of their daughter or granddaughter for them to feel comfortable with me? When do I need to have people feel like I’m a fighter that won’t get taken advantage of? That’s not something my opponent had to do.
What were some of the opportunities you had as a candidate?
There’s something so unique about being able to meet people at their door and talk to them. When people are in their home, they are honest about what they think and how they feel because they are comfortable are there. You also get to talk to a lot of people across the aisle and find common ground with them. Then, as an elected official, you have to think about how to continue to engage in that same dialogue.
What's the best advice you received as a candidate?
Really take the time beforehand to think about who you are, what your story is, and why you believe in your own leadership. Then, be sure to come from that place when running. It’s more important for candidates to develop that confidence in who they are, rather than trying to go out and poll what’s popular in the area or latch on to something that’s going on externally.
Did you ever receive advice you didn’t agree with?
I once had a campaign meeting about what to include on my campaign literature. I got into a heated disagreement with someone who I very much trusted and respected and had sought out to be in my kitchen cabinet because I valued their advice. I understood their reasoning, but it didn’t feel like it reflected why I was running. While it was uncomfortable, because I knew why I wanted to serve, even a trusted advisor couldn’t convince me to be someone else.
Now that you’re in office, what have you learned as an elected official?
I’ve learned how valuable my life experiences have been, even before running for office. Through AmeriCorps, I worked on diverse teams and had to build consensus. I didn’t major in Political Science or Education, but through City Year, I worked in schools in Chicago and that experience has informed my work as a school board member. Studying agricultural economics helped develop my systems-based mindset and that has really helped my thought process.
Overall, I’ve learned how qualified I am for the role, where I initially didn’t feel qualified to run. I think everyone has relevant experience: if you’ve worked in teams, if you’ve done community work, if you’ve volunteered at your church, etc. Take credit for your work and leadership!
Knowing what you do now, what might you do differently?
About a month from the election, I got sick. That’s normal because you’re running yourself ragged. I think I might have tried to make more time to exercise, as a way to destress.
If you could go back, would you do it all again?
Yes. *laughs* There are days I say no, but today, I’d say yes.
Paula, thank you so much for sharing your story. Anything else you’d like members of the She Should Run community to know about running for office?
Running itself is worth it. You should run to win, of course, but know that the experience of running for office is valuable in and of itself. It connects you to your community, it builds resilience in your character, and you never know who you’re going to inspire to take that same leap.