The Brave Story series features different personalities that have demonstrated courage and commitment to a cause, an initiative, or movement. We share their stories hoping that their journey and the lessons they learned along the way can serve as motivation and inspiration to us all in whatever path we choose, personally or professionally.
In 2018 I worked on my first, and last political campaign. It was hands down one of the most difficult jobs I’ve ever had. The candidate was Poppy Sias-Hernandez, a brilliant Latina public servant living in Muskegon, Michigan set on winning the state senate seat. She’s currently working alongside another woman from Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, or “That woman from Michigan” as President Trump likes to refer to her.
Although Poppy didn’t win the senate seat, she’s currently working as a regional director of community affairs for the Whitmer administration. In this position, she has been advocating for equity & social justice throughout her community of West Michigan. Poppy answered questions about being a female candidate, losing gracefully, and being the first with transparency and authenticity. Two things that are often difficult to get from politicians.
What are some of the personal and professional challenges that come with being “The First”?
Being the first is tough because there is no precedent so the bar is high. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to do everything perfectly. I also think it created a dynamic where I felt a lot of pressure to hold all of the hopes and expectations of “my people”- I was expected to elevate my racial identity pride above all else and while I live deeply rooted in that pride- running a campaign requires strategic and intentional communications and messaging. Also-Being the first is not new to me- I was the first in my family to graduate from college- the first to escape the cycle of addiction – the first to partner and raise our family as a unit. So it’s not that I’m not familiar with the challenges of being the first- but essential to my experiences of navigating this dynamic has been my commitment to asking for and receiving essential mentoring from women who have walked the path before me. In the case of running for the senate- there was no one I could look to for this who had the lived experience. I leaned on my people but often they had no context for what I was going through. Although I was constantly surrounded by people, I often felt quite alone. I had to be intentional in staying connected to my family and my sisters/circle of women.
Share one thing that surprised you about being “The Candidate”.
I was surprised by how much hope my candidacy inspired! My run made people feel that a new way was possible. They happily and eagerly volunteered and donated money. I was also surprised by how dependent I was on my team. The candidate gets pulled in so many directions all day every day. The team makes the impossible – possible. Also- people want to hear your ideas and they want you to both listen and lead!
What were some of the more difficult aspects of being “The Candidate”
Being so dependent on my team. I am fiercely independent- it was an adjustment to depend on people for so many aspects of my daily life. Running as a novice- I had no political experience so the learning curve was steep. The loss of time spent with my family – this hit hard. I don’t know how candidates do it with small children. My boys were young adults and they were fine but I missed our way of life- of being together for family meals and late-night talks.
What’s one thing people don’t know about running for office?
It’s a simple equation- raise money and knock on doors. To win votes one must win people’s confidence in your ability to serve. To do this you have to be 100% confident in yourself. The thing people should know about running for office is that you will both learn more about others than you thought possible and you will learn about yourself. It is both exhilarating and terrifying!! Knocking on doors and asking for donations taught me to believe in so many possibilities! Also, this may be obvious to many but- candidates must be comfortable with a high level of visibility. I have always been confident in my abilities but it hits different when there is a spotlight on you. Be prepared to be seen- all the time.
How would you say being a female candidate is different as far as the campaign?
Female candidates have to constantly qualify. It is infuriating! I have a master’s level education. I’ve worked in public health, public education, and the private sector. I’ve had a long career of leading successful multi-sector initiatives. My opponent was a high school graduate who inherited his family’s construction business. I was counseled to downplay my education. I was constantly challenged on whether or not I was qualified to serve. It was a constant tightrope of communicating my credentials without sounding like an elitist. Also- the persistent focus on my physical appearance was exhausting! Who knew lipstick and the proper fitting blazer could matter so much?! I am 100% confident that my opponent gave very little attention to his physical appearance.
Tips for losing gracefully?
It is essential to redefine what it means to win without changing the external messaging of what it means to win. I focused on the essential components of a winning campaign and built that. I believe that even when we don’t win the seat- we can win so many other things. In my case, I believe there are many women of color in my community who are considering running for office because my run made it a viable possibility for them. Also- it’s important to focus on “what stays.” I ran because I believe in what is possible with good government. A lost campaign is not a loss of the possibility of good government. Even when I knew I wouldn’t be the next senator for my district, I was confident that I would continue to serve and be an advocate in my community.
Share one piece of advice for someone interested in running for office.
Get yourself a team of people who love you deeply and ask them to get on board with getting you elected. Also- immediately adopt the philosophy of “never say die!” I completely surrendered to my ridiculously competitive nature. Once I decided to run, there was no pumping the breaks- I was “all in” and I needed my people to be with me. Also- do your research before you decide. I recommend the awesome resource of VoteRunLead- they are dedicated to supporting women who are interested in running for office. Know that the buck stops with you- it’s your campaign and it should reflect your values in all things. Don’t let yourself be talked out of things that feel important to you. Campaigns are magnets for armchair experts- everyone wants to tell you what to do but you alone will be accountable for the results. You have a team but your name alone is on the ballot- hold sacred that responsibility. I know that was more than one piece of advice – welcome to running for office!
What does being brave mean in your eyes?
Being brave means trusting that (as my Texas friend says), “you are alright already!” If you are seriously contemplating a run and you have a college degree and professional experience solving problems, you are likely more qualified than many of the men currently serving as elected officials. Being brave means not just quietly and comfortably knowing your value, but emphatically stating it! Like literally- taking the mic that is spontaneously handed to you and articulating ideas that are innovative and smart and rooted in your lived experience and commitment to public service. It means enthusiastically taking up space! It means knowing that you are capable of discerning when you will need to lean on a friend or the advice of staff or when you will need to stand on your own.
What’s next for you?
Who knows!? I love a thrilling adventure. I’m currently serving in the executive office and I’m loving state government because of its potential to do good work for communities. I serve an incredibly brave governor and lt. Governor and I’m proud to be part of bringing their vision to life. I suppose the answer to your question is that I’m focused on “what now”- I have plenty of time for “what’s next.” Whatever it is, I trust I will be ready.