Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López was born and raised in Southwest Detroit. After being recruited to run by neighbors, family, and friends, she became the first Latina elected to the Detroit City Council. Her position has come with many challenges, including discrimination she has faced for being a woman, and woman of color in particular. She now uses her platform to speak up for others facing similar prejudices to advocate for a reflective democracy. Check out her interview below for her advice, tips, and strategies for running and getting the job done.
What inspired you to run for office?
I wasn’t ever looking to run for office, I was recruited to run for office. I think what helped me make the decision to try and accept that request was a sense of social responsibility and wanting to give back to my home, the neighborhood I grew up in, and the city that I love. I felt a sense of people investing in me all of my life and now they’re asking me to do this. I felt like it was my responsibility to step up and give back to them for everything they had invested in me as a young person in the city of Detroit.
What, if any, prior experiences helped you feel ready for this position?
If you asked me that question when I first ran I would have said that I didn’t have any applicable experience, but having been in the position for several years, I think my entire life [is applicable]. We often think elected officials have to have law degrees or a lot of money, or that you need to be involved in the parties, and depending on the context that may be true, but I think that's the myth about being a person in office.
I think my experience growing up in poverty is valuable to bring to the table. Growing up in a large family and being one of the eldest siblings has taught me a tremendous amount about communication, mediation, conflict resolution, and event planning. Sometimes we don't think about those professional skills that can come from families, but my family definitely prepared me for this role of service. My experience as a social worker also helped me develop my active listening and reflection skills, and I’m more self-aware, which I think are invaluable to any public servant. I didn’t necessarily see those before as a skill set elected officials had, but by being in this role I do think they can help us move forward in an inclusive way.
What were your greatest obstacles during your campaign?
A lot of it was self-doubt. I knew how to do the individual tasks because I ran a campaign before and volunteered for related things, but I struggled with thinking I wasn’t smart enough, my house wasn’t fancy enough, I didn’t have enough money, I had student loans and I had to fundraise, and I was thinking that I wasn’t qualified to run for office. What was I going to bring to the table? I didn’t think I was the best candidate or the strongest candidate, so I struggled with identifying my own value and what I could contribute. Many times I thought about quitting.
The other challenge was figuring out how to serve in the way I wanted without being lost in the rhetoric and the expectation that it’s all about you as an individual, we are a collective. You’re supposed to talk about yourself and I really struggled with that. I needed to figure out how I could approach the position from a more collaborative standpoint and still be successful, and own my strengths, power, and what my perspective brought to the table yet still be aware that this is a role of service.
What advice would you give to other women of color interested in taking the next step to run for office?
Women of color have been historically devalued and marginalized and you begin to internalize that, so I think it’s important to be aware of your own questioning of your self-worth and your skill set. Find safe spaces with others who understand the historical discrimination and trauma; a supportive setting where you can talk about those insecurities and doubts you have because it is a different context when you’re working with different communities who may have more privileged backgrounds where you can further perpetuate your own self-doubt.
For women in general: You’re already more prepared than you realize. We always think we need to get more credentials. Women who are the most qualified for office are busy and are going to be busy. Their lives are already hectic because they are leaders and want to be involved. So running for office isn’t too different, it’s just the public aspect of it.
Believe in yourself. You’re already stronger, smarter, and braver than you think you are. If you’re not sure, or if you’ve thought of the idea once, shadow people and reach out to an elected official that you admire. Talk to them about what they deal with on a daily basis and their personal and professional challenges; learn about how they got into that position. The more information you have, the more it becomes demystified and becomes something tangible that you can reach.
Start attending the meetings of the position you’re interested in being in. Volunteer with that office to get a sense of what it entails, and talk to other people that might be interested or find a training or other group trying to recruit others to run for office.
What do you wish you would have known before or during your campaign?
It would have been helpful to know how to navigate the endorsement process. I had no idea who I should be seeking endorsements from. I missed a lot of deadlines. I wasn’t sure what role they played in the race and that you had to pay. I was recruited and then I had about two weeks to start campaigning, so I didn’t have time to make a campaign plan and have conversations. Everything was crunched for time.
I’m non-partisan so my role and involvement with the parties may be different. For non-partisan and local positions, don’t be so worried about who you should be talking to or the relationship you should have with people already involved in the political world. Focus on building relationships with the constituency you’re hoping to serve and make sure you’re involved in that way because it’s the most important. A lot of times candidates get distracted by meeting people who are “in” but I don’t know if that always has an impact on voters.
For fundraising, do you have any strategies that you employed that were helpful or any recommendations you would have for others?
- Have someone help you make calls and keep track.
- Get your system down (binder, target list, make your ask, track, follow-up).
- Know what your budget is, what you’re asking for, and why. Remind yourself the reasons why you’re asking for the money.
- Get your fundraising done before you’re doing the canvas work.
How would you describe the environment now that you’re in office?
It’s slow! I like to see change and the process can take a long time. I don’t feel unsupported, but there have definitely been moments, especially after I got elected, where I felt much more discriminated against. Still, at times, I’m discriminated against for being young - people don’t believe I am the councilmember, they always think it’s someone else. When they actually believe me, they’re doubtful because I look young.
Maybe this doesn’t come up a lot, but heightism exists. I’m 4’11'' so some people think I don’t have much power because I’m not a large person so I get ignored in different contexts. I would get calls saying that I should wear more makeup, wear a suit, and make sure my hair was done. This has dissipated some, but I was very surprised. When you’re at the top, who do you report discrimination to? It can be very isolating in that way. Since then, because of the work we’ve done, the conversation has changed.
I’ve recognized when to fight and when not to. I’ve also recognized the importance of speaking up on behalf of other women, especially other minority women, to make sure the conversation around gender and equity is always part of the conversation when we’re talking about recruitment, diversity, and inclusion.
Public service has put this aspect of my identity at the forefront in a way I wasn’t necessarily aware of before. Yes, I am a woman, but I didn’t walk around saying - oh I am a woman. Despite being born and raised here there’s an assumption that I am an immigrant and that I know all about immigrant struggles within any immigrant community. I’ve had to learn a lot about other ethnic groups and the history of immigration in this city beyond what I thought I would have. It’s definitely challenging at times, and isolating as I’ve mentioned, but I think it’s been helpful for me to find a support network.