How Are You, Really?: A’shanti F. Gholar Gets Honest About Mental Health & Electing More Women to Office
How Are You, Really? is an interview series highlighting individuals—CEOs, activists, creators and essential workers—from the BIPOC community. They reflect on the past year (because 2020 was…a year) in regards to COVID-19, racial injustice, mental health and everything in between.
A’shanti F. Gholar was just starting a new chapter in her career when the pandemic hit. The new president of Emerge—an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office—had big plans but adjusted to fit our new way of living. I chatted with Gholar to look back at her past year and how it shaped her mental health, career and her views on the state of racial injustice in our country.
So A’shanti, “How are you, really?”
My first question is, how are you?
I’m hanging in there. I got my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine a few weeks ago and that definitely relieved a lot of anxiety. I feel very blessed to be here as so many millions of people did not survive the pandemic, and many that did overcome COVID will have lingering health issues.
How are you, really? As individuals (specifically BIPOC) we tend to say we’re fine even when we’re not.
The past year was definitely hard. I took over as president of Emerge right when the pandemic hit, and it changed everything. We are an organization focused on in-person training and we saw that disappear overnight. 2020 was full of unknowns and I just had to trust my gut with the decisions I was making. Despite it all, 2020 was our most successful year at Emerge.
How has the past year taken a toll on your mental health?
It’s not just the pandemic, but the increase in racial injustice that we are consistently seeing and experiencing. I don't talk a lot on my social media pages about the murders of Black people because some weeks that means you are talking about it every day, and I'm too emotionally exhausted. I actively avoid watching the videos of any of the murders because it is too much for me personally to see how Black lives are seen as not having value. It is a constant reminder of the physical, emotional, and mental toll of racism and anti-Blackness.
Do you find it difficult talking about how you feel to others?
I don't. I had two cousins that died by suicide, so I take mental health very seriously. I have a wonderful support network that always checks in to make sure that I'm good. It is important to talk about how we are doing, good or bad, and as a CEO, you need that outlet.
Why do you think it’s tough for BIPOC to talk about their mental health?
For many Black and Brown people, our communities and even our own families, have created a negative stigma around mental health issues. There is the belief that we can just be strong and get over it. Any narrative that equates mental health issues to weakness is dangerous. We need to care about our mental health just as much as we do our physical health.
What are the ways you focus on your mental health? Are there self-care rituals, tools, books, etc. you lean on?
For me, it’s the little things. I love me some YouTube! Jackie Aina, Patricia Bright, Andrea Renee, Maya Galore, Alissa Ashley and Arnell Armon are my favorites. Watching them always makes me so happy, but it isn't good for my bank account as I end up buying so much makeup and other items. I try to workout at least three times a week. I also LOVE astrology and have been studying it more. As the world is opening back up, I will start to travel internationally again, which is my way to really unwind.
With so much that has happened in the past year, what has made your smile/laugh lately?
Emerge recently marked the milestone of having over 1,000 alums in office including the first Indigenous Cabinet Secretary Deb Haaland! That always brings a smile to my face.
How has the pandemic played a role in your career?
At the start of the pandemic, I had just stepped into my role as the new president of Emerge. While a global public health crisis was a challenge that I could not have anticipated, it forced our entire organization to pivot because we understood that our work was more important than ever before. The public health crisis has shown us that who we have in office matters and over the last few months, too many elected officials failed our communities and played politics with people’s lives. While our mission at Emerge remained the same, and that is to change the face of government and create a more inclusive democracy, we became more agile and more determined to reach into every corner of the country to empower Democratic women to run and win.
You also host your own podcast The Brown Girls Guide to Politics. How have you used your platform to speak on these current events?
Our last season was in partnership with Planned Parenthood and a look at how the pandemic is impacting women of color from the economy to health care to racial injustice. Our next season will focus on what the world will be like as we begin to come out of the pandemic and what does that world look like for women of color.
What do you hope listeners get out of your podcast?
As women of color, there are so many ways to be politically involved from being an activist, campaign staffer or candidate/elected official. No one talks about how hard it is for women of color to run for office. There’s a lot to endure, and I hope our listeners know that something better is always possible if we put in the work to crush the double-standards and break every barrier that prevents us from reaching our full potential.
I wanted to create a space and resource for women of color who were looking for ways to serve their communities but weren’t sure if politics was for them. They unfortunately only saw white men as the people pulling the levers and making the decisions, but I wanted them to be able to see themselves in the many women of color that I know who are working across this country to make political change. I use The Brown Girls Guide to Politics to bring together and elevate women who have not only claimed their seats at the table but are also building their own tables. Also, as women of color our lives are political, and we need to discuss the ways we are impacted by laws and policies.
From a political perspective, do you believe changes have been made when it comes to racial injustice over the past year?
I do believe that since last year’s protests, more people, including our elected leaders, have woken up to the fact that there is a serious need for reform in this country. They are finally realizing that communities of color, particularly Black people, face a constant threat of violence and harm whether it is police violence, dying from COVID-19 at the highest rates of any racial group or being discriminated against in society at large.
But recent events have shown us that we still have a long way to go. As our nation begins to recover from the public health crisis, we certainly have an opportunity to make the changes that are necessary to have an inclusive and equitable nation. It has been encouraging to see more public servants, particularly Democratic women, use their voices and their power to shape policies that will improve the lives of their constituents for years to come. We’re seeing more bills being introduced and passed to address police brutality, the surge in hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, the ongoing crisis of women leaving the workforce due to lack of child care and so much more. These are issues that will require us all to stay involved and engaged and to hold our leaders accountable.
Why is it important for BIPOC (specifically women of color) to get involved in politics?
We need more elected leaders who reflect our nation’s increasingly diverse communities. Women of color were instrumental in the 2020 election and essentially changed the course of the country. They came out in record numbers and showed up at a time when our democracy was under threat. As we continue to confront issues of racial and social justice, we’re at a critical turning point where we need women of color to stay engaged. Women of color are powerful change makers and it is clear their involvement can and will make all the difference when it comes to the future of our country.
What advice do you give to future activists?
One of the most important ways that I tell BIPOC to get involved in our nation’s politics is to run for office. Women of color remain underrepresented at every level of government and that has led to policymaking that is not just exclusionary but is also a detriment to the quality of our lives. We’ve seen what happens when our nation’s governing bodies do not reflect the diversity of this country and that is why we must give more BIPOC women a path to office.
And what are ways for non-BIPOC to become better allies?
I believe that one of the ways that non-BIPOC people can be effective allies is by supporting candidates of color for office whether it's through donations or supporting their campaigns whenever possible. It is also so important for non-BIPOC to listen to people of color when they voice their concerns about the issues they face. Good allies are also good listeners who make space for communities of color to speak their truth and lead the fight for change.
Do you have any hopes or goals for the year ahead?
To continue to see Emerge and Wonder Media Network's The Brown Girl's Guide to Politics grow. There is still so much work to be done to advance the power of women in politics.