We build women’s collective power in the U.S.

August 9, 2022

Grantee Partner Spotlight: IGNITE

by Sara Guillermo

The Ms. Foundation is proud to support our grantee partners, who are at the forefront of organizing and creating solutions that improve people’s lives and bring us closer to achieving a true democracy. The insight and perspective they provide is invaluable. The Q&A below was generated by IGNITE CEO Sara Guillermo. 

IGNITE is a movement of young women who are ready and eager to become the next generation of political leaders. IGNITE is a Girls of Color Initiative grantee partner. 

What brought you to this work? 

I’ve spent my entire life serving my community, starting with my first successful election run in my first-grade class in Concord, California. And what was perhaps most telling about that experience was that even then, I was criticized for running. Then, I won anyway! It’s an experience that colors almost every young woman’s experience of stepping into political leadership and I’ve always wanted to change that. I try to lead by example as an immigrant, first-generation college graduate, youth organizer, educator, foster parent, and breast cancer survivor. I was the very first employee of IGNITE a decade ago and I served in almost every role in the organization before taking over as the Chief Executive Officer in 2021.

How do you connect/collaborate in your community? Key partners?

We have seen a growing demand for IGNITE trainings, mentorship and networks as Gen Z continues to take the helm. In response, IGNITE is scaling, and is doing so alongside our community and national partners and supporters, including prominent philanthropists MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates, and the Schusterman Family who invested in IGNITE through the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge. We are connecting with young women all over the country who want to serve as IGNITE fellows, start college chapters, and run for office. They include an impressive and diverse community of cis and trans women, as well as non-binary people determined to make change happen. 

What are you learning or what are you teaching? 

So many young women who want to run for office are told to wait their turn, but that happens far less often to men and it’s not acceptable if we want to achieve gender parity in political office. Through our trainings, we teach young women that they are entitled to raise their hand, speak up, and lead. Sometimes this means running for office. Other times, this means running a campaign, organizing their communities and advocating for policies they care about. We’re removing the barriers to political leadership and civic engagement that are so often talked about as the “ambition gap.” It’s not the case that young women aren’t ambitious. It’s that our ambition gets stomped on, early on, repeatedly. IGNITE women learn about ways they can raise their voices early and often. From stepping up to take responsibility on college campuses, to being part of a community advisory board, there are plenty of steps young women can take into leadership. 

Tell us about a recent victory or something you’re proud of. 

I’m extremely proud of all the young women at IGNITE who have made a choice to own their political power. More than 75% of our organization are women of color, and many have faced challenges and barriers along the way. Yet, IGNITE young women are running for office and winning across the country and together we’re changing the face of political leadership in America. We’re now the largest, most diverse organization for women’s political leadership in the United States. Our alumni have become mayors, state senators and congresspeople, and they’ve also won election to community boards and school boards on top of running winning campaigns for other women. We are seeing meaningful, transformational impact. And yet this is just the beginning of our journey.

What do you need from funders or how can people help?  

As a nonprofit, we need funders who get that investing in young women and girls is the key to lasting generational change. Over the next five years, we are looking to grow our reach to train and mentor 350,000 young women, 1% of Gen Z women. We cannot and should not do this work alone. And on the individual level, we need people who will spread the word and let the amazing ambitious young women in their lives know that with IGNITE they will have a community of women like them who will be there to help them realize their potential.

What gives you hope? 

I get hope and inspiration from working with the next generation of young women daily and I tell them to trust in who they are and what they want to do in this world. When I was 24, I was coming out of grad school in a recession, I hadn’t met my husband yet, and my dad had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was when one of my mentors gave me a heart-shaped rock with the word “trust” on it. I carried it with me to every organization I joined, and I still have it on my desk. Young women face a lot of external voices telling them not to trust who they are and what they want to do in this world. But I tell them, “trust yourself.” And they give me hope. 

It’s the small, quiet voice inside that says “you can do this” that is steadier than the rest. That’s what we must all listen for.