Changing the Face of Power
The below is a transcript of LaDawn Jones interview on the Changing the Face of Power Podcast which can be found here. Check out Rebecca Thompson's other powerful interviews with sound advice specifically for African American women running for public office.
Welcome to the Changing the Face of Power Podcast, where we’re on a mission to inform, inspire, and support black women to run for elected office. Now, please welcome your host, Rebecca Thompson.
RT: Hi, and welcome to Changing the Face of Power, the Podcast. I’m your host, Rebecca Thompson, and I am really honored today to introduce you to a friend, LaDawn Blackett Jones, who is a State Representative from Atlanta, Georgia.
LaDawn, thank you so much and welcome to Changing the Face of Power the Podcast.
LBJ: I am so honored that you invited me, Rebecca. Thank you.
RT: Well, I am really excited to have you on the show today because we’ve known each other for a number of years, actually long before you decided to run for State Representative, and just for a little bit of fyi for our listeners, LaDawn and I met what was it, back in maybe 2009 or 2010 when you were --
LBJ: Somewhere around then, yes.
RT: Yeah. So LaDawn was a Fellow in the Front Line Leaders Academy, which is a program that I used to run for People for the American Way Foundation that trains young progressive candidates to run for office, so LaDawn was absolutely one of the success stories because she actually took what she learned in that program, and I know many others, to actually run for office.
So LaDawn, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got your start in politics.
LBJ: Sure, thank you. Well, Rebecca was a huge part of my having the initial courage to run for office. I began with working in the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, where I really had a passion for trying to make a change in my overall community, and I had some experiences that always stand out with a young lady who was arrested for shoplifting, and on the same court date, a gentleman that was arrested as a repeat burglar. They were both sentenced that day, and their sentences just did not make sense. The young lady had spent a year in jail minimum, which is Georgia law, and the man went home almost immediately the same day, despite the fact that he had a background in burglary.
And so I knew that there was something that wasn’t right, and it inspired me to want to figure out what those next steps were, and that’s when I got introduced to Front Line Leaders Academy and a few other programs which were campaign training programs, and those programs really taught me the ins and outs of running for office ( garbled ) and they kind of took out that fear. I know so many people who are interested in running for office, but they don’t know what it takes to run for office, how to fundraise, and so I kind of took it as a course or a study for approximately two years before I actually decided to throw my hat in the ring, and I was so excited that I had that chance to be prepared, because many times those opportunities to run for office, we don’t know about them in advance; they just kind of pop up on us, and in this particular case that’s exactly what happened.
RT: So I really love that, that you took the time to prepare to learn how to run for office, and what I hope our listeners take from this, is I do meet a lot of people who decide that they want to run for office and they’re giving themselves a couple of months and in some cases a couple of weeks, but I think for candidates who are very serious about winning, they really should be thinking about this as a long-term exploration, and so to hear that you gave yourself two years to prepare is actually a really great timeline and a great example, and so as you were making that decision, I know that you’re a mom and a wife, you were really involved in your community, you know, what was the decision like in terms of how you got to that point of deciding to run given all the things that you were involved in up to that point?
LBJ: Fortunately for me at the time I had a very big support system. My parents lived close by; they helped me with my children. At that time they were I believe one and three years old, not quite in school yet; a great support system from my husband who was really energetic about me running for office and willing to do whatever it took for him to handle the household things so that I could run. So those things laid the foundation.
What I was not able to do was maintain my job at the D.A.’s office, so I had to make plans to provide for my family financially outside of that and so left the D.A.’s office to open my own practice and began running my own criminal defense law firm so that I could have the flexibility to run for office and just all of those stars kind of lining up in place, having a family who was supportive, having the support of my husband, made it easier for me to do those things.
But it wasn’t easy all throughout, and holding office for approximately four years and then the two-year planning on top of that, it definitely became a decision. There were times that I had to
decide that it was okay that Mommy missed bedtime and that it was okay that Mommy wasn’t there to be at xyz event because I had the support system that I had that allowed me to do those other things and ensure that my family still had what they needed.
RT: Yeah, and I appreciate you talking about the step of starting your own law firm, because for a lot of women, their employers are not always either happy to hear about them running for office or in some cases you have to step down because it’s maybe a conflict of interest or there’s some sort of policy, and so I really want to explore that a little bit deeper because financial stability and security is a really big barrier to women running for office, so sort of knowing what you know about that process now, you know, what would you want to share with women who are thinking about creating financial opportunities for themselves as a way to fund their campaigns and give them that flexibility?
LBJ: Well, definitely, you know, planning is a big part of the process, sort of knowing what your background is, what your career is so that you can make those types of leaps into entreprenuership or otherwise, or social work, whatever it takes so that you can run. A lot of that goes into what is your plan to get there. If you are committed to service and I’m sure like me a lot of people are also spiritually connected or believe that there is a higher being, and typically my experience is when you stick your neck out and you’ve had a plan, God will provide and you will be able to support your family, work, as well as continue to serve your community if you’re doing it in earnest.
But it does - you know, we do not live so that we can work; we work so that we can live, and keeping that in mind that may mean that you have to sacrifice at that time moving up the ladder and getting promoted at your job. It may mean a pay cut, which it certainly did for me leaving a steady paycheck to opening my own business and again, that goes into the planning, putting money aside both for running for office and putting money aside so that you can make those decisions to be in office and the time that it takes away from working, and it’s really about laying it out and making sure that all of your ducks are in a row and deciding anything from cutting that cable to cell phone bills if necessary so that you can do what is ultimately your goal.
RT: That’s right. So you made the decision to run. What were some of the first steps that you took to actually launching your campaign?
LBJ: Well, I had a kind of unique set of circumstances as I mentioned, being prepared to run. I was still in the infancy stages. I had just opened my firm for less than six months and I got enrolled in a program called Lead Atlanta and it was just an opportunity to meet other young leaders, progressive leaders throughout the metro Atlanta area and in that program I had a chance to shadow the State Representative for my district, and it was just truly the stars aligning, me being prepared, and I think God just opening up the door that the person whose seat that I eventually ran for told me that day that he had been considering stepping down and retiring and he was just waiting to have someone who was really ready to step up and move into that seat, and apparently after a couple of months I was that person, and so I had to be really prepared because I thought it would be another year or two before I would even consider running for any particular office and he gave me about six months in advance to really put forth an effort to run for that position and luckily all those other ducks had been lined up and in a row with my family and my business so that I was able to make that leap.
RT: Oh, wow. So there’s an important piece here of really getting to know or understand who is in the seat that you’re in and oftentimes, I mean, you are not the first guest to say that it was their predecessor who had a conversation with them saying hey, I’m thinking about stepping down; I just want to make sure that the right person is stepping up, so it sounds like a really important piece if you - you know, if there’s alignment, because I know that that’s not always the case, but if there’s an alignment to be willing to have those conversations and to sort of BE ready so that you don’t have GET ready, right?
LBJ: That’s correct.
RT: So as a candidate, what was the biggest thing that you struggled with while you were running?
LBJ: A number of things. I think that dealing with the status quo, trying to come in and see things with a fresh perspective, which was part of the premises that I ran under was coming in and looking at things from a fresh perspective, not always necessarily democratic versus republican or young versus old or black versus white, but really looking at policy issues and evaluating them for what they were really for, looking at them with a wide lens to see not only how will it affect my particular district but how will it affect people in general and the state as a whole, and the country as a whole, that was difficult and then also finding out that you really will not be able to handle all of the issues.
I ran, as I mentioned, because of criminal justice issues. That was my background and my expertise and where I hoped that I would bring the most help to the General Assembly, but for years, I barely touched any criminal justice bills outside of advising other colleagues and answering their questions when they were working on issues related to criminal justice; I had no direct effect or no direct legislation and so knowing that you’re not going to be able to handle all the issues and trying to decide what legislator, in light of that, that you want to be, the legislator that makes a lot of noise but gets very little done, or the legislator that sits quiet and lets things pass but is able to get legislation passed. Those were all very difficult challenges to decide between.
RT: Yeah. So I want to explore that a bit, because there are a lot of candidates who run on issues that they’re very passionate about, and I think it’s a really important point that you -- just because you care about an issue or just because you’re super passionate about it doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to have a chance to work on those issues. So what were some of the issues that you actually found yourself working on?
LBJ: So a lot of my issues were local-based issues, things that pass through local legislation such as expanding the election board, helping to create a city in an unincorporated area of my district and working on other more locally based -- bringing more money into the district, ensuring that there was local option referendums for people so that we can help build the infrastructure.
That’s where a lot of my focus went as a State Representative and a lot of it went away from the civil justice and criminal justice areas and I think part of that is because of the difficulty in handling of issues and another part of it has to deal with committee assignments and finding out that there are limitations within the job. There’s only so many things that you can do as a State Representative, in the same way there’s only certain things you can handle as a School Board representative and Council person making sure that those issues did not fall within my purview.
RT: Yeah. So one of the questions that we are always exploring on this podcast is sort of what it looks like for a black woman to stand in her power and particularly with so many brilliant black women across the country who really care about issues like criminal justice, especially with
everything that’s happening in the country right now, I know a lot of women are struggling with where to use their black girl magic, like where to put their energy.
And so given your background as a lawyer and working in the criminal justice system, knowing what you know now, for somebody who is really passionate about criminal justice issues, what would you say to them in terms of where they should focus their energies, do you feel like legislatures are a great place for that, or do you now know that maybe it could be used somewhere else or somewhere where they could have a bigger impact?
LBJ: So all of the pieces of the puzzle, I think, work together jointly at some point or another to make justice happen, particularly in the criminal justice arena, so they need legislators, but you have to go in understanding that your role as a legislator may be limited; your ability to get things passed may be limited, and if you understand that going in, that helps to dictate what type of legislator you want to be, it helps to dictate how much energy you will put into it. So I wouldn’t say that it’s a waste of time, but if you also know that you are a person who just can’t hold back, right, that you know that you want to be in the streets, you want to be able to say things unabashedly, then you know, maybe being in a representative role may not be for you because although you have a lot of people that may vote you into office, you still have to represent everyone that makes up your constituent base, and there are certain things that your entire constituent base, or a lot of things your entire constituent base won’t agree with, and you really have to toe that line of making sure you are always being representative of your district,
So if you know that many of your positions, many of your stances are going to go against the core from your constituency, maybe it is better, one because you have more freedom to avoid letting down anyone because you’re going against their positions, to not be in elective office. You know, all of them are equally as important, and I also think it’s the time, right? There’s an appropriate time for everything. Maybe being in a legislative office may not be the appropriate time right now, but that does not mean being in legislative office would not be appropriate for your overall goals in the future.
RT: That’s great advice, and as somebody who has struggled with that dilemma myself, you know, during my -- in my day job I’m the executive director of a community organizing group and really love policy and really love the space that could sort of be held in the legislature and all of that comes with that, but I know that there are tensions, right, because I am mostly inclined to be in the streets, and I know as a State Representative that looks very, very differently, so thank you for sharing that.
So earlier you talked about having a really strong support system, and I know that since you ran for office originally a lot has changed in your life, so I would love to come back to that and just talk about, you know, four years later I know you’re also contemplating making some new decisions about what your future looks like, so tell us a little bit about what it’s been like four years after running.
LBJ: Absolutely. One, I think that I worked very hard to kind of raise the bar in our district about what is expected as a legislator as far as appearance, being accessible and being transparent, and that means not just showing up to churches on Sundays during election period but always being there out in the community when requested to come to events or speaking engagements to help inspire the community or involved in the community, making myself accessible, and so I worked very hard to do that.
Unfortunately, in the last couple of years I lost both of my parents within seven months to cancer, and as a result of that, at that time upon taking office, both my parents moved in with us to help us with the children and all those other things and for us to help them, and in losing them, in addition to it taking an emotional toll, it took a toll on the family, because by this time my children were older; they were actually in real school learning more than abc, one two three and really needing that time with Mom or Dad to sit down and go through bath and science, all those things that take a lot of energy.
My husband’s been awesome; he was great in making sure that he did more than his fair share, but as time progressed, he had decided to open his own business as well as my children getting older and so I had to make a very tough decision, and that decision was not to seek reelection so that I could spend the time, because I realized over time no one can give to my children what I think I can give to my children and so I needed to be there for that, and it was a tough decision but an easy decision at the same time.
My biggest concern was letting down my constituents, all those people who had fundraised for me, all the people who believed in me and supported me, I did not want to let them down, but at the same time I knew that I had a higher duty and a higher calling to take care of my children and to be there for them completely from the very beginning and so I made that decision and now that some time has gone past, it’s been almost a year since that decision was made and I decided halfway through my term that I knew that I wanted to complete my term with the same vigor that I began it with, and so it ends in December, but in that time I’ve grown to appreciate the ability to make that shift, right?
So often, I was raised by women that said, you know, us women have to work twice as hard and you have to be able to do it all and you have to have your own and do well, and so I had that in my mind, never really realizing that the time to spend with my children is just as precious, just as powerful and just as important as having my own career and my own home and my own money and so I’m really excited, that I feel like this is the next phase in life to be able to express to women all over, elected and unelected, that being a mother is as important as everything else and that it should not be pushed off to the side, but embraced for the beauty that it is.
RT: That’s right, and it’s so unfortunate that as women we have to make that choice, and I oftentimes say this here, that like men aren’t asked these questions, right, like men don’t have to face these tough decisions and there are so many women, myself included, who are ambitious and want to run for elected office and be a mom at the same time and we have to do this delicate dance.
So one of the reasons why I wanted to chat with you is because A, you’re awesome, but B, I just think, you know, there aren’t as many women that I know who make that decision to say you know what, I did it, I conquered it, I fulfilled my purpose and my dream by running for office but I don’t have to run for reelection again and this is a really important next chapter in my life. And your children are small, right? So the time now is to really be with them, so thank you for showing what that can look like, because you’re right, it is just as important. And you’re not going to get that time back, right? You can always run for office later, but you’re not going to get this time back with your kids.
LBJ: Absolutely. And Rebecca, let me add to that. I also think, though, there’s a small misconception on what public service looks like, right? If you’re African American, African Americans just getting involved into the public sector makes it such that the people who get elected hold onto those seats forever. Same thing is true for women. Because women fought so hard to get in and it was so tough for women to take on those elective roles that once you got a great woman in office, we wanted them to stay there for 40 years so that we can maintain those seats. And that’s not really what I think public service was intended to be.
The majority of our legislatures are citizen legislatures where they are supposed to go back home and work other jobs, and do other things outside of being in the General Assembly as our
city council, and I think we need to refocus the way that we look at service. I think service should be something that you do, and it does take time. I”m not saying that everybody
should come in for two years and leave, right, because it takes time to establish yourself. But knowing that you don’t have to feel like you have to be there for ten years would encourage more people to run rather than less, because they won’t have to sacrifice finances for ten years. They don’t have to sacrifice the family for ten years; they can come in, be a young woman, run for office, do their best and then train someone else to take their position and stay active and involved without necessarily holding the title.
RT: That’s right. Well, I think we give career politicians -- or you know, we look at folks who have been in office for long periods of time; we give them a lot of flack, right, and we’ll say, you know, look at those people sitting in those positions and then when our folks get into office we don’t want them to leave, right, and so we’re encouraging them to do the same thing. So I really want to explore the piece that you talked about about helping other women, because I know you do a lot of work outside of being a mom and a State Representative and you are really involved in your community, particularly with young women, so I would love to hear more about sort of how you are changing the face of power sort of outside of politics as well.
LBJ: Absolutely. For several years prior to running for the General Assembly I had a group at my neighborhood high school in my former alma mater called Women of Westlake. It really was just a program for girls who were like me who couldn’t dance, didn’t play in the band and weren’t necessarily good at checkers but needed something to do to keep them busy in the afternoons and so we started life skills and community service, and I based the entire organization around doing things for other people. We met after school and on weekends and just did fun things and tried to make it easy on their parents.
And the Women of Westlake and its subgroups that eventually formed was around for about nine years and we helped over 250 girls really kind of reach into their purpose and it’s beautiful seeing them grow and I really did that just because I wanted to give back to the community that helped me, but then it grew into something bigger, and it was a big portion of why I ran for office and it let me know the influence that we can have as just regular people in the community to help other folks and really inspire them to be greater than what they thought they could be themselves.
And so with that I tried to encourage them to constantly give back in the pay it forward mentality and I’ve really seen it pay off and then outside of that just working with campaign trainings, kind
of like the program that you and I met in, just to be able to train future elected officials, whether they’re young progressives or they’re women or anyone who really feels a passion for helping their community but need that direction. And I feel like that is something that is missing, because I will say I hate that in my time in office I feel that there were not enough elected officials that came before me that were willing to reach back and help to give me some guidance and point me in the right direction, but I’m inspired because I think that this next generation of leaders, that is ingrained in them, and hopefully that will remain.
RT: That’s great. Well, we share that sort of passion for helping other women, because that was exactly why I created this podcast, right? There are not as many women who have come before us who are willing to sort of open up the playbooks, and I think because they had to fight and work so hard just to have a seat at the table that they want to preserve that and I totally understand that and respect it and see it as our obligation to open up the playbook, because there are so many women who are coming behind us who are struggling through decisions that we’ve already tackled, so thank you for that and I really appreciate you seeing that as your obligation to continue to do that work.
So LaDawn, after four years in the legislature and your term is coming to an end, what is something you wish you knew before you ran?
LBJ: Wow. You know, I did not intend for my time in the General Assembly to be as short as it was. I definitely wish that that was something that I could have prepared for. I think I would have handled myself and my legislation and how I approached things in a different manner if I would have known that my time was going to be as short, but I think even bigger than that is understanding the relationships of people and understanding that it is okay that, you know, when I went into the General Assembly I was in the minority in a huge way and there was not going to be a lot that I could do legislative-wise to make a change in the State of Georgia during the time that I was there, and I wish that I would have thought of more ways to make inroads despite being in that minority and towards the end of my time there I started to see how those relationships played such a huge part in making that difference, people understanding who you
are, and I would have spent a little bit more time cultivating those relationships both before
getting into office and also while I was in office.
RT: Right. And I know we have talked a little bit about this, but there are so many women who are listening to this and I hear from them, often, who are really struggling to figure out if running for elected office is for them, particularly because they’re passionate about so many issues and they are already doing the work in our community, so for many of them, running for elected office seems like the natural next step, but many of them are still on the fence about it, and so what advice would you give to a woman who is considering running for office?
LBJ: Just do it. Just do it. I mean, there’s a reason why there’s this calling on your heart to do this, why you think about it, why you participate in activities and programs and you support other candidates and you stay researched and informed about what’s going on, because that is something that it is intended for you to do and you never know what it is that your purpose is going to be, whether it be short-lived like mine or whether you’re there for a lifetime, you never know what it is that you are being called to do.
You have experience; you have the background. You really just have to do it. Obviously, prepare. You know, don’t feel pressured to do it prematurely. Prepare for what it is and then if it is meant to be it will be. Without a doubt, running for office gives you a plethora of experiences and knowledge that you could not have but for participating on your own, and so for nothing else than those experiences, I would definitely say run.
Also, running changes if you are a serious candidate and you run a serious race. Even if you don’t win, you gain recognition within the community that you run that will allow you to better push forward whatever those things that are on your agenda that you want to push forward and if you are truly socially conscious, you truly want to make a change, then whether you do it in office or out of office makes less of a difference than it does if you are respected and have value in the community, so you just -- you almost owe it to yourself, you owe it to the people who can benefit from you to make that attempt to be a smart candidate and a planned candidate and go ahead and make the run.
RT: That’s so awesome, and I really want to thank you for sharing your story, LaDawn; it’s been great to hear and it’s been great for me to also catch up and hear about what you’ve been up to besides following you on Facebook. But how can our listeners stay in touch with you?
LBJ: Absolutely. So listeners can catch me on the Web any time. I’m all over social media. My website is LaDawnJones.com and all of my social media pages are listed there, but I can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at LaDawn, LBJ, Jones, and I would love to hear from all of you all.
RT: Great, and we’ll include all of your contact information in the show notes. It was such a pleasure having you on Changing the Face of Power, LaDawn, and until next time, we’ll talk to you soon.
LBJ: Thank you so much, Rebecca, I appreciate it.