Q&A with candidate Aruna Miller: ”I picked up the phone and called the Democratic Party and asked what I could do to help.”

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A Q&A with Aruna Miller, a mom and engineer who is #OffTheSidelines as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates — and is now running for Congress in Maryland’s 6th District. Click here to learn more about Aruna and get involved in her campaign.

Tell us about yourself and what drew you to run for office.

I’m a civil engineer, so I have a unique way of approaching problems. That’s what engineers do: We come up with solutions to build a better world.

Since 2010, I’ve served my community as a legislator for Maryland’s legislative district 15. I’m so proud to fight for the issues that matter to my district and to all Marylanders — like defending women and children, helping small businesses thrive and strengthening our transportation infrastructure.

I came to America as an immigrant when I was 7 years old, with no knowledge of English. But I was able to seize the wonderful opportunities this country has to offer, because America is an inclusive nation that creates opportunities for those willing to work hard. I want to pay it forward and give others those same opportunities. And in the current political climate — with civil rights, women’s rights and voting rights all at stake — I think that goal is more important than ever.

What made it feel like now was your time to run?

Coming to the United States as an immigrant, politics and voting wasn’t something we really talked about around the kitchen table. It wasn’t until the 2000 presidential election that I saw how important it was to be engaged in the community, that just a handful of votes could flip an election. That’s when I picked up the phone and called the Democratic Party and asked what I could do to help.

I volunteered for several years working at the grassroots level. In 2010, community activists asked me to run for an open seat in the statehouse. And, like so many other women, I made up all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t run. Eventually, I was persuaded and decided to run. I’m so happy that I did. Once I got to the General Assembly in Annapolis, I had another awakening: I saw what a huge impact policy has on our lives. I’ve been working ever since to connect with my community and help them see that, too.

I’m running for Congress because I’ve invested in this community, and they’ve invested in me. I think I’m the best candidate to represent this district. This is my home.

Whose support and encouragement are you grateful for?

All the people I’ve met along the way. I always say it’s been the greatest privilege of my life to serve the people of Maryland. In this job, I’ve met people volunteering tirelessly to make our state, and our nation, a better place. They inspire me every day.

My grandmother has also been a significant source of inspiration for me. When my mom and dad came here to the United States from India, they couldn’t afford to bring all of my siblings at once. So my grandmother was the one who took care of me until I was 7 years old — and she always believed in me. I would lie in bed with her and she would tell me, “You’re going to be someone great one day, honey, I know you will. You’re going to change the world.” I’ll never forget that she believed in me. I’m so grateful to her, and to my mom and dad, who left behind everything they knew to come to America to make a better life for their family.

What are some challenges women making a first run for office should be ready for?

I think the greatest challenge, of course, is the institutional discrimination. When men design the rules, it’s harder for women to get into the game at all. Men in politics often have opportunities to recognize other leaders, and they tend to lift up other men rather than women. That’s not to say that men don’t support women — when I ran for office the first time, it was a man, my state senator, who really supported me and encouraged me to run — but we need more of that.

I also think women put unrealistic expectations on themselves to be perfect candidates. You’re not going to be the perfect candidate — no one is, and no one ever will be. We all learn through the process: by knocking on doors, meeting constituents who disagree with us, getting on the phone to raise money. It will feel awkward at first, but you’ll get better with time. Everything is a learning experience.

Nobody wants to lose when they run for the first time, but it’s important to see that as a learning experience, too. It doesn’t make you unsuccessful or a bad candidate. People will notice if you stay active and engaged in your community instead of heading back to the sidelines — and they will help you the next time you decide to run. Running for office — like policymaking itself — is often small, incremental steps toward a larger goal.

How might you encourage or advise women who are considering running for office?

I’m so inspired to see women of all ages, faiths and ethnic backgrounds getting engaged in politics under this administration — marching and organizing are important, but women cannot be afraid to take that next step and run for office. That’s how we make our democracy better: Our representatives should reflect the people they serve. I think it’s intimidating for many women to imagine — all of a sudden — running for Congress. That shouldn’t stop them. But they also can start at the ground level, by running to become school board members, state representatives, mayors.

We also need to work together to create a pipeline of women leaders. We need to connect women with mentors who can get them the tools they need. The more women leaders we can develop, the better off we all will be.

Off The Sidelines is @SenGillibrand’s movement to help women run for office—and win.

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