It all started with a meme.
Last year Ashley Bennett was stirred to action when her predecessor, Republican John Carman, shared a sexist meme during a January 2017 Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting in New Jersey.
“Will the women’s protest end in time for them to cook dinner?”
The gaffe was made in anticipation of the inaugural Women’s March, where thousands of women and men took to the nation’s capital to protest inequality and the Trump administration’s divisive policies and speech.
Bennett, who initially never considered a run for public office was stirred to action. Bennett, who is in pursuit of her masters in public health and business administration, decided it was time to take action. She challenged Carman in a letter and even joined a protest formulated to call Carman to the carpet for the inappropriate meme.
But after a long consideration, Bennett decided she wanted to do more. She took up the ballot and ran against Carman for his seat. On Election Day 2017, Bennett won, becoming the first woman and first woman of color to hold the District 3 Freeholder position. She beat Carman by over 1,000 votes out of over 14,000 votes cast.
As a freeholder, Bennett is responsible for the preparing and adopting the county budget, appointing county officials to certain boards and advisory councils and structuring administrative and legislative responsibilities in their respective county.
Bennet was one of many who sprung into action last year, culminating in a historic election year that saw multiple men and women of color secure seats on Election Day 2017.
With midterm elections inching closer, the stakes are higher than ever before. We sat down with Bennett to talk about coming up on a year in politics and the resiliency needed to fight another day in the current political climate.
Do you have a personal mission statement or mantra that you live by?
My personal mission statement that I live by is “If you’re afraid, DO IT AFRAID.” I think that over the years there are so many times my fears have kept me from doing things that I would have found meaningful. As I grow older, I’ve made it my mission to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and do things despite my fears, otherwise next to nothing would get accomplished.
Self-talk is important, what story/stories do you tell yourself about your life?
I often think about how I was as a child. When I was younger, I was bolder than I am now. I had no trouble marching to the beat of my own drum and feeling good about it. I think that as you age life teaches you your limitations. So as I approach life and making decisions, I try to channel that inner girl from my youth who was fearless and unashamed of being so. I think about the funny stories of myself asking multiple questions to the adults in my life who were no doubt exhausted by the time I was satisfied with the answers I got. I try to pair that young fearless girl with the wisdom you get from having experience. I think that when I have gotten it right, I have been pretty happy with the outcomes I’ve made.
How did the current political climate impact your approach to politics?
I think the outcome of the last presidential election got me more engaged in what was going on both nationally and in my own community. Politics starts on a local level and making significant change needs to start right in your own community. The current political climate has just shown me that every vote matters and none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. We all have to get engaged and remain involved because this is our nation and our communities and we are directly impacted by the decisions made by those at all levels of government.
Was there a moment in your journey you felt like giving up? What would you say to a woman going through that right now?
There were many times during the campaign I felt like giving up. I was a political novice trying to run my first campaign. However, I remember one distinct moment during that time that was very meaningful to me. I attended a County fundraiser around the corner from my house and our New Jersey Senator Cory Booker came and spoke, little did he know I am a huge fan of his and have been inspired by his journey. He spoke of moral moments and how every generation had one, and this was ours. It was this moment that I realized that my why was bigger than any discomforts I was currently experiencing. I wanted to make a change in my community and no matter how the outcome of this election, I was determined to see it through. My advice to other women who are currently struggling and feeling particularly like giving up is to stick with it and just keep going. You never know what you will accomplish when you do, my race and subsequent victory is an example of that. Just keep going because your breakthrough could literally be right in front of you.
What is your definition of success?
My definition of success is having a balanced personal and professional life. I think if there are areas where something is lacking in either one of these categories; it will be easy to feel unfulfilled. I think that in order to have success you have to be clear about what you want and why. Your actions should always be progressing towards your goals and if not then a re-evaluation needs to occur. For me, personally, I defined success through feeling fulfilled in my personal relationships with family and friends and practicing good self-care. Professionally, I defined success as being able to make a difference in my community and being passionate about what it is I am doing. If it feels like a chore, then I assess why that may be and look to other opportunities. I also think that success means something different for everyone and we need to be mindful of that. How I choose to define success for myself may be vastly different than how others define it and that’s okay. Also, there are many seasons to life, and what may feel right at one time, may not at the next, so if the definition changes due to life experience, that too is okay.
What do you hope to have accomplished in your career/ life by this time next year?
By this time next year, I hope to be on my way to finishing my additional graduate education and have really found my footing in my current elected position. I would also like to secure my public health internship for my Master’s in Public Health degree.
Who and what inspires you to keep going?
My mother inspires me. My mother suffered from a brain tumor and subsequent surgery. She raised three kids off of disability and navigated financial hardship. Yet, she never gave up on my siblings and me. It is because of her; we all graduated high school and pursued higher levels of education. My mother never gave up on herself either, after being out of the workforce for so many years she went back to work in the casino industry. She always has a smile on her face for customers; you would never be able to tell from looking at her, all of the things she endured. Even while working, my mother decided to help me when I decided to run for office. She knocked on doors, put up yard signs in the early morning hours before work. She encouraged me when I felt really down. My mother is the definition of resilience. She just keeps moving forward. If I turn out to be even a fraction of the women she is, then I will have all the accomplishments I will ever need.
What’s your biggest fear being in the public eye with a definitive political stance?
My biggest fear of being in the public eye with a firm position politically was the inherent criticism that I knew would come my way. There is comfort in not being in the public eye. No one cares what you did three years ago or five years ago or what job you had last summer. Once you enter public life, everything is up for discussion. People will attack you; try to rewrite the narrative on your stance and experience. People will mock you and make assumptions about you without ever knowing you. In addition to this, our nation is very polarized right now so having a definitive stance, based on a set of values that you know to be right is particularly challenging. People are going to say you’re a snowflake, or dismiss the issues that you are raising.
How do you take care of yourself/unwind in such a highly charged environment?
In this highly charged environment, it is very hard to find times to unwind. I do make it a priority to dedicate some time to myself every day. Whether it’s reading a book, listening to music, playing games on my phone or catching up on my favorite television shows. I make a point of giving myself time throughout the day. I also am very lucky to have supportive family members and friends that do not treat me any different than they did prior to running for office. So when I’m around them I get to just be myself, I’m just Ashley that helps me so much. My family is also supportive in helping me find ways to take care of myself. For example, whenever I get really overwhelmed I usually go to a family members’ house and hang out for the day. So my grandmother may come home from a doctor’s appointment and find me on the couch watching old television shows and she doesn’t think anything is out of the ordinary. I think that they are just happy to provide safe spaces for me as they always have. That’s just very important to have regardless of what field or environment you’re in; a support system is always needed no matter what.
Describe your perfect Sunday:
-Where are you?
-What are you eating that day?
-What music are you listening to?
-Who are you with?
Sunday is always a great day for me because it’s my day off from the hospital where I work full-time. I get to sleep in late and I usually get woken up by my uncle to remind me to go to church. After church, it’s my family time. I spend time with my siblings, we usually watch movies or go out to eat, but we try to do something fun. Often we include our best friends with us and make it a group outing. We usually get coffee and lunch; sometimes we get deli food and just hang out at home. Towards the late afternoon we go and visit both sets of grandparents, this involves eating a soul food Sunday dinner twice and listening to what my grandmother calls “the oldies but goodies” on the radio. A perfect Sunday would be a summer holiday weekend like Memorial Day, my extended family of cousins on both sides will come to South Jersey, then there is a massive barbecue, with family, friends, neighbors. Little ones are running around, getting in the pool, my cousins and I are the older set of the grandchildren now reliving our childhood memories through watching the young ones. We watch old movies in my grandparents’ living room and reminisce by telling funny childhood stories. There is a lot of laughter and smiles. My entire family is crowded in the kitchen, living room and backyard. We play old songs and just enjoy each other’s company.
As a woman in this political workplace, how do you balance it all?
I think that you balance it, the same way women in other industries balance it all. You just do! I believe that you can have success personally, professionally and politically but you have to be organized, there will be choices and sacrifices and you will need a great support system. The most important take away is that it can be done. I will be the first to tell you that I haven’t mastered it yet and I don’t think any person can but it’s a constant work in progress, an assessment and reassessment, and a redefining of goals. That is not a bad thing and it can be done. You have got to define what this structure looks like for you and no one else. You have got to run your race for you and define success and a balance for you and your family based on your vision, goals, and definition, not on the assumptions or expectations of others.