Pam Costain on Authenticity in Politics

Amra Avdic interviewed Minnesota women engaged with politics to share conversations with her television audience in Bosnia about how to engage and support women candidates and voters in what has been perceived as a patriarchal society.

Transcript (lightly edited)

Today’s guest is a very inspiring woman and her name is Pamela Costain. For 14 years, she was Executive Director of the Resources Center of the American and International Human Rights Organization. In 2003, she helped found Wellstone Action, an organization dedicated to promoting civic engagement, where she served as director of education and training. She has extensive experience in public education reform, school and community partnerships, parent engagement and school finance. These are just some of her life tasks, and it’s my great pleasure that she’s my guest today. Thank you for being here and I want to start our conversation with one of your sentences that inspired me, personally: “I feel I have become a very intentional builder of a new generation of leaders.” What we strive for in Bosnia, is to have as many women in positions as possible, but it’s equally important that we have as many women as possible who will support those who choose to take that path. We need those who will know how to build a true leader. So, the first question is why was it important to you to focus on intentionally building leaders?

Well, it’s sort of obvious to say we all have only one life, and we have a limited time to contribute to our society and to our beliefs and we can’t do that alone. I feel that very strongly. From the time I was very young, until now, I’ve tried to focus on sharing leadership, and building up the leadership of others, because that is really truly how we have collective power. It’s even more important to me now becauseI just had my 71st birthday, so I’m an older woman. It’s very clear to me that unless I pass on skills, and power and position to younger women, then we cannot advance. I think too often older people hold on to their positions, and it’s really the opposite of what we need to do. We need to build the capacity of everyone to participate. I think women are particularly in a position to do that, because we know what it is to be without power. We know what it is to be watching powerful people act and be left out. When women have leadership roles, I think it’s really important that we use every every ounce of our energy to make sure that that leadership is shared, 

How do you intentionally build leaders?

I believe a good leader is a good listener. Good leaders don’t talk all the time. They listen to other people, they learn from other people, they enable themselves to change. The first thing I would say is, it’s critical to be a good listener. It’s important to allow other people to have the limelight to be in front so that we don’t always have to be the person in front — we can be the person in the back. Even if we are the positional leader, we can actually encourage people to be the speaker, the writer, the spokesperson, that kind of thing. So that’s another way to do it. I think it’s also important to just talk with other women about what their strengths and their weaknesses might be and help them to both identify their strengths and work on the things that they need to improve. So there’s an intentionality about being a mentor that I think is really important for leaders, but especially women leader.

When we are speaking about women in leadership positions, I would allow myself to say we are natural leaders in everyday life, but still we have some kind of fright. We are frightened from some kinds of things. What do you see in women as their biggest fright when they are speaking about political positions, political roles, leadership roles?

Well, we know here in the United States from research that women don’t feel that they should run for political office as easily as men do; there’s been research that shows that an inexperienced man feels that they can run for political office over a very highly experienced woman. Part of that is internal to women, we need to get over the sense that we are less than that, we’re not as capable, or that we have to have a resume that’s a mile long, in order to run for political office. I ran for the school board in my city. One of the things I realized running for political office is the other people who run are no more smart than I am, they just decided to run. I would say that that’s true, up and down, you know, the the level of politics; it’s not that people are absolutely brilliant or talented or experienced, it’s they decided to run. They decided to put themselves forward to take the risks and rewards of that. When they did that, then they could claim leadership, but women tend to moderate ourselves too much. We tend to hold back too much and defer to others, in particular men. We just have to stop it. I believe, in general, not every specific case, women can be better leaders than men; more collaborative, more inclusive, more democratic. I think it’s really important for women to just be bold, and take that step.

Yes. Although I’m focused on women through these interviews, I cannot help but refer to one obviously very important man. Many of the women that I interviewed during this series of interviews, mentioned Senator Paul Wellstone, which I would say deep, deep, deep respect, that a good leader is a good leader and regardless of gender. Why was he such an important and good leader as an inspiration to many?

Well, first, let me just say just a little bit more about Paul Wellstone. Paul began his career as a college professor. He was deeply committed to students and to student leadership. He also believed in social movements, social organizing, but he also taught that it’s not sufficient to have a social movement if you don’t also have political power. He was very strategic about how he moved. The reason he is so important as an individual is because being a leader was never about Paul, it was about the good of the community. If I could say one message to your audience, it’s that it’s not about us, as leaders, it’s about what’s good for the community. And Paul embodied that. So you would go to a meeting with Paul, and instead of calling attention to himself, he would start pointing around the room at all the wonderful things other people were doing or had done. He celebrated other people, he built them up, he held them up. So first of all, he was just very inclusive, he was non-egotistical. He was very authentic. He wasn’t playing politics; he believed politics was the way to improve people’s lives. He practiced politics in a way that was very inclusive and practical. Again, not about him, because he really, truly believed that one person doesn’t make change. But collectively, people make change. He was incredibly powerful. He also believed that there was great joy in politics, great joy in public life and public service. He exuded that joy. So it’s not doom and gloom, and all the things that are wrong, but it’s what we can do together to make life better for the most people in our community. And there is joy in doing that, if you celebrate community.

You worked with Senator Wellstone from the time you came out of college, and you worked on his campaign as you helped many other people. From your experience, how do you build quality campaigns? How do you gain the trust of the community that you are the right choice for them? What would you say?

I think that’s such an important question. And here’s my answer. If you are rooted in community, if you already have strong experience in a community, you are known, you have paid your dues, in community work, you will be a better leader. So what we don’t need any more of is people who we say just swooped down from above, think they’ve got all the answers, and at the last minute tell people, “Vote for me. Vote for me.” The best leaders are rooted in their communities; they have strong relationships, they know who the organic leaders are, and who the kind of faith leaders are. And they build the capacity of community. So what I learned very much from Paul Wellstone and, and the only people I support now in politics is those people who are rooted in community, who really practice humility, but also build up others. If we just come in at the last minute and ask people or communities for a vote, we might get it. It’s a very transactional way to do politics, but we won’t transform our society. The way we transform society is through long-term relationships where people operate collectively to create change. And that’s the kind of politician I look for. So there’s an authenticity that I find in those people that makes more difference than almost anything.

Why do you think we still have a global under-representation of women in key political positions?

I could give you a very glib answer, which is that we live in a patriarchy. We live in patriarchal societies, whether or not we live in rich countries, like the United States, or very poor countries, or somewhere in between. We still live in patriarchal societies where these are hundreds, thousands of years old, and the traditions are embedded for a very long time. It takes a great deal of work and patience to move out of that. I think it’s important for people to recover their own histories. When we uncover our own histories, I think we see the leadership of women. I think it’s really important to see invisible work that is done by women to hold societies together, to hold communities together. So I think it’s really difficult everywhere. It’s embarrassing to live in the United States and still have poor representation in Congress, poor representation in our business community. So it’s not exclusive to less developed countries. On the other hand, I have seen in my lifetime, tremendous change, absolutely tremendous, phenomenal change. And so it can be done. It’s being done here. And it can be done around the world.

Yes, I also want to believe in that, and that is the reason why I’m doing all of this. But as a peace activist, you were part of an anti-Iraq War rally, and you have been a part of Native Rights and Education for All. What are the reasons for being part of these issues? I must admit, it seems to me that being a part of these, for example, these rallies, it’s very brave. Do you see that as maybe I see that?

The first time I participated in a demonstration, which was 50 years ago, it was very brave. The more I did it, the more I did not feel it was brave; I just thought it was my obligation. I think the first time we step out of our roles or out of our comfort zone or out of what people expect of us, then it does, cause there’s there’s a need to be brave, but I don’t feel it’s brave. I feel like it’s the only way I can live my life. So I’ve done a lot of things. Some of them are protests and demonstrations, I think it’s important that we call authorities to account. Some of them are building institutions, both alternative institutions and regular institutions. Some of it is educating and organizing people. So I think all of those things are important. I think we can’t rely simply on protest to make change. But nor can we rely simply on trying to reform an institution — we need all of it. At some points in my life, I’ve been more inclined to protest. Other times I’ve been more inclined to the difficult work of changing institutions from the inside. Sometimes I have worked to build alternative institutions, food cooperatives or women’s organizations or whatever. What I want to be sure is that we don’t judge people where they choose to put their energy, but we see it all as a part of a whole. One is not necessarily better than the other, and different times require different tactics. So, yes, I have protested wars. I have a history of protesting US involvement in bad foreign ventures around the world, but I also feel very strongly about the rights of native people in my own country. I work there, I have worked for human rights. I guess the other thing I’m trying to say is whether or not we work with a global focus, or a local focus, we are contributing. We need to practice valuing each of those perspectives. Everybody does what they can, where they are. And I think that’s the most important thing.

To be a part of protests and to be an activist, sometimes, in different time periods, it was not popular, and how was it to live your life, in maybe a society that doesn’t support you or don’t understand you? And still knowing that it’s an obligation to be a part of these protests of activism and things like that?

I have a lot of criticisms of my own government. But one thing I will say is, I deeply value the right to protest, the right to free speech, the right to say what we think and to call those in power to account. I feel both honored to live in a country where democratic values are practiced, and where they are constantly threatened; they could go away in a minute. I do believe that we can’t take protest for granted. We have to really strengthen and fortify the institutions that allow a variety of opinions to be present in a society and to allow protest.  I also believe that that part of that is practicing in our own lives, respect for other people too, and respect for differences, and the ability to have a civil conversation about how to proceed to solve problems in our society. I think it both starts with us and it is part of protests, but I think we must keep open the space for protest. As somebody who’s not no longer young, but who was young once — the young people lead us in protest; they have the energy, they have the idealism, they have the enthusiasm. I really appreciate the fact that in almost every society, it’s young people who open up the space, push the politicians, and then the politicians hopefully have to respond.

For the end, for all the women who are watching us at this particular moment and thinking whether to engage politically in any way, or even run for office or just engage politically, what would you say to them?

I would say, first and foremost, believe in yourself. Again, you are as smart, as talented, as skilled, as experienced as anybody else out there. If you have deficits in those areas, learn them. You can learn to be a better speaker, you can learn to be a better writer, you can learn to be a better policy analyst. But don’t underestimate yourself. That’s the first thing I’d say it’s up to all women. Secondly, I would say lean on other women for support, build networks of sisterhood, where people are bucking each other up to do hard things. The third thing is to know that public life is very difficult for families. You need to have the support of your family to do it. It’s very, very hard to be a public person without family support; it could be parents, it could be a spouse, or friends or whatever. But increasingly, public life can be very ugly and very mean. One has to have a lot of strength internally to do it. The way you do that is to build your support system. The other thing is to know that you can be part of history. You can make history. History is made by people who decide to act. What I would say to all women thinking about leadership, do it. You’ll make mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, but do those things and you will grow and you will benefit your society.