BABE #150: SARAH GANONG, Political Director @ Connecticut Working Families
Within our current political climate, it’s easy to feel discouraged about the state of our future. Today’s babe, Sarah, gives us hope and inspiration to turn our focus to the solutions. As political director at Connecticut Working Families, Sarah advocates for issues like paid family/medical leave, immigrant protection, and law enforcement accountability. Her story is a reminder that despite the magnitude of today’s problems, each individual has the power to make a difference. Thanks so much for chatting with us, Sarah!
Hometown: Ledyard, Connecticut
Current city: New Haven, Connecticut
Alma mater: Dickinson College, Carlisle PA
Degree: B.A., English & Biology
Very first job: Stage manager for visiting dance troupes and plays at my high school.
Hustle: Political Director @ Connecticut Working Families
Babe you admire and why?
My grandma, Grayce Patterson, who passed away in 2016. She was one of the most supportive and non-judgemental people I’ve ever known, which are both traits I wish I displayed more frequently. A couple of months after she died, I got a tattoo to remember her and to remind myself about the way she made people around her feel.
How do you spend your free time?
I try to be pretty regimented with my time so I don’t get burned out during busy campaign seasons. Favorite relaxing activities include going on hikes, watching baseball (go Red Sox!), playing board games and reading.
Favorite app, website or blog?
Instagram and Audible. Books on tape are a lifesaver on my commute.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Apple pie and blueberry pie. I’m a dessert person.
What is something you want to learn or master?
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
I’d love to get coffee with Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour leader, and Bernie Sanders. They’re both major leaders of political movements fighting back against austerity and the dangerous corporate agenda and I’d love to hear their advice and stories. Bernie’s book is next on my reading list—hopefully that’ll be about the same as sitting down for coffee.
What’s something not many people know about you?
I love to scrapbook! It’s a great way to preserve memories and I find designing and constructing the pages really relaxing as a creative outlet.
Tell us about your hustle.
I’m the political director at Connecticut Working Families, an independent political party and advocacy organization. In my role, I spend a lot of time organizing regular people and allies to advocate for on issues important to working people at the state legislature, like paid family and medical leave, raising the minimum wage, protecting immigrants, police accountability and fair taxation policies. Our organization believes in using the power of the ballot box to hold elected officials accountable, so I’m also involved in our candidate and campaign staff recruitment and training program. We run candidates to win, so it’s a big and wonderful responsibility.
What does your typical workday look like?
Everyone always says this, but I don’t have a typical workday. Right now, my commute is about 45 minutes, so I have a chance to catch up on the news on my drive to work. Once I get into the office, I might be prepping a training for field directors to help them create a plan to knock on doors and win their election. I might have a meeting with our communications director to solicit letters to the editor in a target district on an issue we care about. I might be organizing a public forum with candidates running for governor. I might have a meeting with someone who’s running for office and seeking our support. I might be helping to plan a protest or action in support of our campaign to tax the wealthiest Connecticut residents fairly. I might be attending a fundraiser or public hearing at the legislature or planning meeting for an upcoming press conference. Everything we do is collaborative and it’s a great atmosphere.
What inspired you to pursue a career in politics?
If you asked my parents, I think they’d say that a career in politics was inevitable. I devoured “The West Wing” (a fictional depiction of life in a progressive White House) when I was a kid. But I really was inspired by my work in the environmental movement, and knowing I wanted to get rid of politicians who weren’t doing what I liked, rather than lobbying them without success. I believe in speaking up and hard work, both of which are essential in the types of insurgent campaigns we run at Connecticut Working Families.
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting involved in politics?
Know what’s important to you and speak up—you’ll be surprised by how many like-minded people you can find. Seek out places to share your story. If you grew up near a polluting power plant and remember what it was like when you couldn’t go outside to play because of smog, find a local nonprofit working on environmental issues and ask how your story can make a difference. When trying to pass laws, stories from “regular people” who have been impacted are crucial. Look for events, like phone banks or door-to-door canvassing opportunities, to help candidates with good values. You don’t have to have any experience—a good campaign will train you.
What did your hustle look like before Connecticut Working Families?
Before Working Families I was working for an environmental nonprofit in communications and fundraising. After a couple of years, I began to realize I wanted to tackle the root of the problem and start working to get politicians I disagreed with out of office, rather than lobbying them without success year after year.
How have your past internships, education, and work experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
I went to college thinking I’d be a scientific researcher and studied neuroscience for two years. Once I realized I’m too much of a people-person to be in a lab all day, I cast around for a new major and settled on English with a concentration in biology and environmental science (my senior thesis was about climate change texts). I think this background—and my willingness to switch degrees when neuroscience didn’t feel like the right fit—really prepared me for going out on a limb and into politics when I started but didn’t have much experience. I do wish I had a stronger policy background—my classes on early modern poetry didn’t really prepare me for reading legislation.
How much collaboration goes into every new campaign?
Our staff is really small; there are only five of us full-time in Connecticut right now. We often hire temporary canvassers to go door-to-door during campaign season and advocate on our issues, and we work really closely with a huge slate of volunteers across the state on political campaigns and when we’re advocating on issues up in Hartford. The team in Connecticut is really close due both to the nature of the work and the heart that everyone puts into their jobs. It’s all-hands-on-deck every day to get things done. I can’t help but want to work harder when I’m at work.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
On July 29, 2015, I hosted my first public event for the Bernie Sanders campaign, before I knew anyone else working on his race. I’m thankful every single day that I answered an email agreeing to host the event, as it changed my life.
How has being a woman has affected your professional experience?
On the first campaign I managed, I was asked whether I was the candidate’s secretary or if I was his wife. In a lot of situations in politics, however, I think I’m at an advantage as a young woman; the “old boys club” often underestimates what we’re capable of. But it certainly wouldn’t be true if I were the one running for office. There are countless barriers to women, especially young women, running and winning. I’m always thinking about how I can help women coming behind me and speak up for women who are beside me.
What is the gender ratio like in the world of politics? Do you see that evolving?
On the advocacy side, and even to a degree on the side of campaign volunteers and staff, there are more women. But once you take a look at the people actually in office, the gender ratio becomes horrifying. There are a lot more men as elected officials. Something we also should talk about is race. America has a huge problem when it comes to race and elected officials. We’re not just electing men. We’re electing white men.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
There’s a state representative from New Haven, Robyn Porter, who’s absolutely superwoman. She holds down a regular job, takes care of her family, and is one of the best advocates for working people in the state legislature in Connecticut. I’ve also been lucky to have had strong female bosses—Laura McMillan, Leah Schmalz and Heidi Green at my previous job, and Lindsay Farrell at my current job—who have become both mentors and friends.
What’s your ultimate dream job?
When I met my predecessor and heard what he did, I remember thinking how cool his job sounded. Now I’m doing it. I try to remember that every single day.
Are you involved with any other community organizations or side projects?
Since I work in a statewide role, I try to stay engaged in my local community for volunteer work. I’m a founding member of the New Haven Climate Movement, an activist group working with the city on clean energy and sustainability projects. I’ve recently joined the steering committee of the Central Connecticut chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. It’s been a great new way to express my political views in the world outside of work.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
Jump on a campaign as a volunteer and learn as much as you can. I got started as a volunteer hosting phone banks and fundraising for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and kept asking questions of more experienced volunteers and staff. One of my favorite early political memories is sitting on the floor of my friend’s basement while everyone played video games and I instead learned how to do what’s called “cutting turf,” or creating the walk lists of likely voters for volunteers to knock on their doors the following morning. Campaigns are always underfunded and understaffed, so if you’re eager to learn you can advance quickly while still working a day job.
What does success look like to you?
Ensuring I’m in a place to keep teaching others who follow after me what I know. One of my bosses always says that she’s training people to replace her in her own job, and it’s so true. I think one of the worst mistakes people make is hoarding knowledge, when you can instead make the biggest impact in training others.
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
Journaling about my day before bed is the best way to get a stressful situation out of my head and down on paper. (And nothing beats a drink at the bar across the street with my friends after a tough day.)
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Surround yourself with good people and learn everything you can. Teach everything you know to others. Work hard and keep your word. Figure out what’s non-negotiable for you and make it happen, whether that’s turning off your phone, exercising in the morning, or having time for yourself. Your time is the most precious thing you have—don’t waste it on toxic people or relationships. And leave your comfort zone.
What’s next for you?
In 2018, I’m excited to work with a lot of great candidates running for office here in Connecticut. Personally, I’m working on cultivating female friendships this year. I know a lot of amazing women and I want my home to be a space where I bring them together.
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