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Sisterhood on the Political Campaign Trail

The life of a career politician is filled with public ire and scrutiny, but women of color face a unique hill to run up in their campaigns. On October 13, Regis University’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, in conjunction with the Denver Public Library, aired a showing of Rebekah Henderson’s Running with My Girls, a documentary detailing the difficulties that Henderson’s friends Shayla Richard, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, Dr. Lisa Calderón, and Veronica Barela faced in their campaigns for office. Shontel Lewis was also featured in the film, with her successful run to become RTD Director of District B in Denver, which in part inspired the making of the film.

Henderson is an amateur filmmaker who quit her job and crowdfunded to make the documentary. Being friends with each of the women running, Henderson was there for every personal moment and captured the raw emotion that came with them.

“Nobody paid me to make this movie,” said Henderson during the panel discussion after the showing. “I made it because I thought it would be awesome and fun. I had no idea what I was getting into, and it was a very intense experience for me also.”

These women ran into problems with the media, either due to a lack of coverage or a wild swing of the truth. Famously, Councilwoman Candi received horrific backlash when she was labeled a communist by right wing media. The film includes a scene as CdeBaca shows the police the countless death and rape threats she received in response.

The elections took place in 2019, with CdeBaca, Barela and Richard all running for seats on the Denver City Council. Calderón challenged incumbent Michael Hancock for Mayor and ran her campaign in part on the slogan “Times up, Hancock.” Hancock had received allegations of sexual misconduct within his office, which inspired Calderón to get him out of office.

“This film is a love story among all of us and our community, and even though there were very hard parts of it, I’m just so proud of everything that we did, and are doing, and will continue to do,” Dr. Calderón said.

Despite the hopeful tone of the documentary, only one of the four women won their race. Councilwoman CdeBaca became the first Latina and LGBTQ+ representative of Denver’s city council. Though happy that at least one of them won, each panelist admitted they were a little disappointed with the outcome.

Richard and Barela both chose to spend time with family immediately after their elections, while Dr. Calderón began working for CdeBaca until she had the opportunity to work as an executive for Emerge: an organization dedicated to training women to run for office and supporting their campaigns. And despite her supposed retirement, Barela began working as Deputy Director of Denver Metro Fair Housing Center, which is a non-profit dedicated to fighting for fair and affordable housing, particularly for people of color.

Even if more of these women had all won their races, Lewis says there are plenty more problems when it comes to actually holding office. As the only person of color on the board of RTD directors, she struggles in getting her peers to understand how their policies affect minorities.

“I was able to bring forward a resolution for directors to participate in justice, equity, and diversity training, because they really, really need that,” said Lewis to a round of laughter.

Despite their losses in 2019, Richard and Dr. Calderón still have aspirations for holding office. Dr. Calderón even announced her candidacy for Denver Mayor the same day of the showing, which received a round of applause from the audience during the panel. 

The film’s raw portrayal of being a woman in politics inspired many viewers in attendance, with one woman of color saying, “There’s a sisterhood in this film that you really don’t see. I think it will help them (young women) want to do more for their community and to actually run for office.”

Interim Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program Robin Koenigsberg was elated to host this showing and panel discussion. “The words they express really carried the moment, and this is a very worthwhile conversation,” said Koenigsberg.

Both Emerge’s and Henderson’s goal is to inspire more women and women of color to run for office, and become active in their communities. Each panelist refused to sugar-coat the realities of running for office, but also made clear the necessity of working together with other women, as they did during their campaigns. 

According to Henderson, “This film for me was about bearing witness to something incredible, and it was incredible, and I don’t think anyone can deny that. For me just being able to show that and share my experience was very powerful, exciting, interesting, and heartbreaking, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it if these women had not been willing to put themselves out there.”.

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