A Plus' Game Changer Of The Year

Ashley Bennett Ran Because Of A Meme — And Became Part Of A Movement

Part 5 of A Plus's Game Changer of the Year series.

Ashley Bennett didn't expect to win. She just wanted to stand for something.

Who could blame her? The 32-year-old had decided to run as a Democrat for the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders in one of New Jersey's most infamous Republican strongholds, and she did it in large part because of an offensive Facebook post.  

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It all began after former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's election loss. Bennett remembers crying at work the next day and feeling disheartened about a potential first female president losing to Donald Trump. She and her co-workers decided to get more engaged and sign up for emails from the Atlantic County Democrats. Unfortunately, one of her first opportunities to participate in activism was the Women's March in Washington D.C., but she couldn't take off from her job as a screener for a 24-hour emergency crisis hotline. 

Not long after the march, she got an email that included a screenshot of a Facebook post from John Carman, a local elected official on the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders. Carman had posted a picture on the day of the Women's March which showed a woman over the stove cooking. 

The meme said: "Will the woman's protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?"

"Just asking?" Carman wrote in his post. 

The meme Carman reportedly posted.

"I was angry because I felt like this last presidential election had been so divisive," Bennett told A Plus. "For me to see my own elected official... I was so angry. What you want from your elected official, when something truly just rocks you, when you worry about your future, is for them to assure you that regardless of who is in the White House, we're in a community, we're going to stick together. And we didn't get that."

Bennett had already been exploring conditions in Atlantic County, as she was working on a county assessment while finishing her third graduate degree in public health and administration. She wrote to Carman and he didn't respond, so she showed up at a town hall and asked him questions. His answers, she thought, were unsatisfying. So, with the support of her family and friends, she decided to run for his seat on the board.

"It doesn't pay for any of us to be as advanced professionally or academically and not use those tools and those skills to help our community," Bennett said. 

At first, she didn't even think she could secure a nomination from the Democratic Party. She figured they'd "do what most people do to millennials" and tell her she had a great resume but should get some more experience first. Instead, they supported her too. Even then, once she was the nominee, she hardly expected to win in a historically Republican stronghold. 

"Even though this is a Republican area, I'm still a daughter of this community, I've grown up here," Bennett said. "It was an experience to knock on doors of former teachers and say, 'This is what I want to do. Can I have your support?' and to feel that support."

Bennett with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

That support pulled through. Bennett won by almost 1,000 votes of the 14,000 cast in the election, unseating Carman after three years on the board. Bennett understands she's part of a larger national movement where women, fed up with the status quo, are taking the reins. She said it's been amazing to see women and people of color putting themselves out there and fighting for the future they want to see. 

Bennett's win — and her will to run — made her one of A Plus's Game Changers of 2017.

In Atlantic City on Jan. 2 at 4 p.m., she'll be sworn into office. She's getting excited to work with other members of the board to "do what's best for our county and our community," but she's also going to go back to graduate school after taking time off to run. Bennett will be getting her last degree to complete her double master's degree in public health and administration. As for other women thinking about running for office, Bennett said to "do it." If you're scared, she insisted, then run while scared.

"If you feel the strong urge to run for office and to use your skills and your talent in that way, then you should absolutely do it," Bennett said. "You can't wait for anyone to tell you when it's your turn. It's your turn when you decide it is."

Cover image courtesy Ashley Bennett.

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