Wellesley Alumnae Take Office

michelle au
Author  Cheryl Minde ’24
Published on 

As 2021 gets underway, several Wellesley alumnae are among the elected officials—new and returning—being sworn in at all levels of government.

Among them are Dr. Michelle Au ’99, the first Asian American woman elected to the Georgia state senate; Ursula A. Hall ’87, reelected as a judge for the Texas 165th District Court, and Ilana Dubin Spiegel ’91, elected to the University of Colorado board of regents (Colorado is one of only four states that elects the governing board of its flagship university system). Below they share thoughts about their experiences running for office, the impact of a Wellesley education and more.

What motivated you to run for office?

Ursula A. Hall: I was motivated by my deep care for diversity—not only the diversity of my cultural heritage, but also, my practice perspective, as a sole practitioner and then-sitting associate municipal judge for the City of Houston.

Ilana Dubin Spiegel: What motivated me was my personal and professional devotion to serving students, educators, and the community. As a mother of four and an educator, I’ve seen firsthand the power of an education to transform an individual life or an entire community. My background fighting for policies to eliminate opportunity gaps for students of color, students with disabilities, and low income and first-generation college students is part of my 360-degree view of education. As a result, I understand and value our education systems, and saw a need for new leadership that is responsive to hardworking students and families.

Michelle Au: Pretty early on in most people’s medical careers—and I mean as early as medical school—we come to realize that by the time our patients get to us, if they can get to us at all, it’s too late to treat many of the problems that made them sick in the first place.

In the public health arena, we call these larger factors the “social determinants of health.” They include broader issues like health care and insurance access. Education. Economic opportunity. Systemic racial inequity. Public safety. All these things make a far bigger difference in our patients’ health outcomes than nearly anything we can do in the hospital or at our clinics.

I don’t think science is a partisan issue. However, I think public health is inherently political, because the arm of action for public health is policy, which is determined by the body politic. Once I realized that the kind of work I sought to do flowed through the legislature, it became clearer that running for office was a way to accomplish those goals.

Did you always imagine holding an elected office?

Hall: I did not always imagine myself as a judge; I was well into my career as a sole practitioner when my father’s assistant called to schedule a breakfast with me. My father wanted to discuss my career plans with me—something he had never done in that imposing, formal way. (He was a longtime public servant and lawyer who was intimately involved in state politics and municipal service.) He recommended that I consider applying for a municipal judgeship—and the rest, as they say, is history.

Au: I never imagined myself running for office. Never. Really the concept of being involved in politics as anything more than a spectator had not crossed my mind until after the election in 2016, or more precisely, the morning of November 9, 2016.

I suspect that was a galvanizing moment for many people, but on that morning, I realized that whatever I was doing in my regular work, it clearly wasn’t enough. Secondly, I realized that there could be a role—indeed a responsibility—for people with expertise in science and medicine and public health to contribute more to the political process.

How did your time at Wellesley shape you and your work?

Hall: Wellesley affirmed all of my heart’s beliefs in female unlimitedness, human interdependence, universality, and the power of knowledge. Wellesley women are natural, esteemed doers in every way!

Spiegel: As an economics and English double major, I wrote my honors thesis about the impact of local property tax increases used to fund education, an empirical test of the Tiebout hypothesis. I had the honor of being advised by Professor Emeritus Karl “Chip” Case, and to work with professors Susan Skeath and Ann Velenchik. It was through that work that I became fascinated with how we determine “good schools,” and who gets to decide.

I also volunteered at a local residential facility for abused and neglected children through Tau Zeta Epsilon. By the spring of my senior year, I had realized my passion for working with children and families, serving those in need, and was truly called to be a teacher.

Au: My introduction to Wellesley was a challenge, and it was not love at first sight. It took me a long time to get comfortable there, and to feel like it was where I belonged. How I dealt with this feeling of dislocation was by deciding to just try a little of everything, in hopes that something would click.

From the very first day of my time at Wellesley, there was a feeling, a culture, that soaked into its students. That being at Wellesley wasn’t about being perfect, and it wasn’t about the expectation of consistent success, and it definitely wasn’t about avoiding the risk of failure. That the experience of Wellesley was about the openness to being open. That it was about seizing every opportunity, no matter how silly, or how wild, or how far the reach. That being a Wellesley student was quite simply defined by the ability to ask not, “why,” but always ask, “Why not?”

How has your experience as a woman of color shaped your approach to your campaign and your position now?

Hall: My positionality as a woman of color has shaped my approach to law and my campaign immeasurably—my color is the source of my greatest insights of intellect, strength, creativity, empathy, joy, and tenacity.

Au: If you’d told me as a kid that I’d ever be running for office, I’d have told you that you were crazy. It’s not so much that I was told I couldn’t do it, it’s more that it would never have entered my mind. It’s not something I saw modeled, and there were few, if any, public examples of Asian American political leaders.

I’m not the first Asian woman to run for office, but I also don’t intend to be the last. And I’d also like it if my kids, and the other people in their generation, don’t have to say that they never saw examples of people like them doing the same.

When a straight white dude runs for office, no one views it as a novelty act. I don’t want to be a novelty either. I’d like to be part of making this path a little more normal for other Asian leaders in the future.

What are your thoughts about the events that unfolded at the Capitol on January 6?

Spiegel: As a descendant of a family of Holocaust survivors, I watched in horror as insurrection took place and members of Congress had to take shelter. The foundation of our democratic republic lies on the ability of our people to make informed decisions and to sort facts from conspiracy theories. The cornerstone of that foundation is our system of public schools and public institutions of higher education. We must re-commit to public education as a public good.

Au: The events showed that the ideals and institutions of our American democracy cannot be taken for granted. I think we're in an incredibly perilous period in our history, where we see the fundamental founding principles of our country being challenged and tested.

I also think that what we’ve seen in the immediate aftermath of this insurgent movement is the assertion of those founding principles, and the reassurance that they’ve held strong under assault.

But this is a reminder that we cannot become complacent. The American experiment continues, and outcomes are not assured or guaranteed. We’re charting our nation's history in real time right now. What do you want to be in that history?

What would you say to Wellesley students who are interested in pursuing an elected position?

Hall: I would say: Just do it!

Spiegel: Find your passion, your issue, your why. This is more about what is in your heart than what is in your mind. Wear that heart on your sleeve. Use what you know, what you have learned, what is in your mind to find the words to talk and write about your why. Tell the truth. That way you never have to remember what you said. No elected position is worth sacrificing your family and friends. You want to be able to look your friends and family in the eyes and say you did everything you could in a way you can all be proud of regardless of the outcome. Pursuing an elected position is a team sport. Find great players for your team, ones who challenge you, ones who are good at things you are not good at, ones who can cheer you on.

Au: Communities are hungry for representation that reflects the full diversity of the human experience. The value that each of us brings—with our different backgrounds, different experiences—matters more than we appreciate.

We have to stop thinking of diversity in our representation as superficial. We need to talk more about the fact that a focus on diversity is an investment, and that the value we obtain from that investment cannot be replicated in any other way.

Find your mentors. Find out the issues you’re passionate about. Find fixable problems. And if a career in public service, a life in politics, a run for office, is a way to work on those issues and fix those problems, I say, “Why not?”