Sharlett Mena’s campaign for Washington’s 29th Legislative District may have ended after the August primary. But the driving force behind why she ran in the first place is continuing into Tuesday’s general election.
Mena launched the #VoteAsYouAre project to center voices of people who she says have been historically overlooked or made invisible in government. It’s a movement of young women and non-binary people who are working to empower others with similar lived experience — especially within millennial and Generation Z populations — to use their voting power.
“This is a project that highlights Indigenous women who are going missing every single day. This is a project that highlights Black women who are being murdered without consequence. This is a project that highlights women who may not be citizens, but who still deserve equal representation in this country,” Mena said.
It’s a social media crowdsourcing campaign, with many images featured on the project website.
Mena is the daughter of immigrant farmworkers who grew up in the Tri-Cities. She is first generation Mexican American and the first in her family to graduate from college. She works as special assistant to the director of the state Department of Ecology. And at 31 already has an established record of working in government at the state and federal level, working on issues ranging from immigration policy to health care.
But she counts creating a more inclusive government as some of her most important work.
“If we don't talk to people and they don't see government in their community, they'll feel like it's not there for them,” Mena said. “We're trying to interrupt that cycle by showing that government is for us and is us and should be by us.”
Mena ran a tight race in pursuit of the 29th District seat in the state Legislature, representing Lakewood and South Tacoma, where she currently lives. She garnered endorsements from a long list of progressives, including former presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She came in a close third, trailing incumbent Steve Kirby — a Democrat who has been representing the district for two decades — by just 82 votes.
Mena says it was a tough loss, but she’s proud of the race she ran. She says the primary results showed that people in the 29th District — a racially and economically diverse area of Pierce County — are ready for change.
“Part of the motivation for running was sort of what we're talking about here, people that feel disenfranchised, people that feel invisible and people that maybe don't regularly vote or contribute to campaigns,” Mena said. “Those are the folks that we really set out to listen to and to center in our ideas and policymaking in our campaign.”
And she says the #VoteAsYouAre project aims to continue what she started.
“I've worked in government for 10 years and I've seen how decisions really just get made by those who are in the room. And if you're not there, then those opinions don't get heard,” Mena said. “It is imperative that we have people from different backgrounds and different lived experiences there.”
Mena says she believes a lot of the feelings of disenfranchisement, especially among millennials and Gen-Z, come from watching the current presidential candidates over the age of 70 continually miss the mark on climate change and issues of race. She says the national race feels personal for many, herself included, because of divisive rhetoric.
But she says this project isn’t just about who will be the next president — it’s about empowering people to care about all races, including those right here at home.
She says she’s in awe of the women and non-binary folks featured in the #VoteAsYouAre project.
“They really are influencers and game changers,” Mena said. “These are people who are doing that work in their communities and who we should all be able to get behind and work together with to make progress in this state.”
KNKX Public Radio is featuring some of the photos from the #VoteAsYouAre campaign, taken by Karina Matias, and sharing some of the stories behind them as submitted to the project.
Ivana Trottman, Olympia, 30
Career Advising Specialist at Evergreen State College
“I have the privilege of existing as an Afro-Latina in the United States, the child of Panamanian immigrants who chose to move here with the help of family. I’ve always grown up with the notion that casting your vote is your duty as a citizen, not to be taken lightly. For that reason, I believe that all who have the right to vote, should, not only for themselves but also in the best interest of their community. My right to vote is my power and my voice. If you have the right to vote and choose not to use it, you’ve decided to surrender your power and have willfully put your life in the hands of others who likely vote with values very different from your own. Nothing can silence my voice or take away my power. That’s why I vote.”
Abriel Johnny, Burien, 31
President of the board of directors at United Indians of All Tribes Foundation; Community and Tribal Engagement Manager at HealthierHere
Abriel is a Cowichan (father’s side), Tlingit (mother’s side), and an American Indian/Alaska Native who was born and raised in the Seattle area. “I vote because so many of my sisters and brothers have been wrongfully silenced and taken from us. I vote as a refusal to be silenced. I vote to bring accountability.”
Yasmin Trudeau, Tacoma, 36
First generation Bengali American; Attorney; Legislative Director for Attorney General Bob Ferguson
“I vote because the bodies of ALL my sisters depend on it.”
Sonj Basha, Seattle, 32
First generation Bengali American; diversity and equity trainer in public and private sector
“i am voting like the safety and autonomy of my body, my job security, my housing rights, and my ability to access healthcare DEPEND on it. because they do.
“i am voting because i refuse to allow the administration to dictate my ability to live my fullest and most authentic life.
“i am voting as a radical act of vulnerability, knowing that my future depends on it.”
Lucy Aragón Noriega, Pasco, 57
Immigrated from Mexico in the early '80s; did migrant farm work; paraeducator in the Pasco School District, works with students in dual-language program
“Yo voto por igualdad racial. Voto por las generaciones futuras. Voto porqué merecemos ser tratados con dignidad sin importar nuestro país de origen, color o religión.”
“I vote for racial equality. I vote for future generations. I vote because we deserve to be treated with dignity regardless of our country of origin, color, or religion.”