We humans

Want the system to change? Stop asking for permission — and ask for what you want

Feb 25, 2019 /

You may be overflowing with talent and ideas, but you won’t start making an impact unless you step up and stand out, says political commentator Symone D. Sanders.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community. To see all the posts, go here.

“There’s no system in power anywhere in this world that is begging for someone to come change it,” says American political commentator Symone D. Sanders.

“Change comes about because folks that are willing to organize, folks are willing to strategize, people that believe in something better come together and put pressure on the system so the system can do nothing but act,” she says. “That’s what we need in our politics today, regardless of which side of the political aisle you sit on.”

The first step to creating change, according to Sanders? “Stop asking for permission.”

Many of us have been told “Work hard and keep your head down”; “Good things come to those who wait”; “Your time will come” … or some variation. Well, if we were living in a perfect world, those statements might be true, but we’re not and they aren’t.

In 2015, Sanders was languishing in a job at a think tank that just wasn’t right for her. “After about six months, I realized that I came to Washington, DC, because I wanted to work in politics. I went on 27 interviews. If there’s a Democratic entity in DC, I interviewed there, and they did not hire me,” she recalls. “They told me I spoke so well, I was so engaging, I dressed so well, every time I came into the office I was a joy to be there, but they were going to hire somebody internally, they found somebody else for the position, or they didn’t think I was a ‘good fit.’”

Two more fruitless interviews later, she found herself meeting with then-presidential candidate and senator Bernie Sanders (no relation) about his campaign. She says, “He asked me something that not any of the 29 other interviews asked me: ‘Do you have an idea of what you’d like to do?’”

She told him she wanted to be his national press secretary, even though she’d never held a similar position. He asked her if she’d ever done cable TV, and she replied, “No, sir, but I do believe I would be very good at it.”

Five days later, Sanders was hired as the campaign’s national press secretary. At 25, she was the youngest person to hold that position for a major presidential candidate, and she stayed in the job until until June 2016. Since then, she has held fellowships at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and at the USC Center for the Political Future, and now she is a CNN political commentator and a strategic communications consultant.

She says, “Women, particularly women of color, people of color, young people, anyone who is not of the majority — we have to stop waiting and asking for permission. The fact of the matter is, sometimes you can be the best, sometimes you will be the smartest in the room, sometimes you will be the person that has done the most work, and the proverbial ‘they’ still won’t pick you because perhaps you don’t look like what they were looking for, because your experience looks a little bit different, because you do not come packaged in a way that folks were expecting.

“But if we want to change the nature of our politics, if we want to change the system, we have to be willing to do some things that haven’t been done before.”

Watch her TEDxAmsterdamWomen talk here: