LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In a small meeting room at Georgetown University this past week, a group of high school girls was given a challenge. Take an issue you care about and deliver a 30-second elevator pitch that would persuade someone like Oprah Winfrey, say, or Bill Gates to give you money for your cause.
NAYLA HALE: Hi, everyone. My name is Nayla Hale. I'm running for senator. And one of the main issues I have is civic engagement.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This session is part of a summer camp aimed at getting young women invested in politics. It's called the Young Women's Political Leadership Program, run by national organization Running Start. It's a bipartisan initiative that brings over 60 girls from all over the country to D.C. for a week of intensive training and networking. Susannah Wellford is the founder and director. She told me each high-school girl has to choose an issue she wants to focus on.
SUSANNAH WELLFORD: The reason that we did it that way is that women in general - the motivation for them running for office is a little bit different than men's. So when you ask elected leaders - why did you run? - men are so much more likely to say, I've always wanted to run. And women are so much more likely to say, I saw this problem in my community. Nobody was doing anything about it. And I knew I had the power to change it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This past election motivated a lot of women to get involved in politics on both sides of the partisan divide. But Wellford says her youth-oriented organization hasn't seen the same bump.
WELLFORD: I think that there is a message there that young women - they are a little warier about running right now because of the ugliness of the campaign.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one of the goals of this program is to prepare the girls for the difficulties they could face in public life.
WELLFORD: They'll be criticized for how they look, for their weight, whether they have children, whether they don't have children. So what we tell them is run for office because you really believe in something. And if you are passionate enough about that reason to run, then you're going to be able to let some of this negative stuff just roll off your back.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Great. That was 45 seconds.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in the meeting room, it's clear the girls are passionate. Many have been involved in school politics or debate teams. And some of the issues they're championing here deal with tough stuff.
OLIVIA BALDACCI: My name is Olivia Baldacci. I'm running for state representative. My issue is education of sexual harassment and assault in main schools. I have a personal connection to it because...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the staff members, Melissa Richmond, jumps in after Olivia's pitch. She's a seasoned political operative who worked on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
MELISSA RICHMOND: Can I give Olivia a huge compliment? She said, I'm the person for this job. And I don't know if you guys have heard about this, but women generally tend to undervalue their own qualifications. So a woman my age think she's half as qualified as a man with the exact same qualifications when it comes to running for office.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: For most of these girls, it's clearly the first time they've heard about some of the barriers women in public life face.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Wait. So what you're saying is women don't always get the benefit of the doubt men like men do when we're running?
RICHMOND: I would say not at all. And have you heard about this thing called the double bind? So for men, you can be unlikable but viewed as qualified. For women, your perception of qualification on the part of the voters is totally tied to your likability. So if you're unlikable, that's bound to the voters' perceptions of your qualifications. And you're also seen as unqualified.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The girls groan in response. After the session, we gather a few of them around to talk about why they came here. This is Natalie Winters from California.
NATALIE WINTERS: For me, it was definitely the 2016 presidential election. As a Republican and seeing Trump's victory, it made me realize that I have a voice, and people who share my opinions have a voice. You know, a lot of our party is old, white men, which I'm hoping to change - which this program has made me realize that I can run. And if I do run, there's a really good chance that I can win.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for Nakeeyah Garland, who just turned 18, it's not just about women in politics.
NAKEEYAH GARLAND: I would like to see more women of color in politics because I feel like - especially when working with younger students, they didn't see themselves as leaders. Like, oh, I can't do this. I can't do that. Or I don't look this certain way. So I can't do X, Y, Z. But I feel like we need to start ingraining in our girls mostly that they can be whatever they want to be.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Seventeen-year-old Mona Ghalby is of Iranian descent. And the issue she wrote about in her application was breaking down stereotypes and fears over Muslims. She says the best part has been interacting with people she may not encounter in her daily life.
MONA GHALBY: As a young Democrat, I live in an area where I have a lot of people who agree with me from Southern California. And meeting a lot of these amazing, young Republican women - I don't have to disagree with them in a rude, obnoxious way. I can just respectfully say, I don't agree with your stance, but I understand where you're coming from there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many of the girls told me to look for them on the ballot in the years to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.