Maneuvering and making change in Washington,DC, isn’t an easy thing. But political operative Atima Omara makes it seems easy.
As the founder and president of the Omara Strategy Group, Omara provides strategic political services to progressive people of color, women and LGBTQ candidates.
Having had more than a decade of campaign experience, including working for a governor as well as a campaign staffer on more than nine federal, state, and local Democratic campaigns in Virginia and other battleground states across the country, Omara has spent more than 15 years engaging youth, women, and people of color in the political process and related progressive causes.
She has successfully led grassroots advocacy campaigns in six states with labor unions and community organizations and has served as president of the Young Democrats of America. She was the first African American and the fifth woman to serve as president of the organization in its more than 80-year history.
Born in Providence, R.I. and raised in Richmond, Va., Omara said her immigrant parents from Uganda gave her a solid foundation and understanding of the world. Her father came to America as a refugee, seeking political asylum, and her mother came separately to pursue educational opportunities.
Omara talked politics and more with Parlé Magazine.
Parlé Mag: What made you want to launch Omara Strategy Group?
Atima Omara: I launched the Omara Strategy Group because I wanted to dedicate my work to electing progressive people of color, women, and LGBTQ candidates to public office. I believe that progressive social change is not solely achieved through electoral politics or activism alone, but rather a combining of the two to achieve the critical mass in a fully representative democracy.
For the last 15 years of my political career, I’ve worked for a governor, candidates for congress, a state house and municipal races. I’ve also worked on issue campaigns along with progressive organizations and Political Action Committees (PACs), supporting young people, women, and communities of color. I’ve served in the Democratic Party leadership and I’ve even run for office myself. But with all of the great candidates I’ve worked for, I’ve not seen major change at the federal, state or local level, especially as it relates to race, gender, and sexual orientation in government. Change has come, but incrementally.
Furthermore, I don’t see Black women and women of color, coming up the ranks with me or behind me. After the 2014 elections, the 114th Congress was announced as the most diverse in American history, comprised of nearly 20 percent women and just over 17 percent non-white. Still, the numbers are far less than the nation’s population, and women make up 50 percent of the population! I think we can achieve even more diversity in elected offices if we support, train and guide candidates, especially in underrepresented communities like Black, Latino and Asian communities.
A resurgence of social activism has sparked renewed interest in people running for public office for the first time in their lives. These candidates have great resumes and stories; but they need some mentoring. And that’s where the Omara Strategy Group comes in. There are many institutional barriers and roadblocks in place, which makes a political run for office more challenging, especially for people of underrepresented communities like black, Latino or Asian communities. The Omara Strategy Group will lend its expertise and guidance to many of these first-time progressive candidates along with grassroots organizations who are working to support them or mobilize resources for targeted elections.
Also, on a personal level, I got involved in politics professionally because I believed as a young, black woman—plus, the daughter of immigrants—that in politics, if you’re not at the table, then you are on the menu.
Parlé Mag: What were some of the startup challenges?
Atima Omara: Entering the world of entrepreneurship is rewarding; yet a little scary. In starting my business, of course, I relied on my knowledge and skill set from previous jobs to provide a service to my clients. However, there are some on-the-job training things that you learn as you go—like the basics of setting up a shop, learning the concepts behind scaling a business; setting up an accounting system; securing a business license; understanding tax laws and filing taxes as a small business; plus, integrating public relations and marketing initiatives with a presence on social media to build up your brand and attract clients.
Parlé Mag: What exactly does Omara Strategy Group do for clients or potential clients when they come in?
Atima Omara: My firm, the Omara Strategy Group, focuses on electing Democratic women, people of color and LGBTQ candidates to public office and organizations in need of political programming and capacity building services to organizations that center women and people of color in their mission.
I help candidates get their campaigns started; plus, match them with the right consultants and campaign staff that reflect and respect their values and the type of campaign they want to run. Most importantly, I help candidates find money. Not only in their networks, but I also help them identify financial backers and PACs that want to support them. Furthermore, I guide candidates through the fund-raising process and develop a field program to reach voters. Plus, I guess you can say that I’m a little like Olivia Pope on “Scandal.” I’m a fixer! I fix things on campaigns if they are not going well or provide consulting and expertise on things that the staff may not have the capacity to do. But that’s just scratching the service. There’s a laundry list of services provided by the Omara Group, such as political trainings sessions, special events, grant writing, and creating political mobilization programs—just to name a few.
Parlé Mag: Why was it important for you to focus on electing progressive people of color, women, and LGBTQ candidates to public office?
Atima Omara: As I said, four out of five members of Congress are white, and four out of five are men. After the 2014 elections, the 114th Congress was announced as the most diverse in American history. I reiterate, we can do better than that.
When you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu or sometimes not given a thought, even with best intentions laid. Therefore, it’s not surprising that issues that disproportionately affect communities of color, women, or the LGBTQ community are often not fully addressed in public policy because they can be often an afterthought when those communities are not well represented in public office.
Representation matters. Especially, if the United States is to live up to democracy—the land of the free, home of the brave. With better representation, there can be better policy for ALL communities.
Parlé Mag: There have been many articles about how Black women are saving politics, why so? Why now?
Atima Omara: In 2013, I was elected president of the Young Democrats of America (YDA), the nation’s largest partisan youth organization, representing young people in the Democratic Party. The organization formed in 1932, and has served as a youth arm for the larger Democratic Party. Despite African-American voters being a powerful base for the Democratic Party, the YDA had never elected an African-American to serve as president. After 81 years, I was the first Black person, and only the fifth woman to hold that role. Today, I am an elected Democratic National Committee (DNC) member from Virginia and a vice chair of the DNC’s Women’s Caucus.
After the 2016 presidential elections, there were various special elections around the nation. The 2017 statewide Virginia elections and the surprising, to many, the Alabama Senate results, was a clear indication that African-Americans, particularly Black women voters, have been the largest, contributing voting demographic when it comes to Democratic Party victories. If you’ve been a Black person, working in politics professionally or even as a volunteer, supporting particular candidates, this is not surprising news. It just became more apparent to the rest of the world when the numbers came in from those hotly-contested races. Numbers don’t lie.
Black women have a great history of social and political activism in the United States. Whether it was in the Civil Rights Movement with women like Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, Ida B. Wells or Fannie Lou Hamer, who were also advocates of women’s rights. There’s also Marsha P. Johnson, a noted leader in the Stonewall uprising in New York and led the way on LGBTQ issues as they intersected with the Black community. Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement to help women and girls of color realize their place in fighting sexual violence, and recognize that they were not alone. Wherever there has been a fight for equality and justice, black women have never been far behind because our lives are at stake, and we’ll be more adversely affected than other communities. We show up at the polls not to save others; but frankly, to save our communities. It’s just others who benefit as a result of our activism.
Parlé Mag: What was the experience like being the first African-American and the fifth woman to serve as president of the Young Democrats of America from 2013-2015 in its more than 80-year history?
Atima Omara: Firstly, it was an honor and a privilege to make history in the Democratic Party with my presidency of Young Democrats of America (YDA). I had the opportunity to serve as president at the same time that we had Barack Obama in office as our nation’s first African-American president.
In addition, a colleague of mine served as president of the College Democrats of America (CDA), and she was the second African-American woman to do so at the same time of my presidency. Despite these milestones of success for Black people in politics, there were still indicators that we still had a long way to go. During my presidency, Black Lives Matter came to the forefront as movement, sparked by the shooting of Mike Brown, and I felt it my duty to foster hard conversations with our leaders within Young Democrats about police brutality and institutional racism. We had a national meeting in St. Louis, and the conversations within our organization, leading up to the national meeting, which really highlighted for me how much education and dialogue we still need to have on race in this country…even among folks who style themselves as progressive-minded people.
Thirdly, running and serving as president of the YDA as a woman, especially a woman of color, confirmed to me how far we still have to go as a country when it comes to adjusting to women in leadership roles.
And finally, the experience also taught me a lot about running for office, party politics, and how to run an organization. This experience truly helped me become more comfortable as a political leader and embrace the spotlight as a new voice for people in underrepresented communities. Being comfortable with party politics and knowing the ropes of how a political party works has been extremely helpful, especially with the launch of my new firm, the Omara Strategy Group. It also greatly contributed to my success as an elected member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from my state after my term as president of YDA ended.
Parlé Mag: How has the Trump era affected the politics of people of color, women, and LGBTQ candidates?
Atima Omara: The Trump era has jolted a lot of people—that is, civically awakening and inspiring them to run for office. People of color, women and LGBTQ candidates quickly realized the harmful effects of President Trump’s policies to their communities.
For example, in 2016, Emily’s List, one of the nation’s largest PACs for pro-choice Democratic women, reported that close to 900 women contacted them, interested in a run for office. Today, in a short span—between the end of 2016 going into 2018—approximately 26,000 women have reached out to Emily’s List for support in seeking public office. Other women’s political organizations have felt the heat as well, such as Higher Heights for America, that financially supports Black women seeking public office. They have received a lot interest from women of color, reaching out and asking about their training services and how to get involved. Victory Fund, a national PAC that endorses openly LGBTQ candidates, have already endorsed 45 openly LGBTQ candidates so far this year, and they expect to endorse more than 150 LGBTQ candidates this cycle, making it the biggest endorsement slate in the organization’s 26-year history.
Strategically, the Omara Strategy Group is gearing up in the era of Trump where new voices and views are seeking a seat at the political table. There’s been a surge of groundbreaking Democratic wins for women and people of color across the country in part, sparked by a new breed of civic-minded individuals interested in running for public office.
Parlé Mag: How do you feel Washington, D.C. has changed in the past five years?
Atima Omara: Washington, D.C., has grown exponentially. In the last decade, more people are moving to the city than moving out. New restaurants are opening, new businesses are popping up, technology industries are locating offices not only in the District, but also, just outside of the area, in the metro corridors of Maryland and Virginia.
Parlé Mag: What advice would you give to young, African-American women looking to enter the world of politics?
Atima Omara: Decide on what issues you care about, and get involved in your community. I know there are many folks who don’t like to identify by a party, especially the younger folks. But, if you want to be involved in American politics beyond just voting, you’ll have to pick a party where your values most align. Whichever party you choose, get involved at the local level. You may not want to be a party leader, but you should volunteer to understand how the political process works; how political parties work; and how candidates are nominated for public office.
Mostly importantly, #StayWoke.
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