Brave Leadership
by Danielle Guillen
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” – Brené Brown, Rising Strong


never dreamt of a career in politics, but I found my political career launched when I became the policy director for a school board member in the second largest school system in the nation. Though my path to politics was not the most traditional, being a first-generation college student and Mexican-American woman from a working class family instilled in me a passion to ensure that the civic sector is accessible to everyone.

I was the campaign manager for Dulce Vasquez, a formerly undocumented chingona who ran for Los Angeles City Council against a male incumbent in the 2022 California Primary. As a first-time campaign manager, I managed a bilingual campaign team of mostly Gen-Zers and first-time campaigners. Our bilingual campaign knocked on more than 27,000 doors, called more than 10,955 voters, and sent 37,000 texts. We were also people-powered, with more than 3,000 unique donors giving more than $300,000 to the campaign.

The campaign experience forced me to reconcile with a new aspect of my leadership. It forced me to step into my vulnerability and be seen.

Making Democracy Move in Los Angeles
My campaign team was made up of young people who were new to politics, formerly undocumented folks, first-generation Americans, queer, people of color, women, and people from the community where our candidate was running.

Most campaign managers would opt to hire seasoned staff, but I knew that this group was the one I wanted; they represented a valuable investment. I had to follow my gut. I knew the only way I could manage this campaign against a powerful and corrupt incumbent and their monied interests in Los Angeles was to build a team with skin in the game, a team with heart.

#TeamDulce Field members ready to canvass neighborhoods in South Central, Los Angeles.

#TeamDulce Field members ready to canvass neighborhoods in South Central, Los Angeles.

Danielle and her campaign team preparing for a canvass day talking to neighbors about the upcoming election.
Danielle and her campaign team preparing for a canvass day talking to neighbors about the upcoming election.
#TeamDulce participating in CicLAvia encouraging riders to get out the vote.
#TeamDulce participating in CicLAvia encouraging riders to get out the vote.

#TeamDulce Field members ready to canvass neighborhoods in South Central, Los Angeles.

Danielle and her campaign team preparing for a canvass day talking to neighbors about the upcoming election.
#TeamDulce participating in CicLAvia encouraging riders to get out the vote.
Our campaign experienced many of the shady aspects of politics together. Our opponent is currently under investigation by the FBI for corruption during his tenure as a city councilmember. A newcomer to the political scene without any of the baggage, my candidate, Dulce, nonetheless was the one who faced extreme scrutiny, for many reasons: she was a Latina, a woman, young, and she refused to “wait her turn” to run. During one of the more tense campaign moments, a man came to her house to take pictures and “make sure” she lived at her registered voting address.

It was in these moments that my team reckoned with all of the emotions that come up when we are forced to move through difficult times. They would turn to me to help make sense of a campaign that oftentimes seemed like it was coming straight out of a telenovela.

It was in these moments that I sat silent, terrified, sad, angry, helpless, and equally struggling. I saw how tears and stress would creep under their eyes. Oftentimes, I cried too.

Growing as a Leader
One of my growth areas for leadership is being seen—truly seen—for my goofy, nerdy, nature-loving, emotional self. For much of my career I had been perfectly content in the shadows of who I could be when I was most powerful. I had been content to hide my emotions to make things happen. I had been content to make other people’s dreams and ambitions happen. In other words, I was happy to follow, not lead.

But as I saw my campaign team struggle through their personal life circumstances, suffering their version of imposter syndrome (from which most suffer but few admit or discuss) and the demanding aspects of the campaign, I had to step into a foreign path and do one of the hardest things for me to do: to lead but be vulnerable, and be okay with being vulnerable.

Through the Reckoning & Embracing Vulnerability
My journey to politics and managing #TeamDulce was unconventional. In my past professional life, I was called Ms. Guillen. My first office was on the second floor of a middle school building, where I was a seventh grade math and social studies teacher. I loved my profession, but the reality of teaching in America had caught up to me, and I made the difficult decision to leave education.

School had taken a toll on my mental health. I witnessed myself, my students, and my colleagues go through terrible situations. However, my breaking point was when a fellow teacher, who had a history of verbally and physically harassing students and other staff (including myself), body slammed a student and did not face any consequences. I also found myself reckoning with my profession when a male teacher sexually harassed me in front of my students during my last year of teaching. The decision to leave my classroom was devastating for me, but I realized that I needed to leave my students to focus on my mental health.

The Benefits of Reflection
At the end of the school year, I found myself packing up my belongings and moving back to my hometown in California’s Inland Empire. I spent the time thinking about what would come next. I had left my dream career and really had to think about new interests. I had always been curious about policy because I was so impacted by it in my classroom. I had almost lost my job as a first-year teacher because the federal sequester blocked my school district from receiving the funds they used to hire new teachers. My teaching experience left me with a curiosity about policy and how political decisions could so heavily impact our children.

Three years after I left my classroom I started my role as a policy director, specializing in grassroots community organizing. It was really hard financially and professionally to pivot from the classroom to policy. I worked part-time jobs tutoring and working at summer camps to make ends meet prior to going to graduate school at the University of Southern California. Even at USC, it was a constant struggle to get over the imposter syndrome to do the work that policy professionals do.

I am not new to navigating what life throws your way. For most of my life, I have seen my extended family members struggle with the darker side of life—drug addictions, bankruptcies, falling victim to the criminal justice system, mental health disorders, death—and I’ve had to balance these circumstances to find space for my own dreams. I have often had to rely on the kindness of others to help me navigate the dreams I have in my heart, such as being the first in my family to attend college.

Brave Leadership
I reflect on these times and realize that the only constants in my life have been self-doubt and a burning curiosity to explore. These qualities have taken me to the wildest of places. For much of my leadership journey, I have focused solely on my success, the goals I have reached, the hurdles I have jumped through to make things happen for myself. I was the champion of sucking things up and pushing through. In those tough moments with my campaign team, I was called to be another type of leader, one who shared the moments of my leadership journey that I had buried deep inside and labeled as irrelevant.

It was in the moments between starting a dream and getting to the end that my team needed me to go through the messy moments of my leadership journey to give them just the glimmer of hope we needed to get through that campaign day. It was in these instances that I found myself talking about my truth, such as how I struggled with the nuances of being the eldest daughter of teen parents, instead of my track record of professional success.

As I shared my most authentic truth—my fears and failures as well as my achievements—for the first time I breathed a sigh of relief. I was being seen, truly seen. Afterward, I saw us move more seamlessly together, treating each other with more kindness and accomplishing more than we thought possible: securing the endorsements of venerable LA institutions such as the Los Angeles Times and the Greater Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and finally getting recognition as a real force in Los Angeles politics.

Most importantly, I grew as a leader. I grew more authentic, kinder, more secure and willing to move through the tension, owning my truth and my needs. I held space for others and had my team hold space for me. I grew happier, more playful, and more jovial. I am thankful for #TeamDulce for showing me that we could dance, cry, be ourselves, and do the work to the highest level.

#TeamDulce no Eres Bebecita. Eres Bebesota.
I had no idea that managing my first Los Angeles city campaign would lead me to my dream team or would transform my leadership in the way it did. I had no idea how powerful a force we would become, how powerful a force I would become. I am so grateful that I had the courage to be seen. I am no longer as scared of believing in my vision for the world and fighting for it. I am no longer holding myself back from what I want to see in this world. I understand the importance of my leadership even if I am still figuring out what comes next.

#TeamDulce is still doing big things post-election. They’re on the LA Mayor’s Youth Council, advocating for the policy changes they want to see in their communities. They’re working in Los Angeles City Hall making things happen for constituents. They’re getting new jobs more aligned to their purpose. They’re following their dreams and navigating the circumstances life tosses their way with laughter, grace, and authenticity. They’re moving democracy in favor of a world that is inclusive and impactful.

As for me, I am still in awe of my campaign team. I contemplate how I can continue to build an inclusive democracy. I am still doing work in social impact. I don’t have the answers yet. I don’t know what comes next, but I do know without a doubt what type of leader I am in good times and bad. I’m ready to lead my own thing next. I’m ready to tell and define my story. I am ready to own my power and impact this world for the better.

We didn’t win the election, but #TeamDulce is here to stay.

Danielle Guillen
Danielle Guillen, a senior impact analysist at Cause IMPACTS, specializes in human-centered equity-based research, evaluation, and policy design. She has designed policies and programs domestically and internationally to ensure equity and access to opportunity, education, and employment for all. Most notably, she has developed policies and programs in school districts across the nation. She has also led field research projects for clients such as The World Bank and Colombian University Uniminuto, where she specialized in qualitative research. Guillen is a proud first-generation college student with a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Southern California. In her free time, she enjoys yoga, hikes, and visiting restaurants she sees on TikTok.