When a group of college-aged women arrived at a luxury Washington D.C. apartment, they planned to unpack, get to know one another and prepare for the prestigious Capitol Hill internships that awaited them over Spring semester.
But as two of the women settled into the dorm-style room they’d be sharing and began to decorate, a potential problem stared them in the face: Each hung a poster on opposite sides of the room, one pro-life, the other pro-choice.
At first frustrated and alarmed, with one calling a program director to vent late one night, the liberal and conservative roommates eventually found more than a middle ground between their twin beds -- they became good friends.
“They’re forced to consider the opinions of people who are not like themselves,” Running Start President and Founder Susannah Wellford told MSNBC, comparing her program to MTV’s “The Real World.”
The non-profit Running Start/Walmart Star Fellowship offers seven women each semester the opportunity to work closely primarily with female senators and congresswomen. The program comes with a $2,000 stipend per semester and free housing in the swanky, historic Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The program prides itself on being non-partisan, but for some fellows, the idea of such opposing, passionate views under one roof might seem more like a sentencing than a benefit.
“I’m not going to say it was all roses. It was difficult,” former fellow Antonia Okafor told MSNBC, recalling the friction of Spring 2014. “But living together showed me that the other side isn’t the enemy — we could compromise.”
Okafor, who hung the pro-life poster, and her roommate later landed jobs in Texas — one with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, the other at the liberal PAC Battleground Texas— and have remained close friends.
“In our program, we try to purposefully put people in rooms who are as different as possible,” said Running Start Vice President Melissa Richmond. “We refuse to accommodate needs like that person is more ideologically different from me.”
MSNBC interviewed roughly a dozen young women who won the Star Fellowship over the last five years. The program is designed to encourage women to run for elected office.
The directors are hoping their formula leads to a future Congress that not only works together, but understands each other.
The fellows chosen for the Fall 2015 semester are now living in a pale blue townhouse with a garden entrance that’s nestled in a tony stretch of official Washington.
“In theory it’s scary, but it’s early so we’re all happy,” said 22-year-old Chene Karega, who grew up in a northern suburb of Detroit. “It could go all downhill from here, but we’ll think about that at another time,” the University of Michigan graduate said.
The house, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court, has three floors, two fireplaces and a chandelier in the formal dining room. The spacious living room has a cozy couch and a flat-screen TV where Karega said “House of Cards” is a Netflix favorite. There are marble floors and a jacuzzi.
Right now, the issues don’t extend beyond dirty dishes and the morning rush to get ready and out the door. But they are now one month into their internships and if previous semesters are any indication, the political debates will find their way back home.
“It’s like a big slumber party,” Cierra Jackson said. Her bed was decorated with colorful pillows, a stash of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal peeking out of the top shelf in the closet.
In the past, Thursday nights in the house have been primarily about one thing: “Scandal,” the ABC prime time hit about Washington power and the woman at the center of it all.
Sitting around in pajamas, eating mac and cheese, the scene was not unlike a typical slumber party except that it also involved a debate about incarceration rates in the United States.
“I just had this moment where I realized I hadn’t had a debate where only women were talking,” former fellow Catherine Ettman said. “Everyone had different viewpoints and personal experiences with friends and it got really heated, but everyone stayed in the room, and then ‘Scandal’ came on and we were back to being roommates.”
Wellford, president of Running Start, didn’t realize the program would create such a profound sense of unity when it first launched. “We really had no idea how the pieces of the program would actually work. What I really want,” she said, “is not just women to run for office, but women who are going to run and talk to the other side and compromise.”
In September 2013, Ettman, a Princeton University graduate, was placed at the Democratic National Committee to work with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. She was eager to get to work when something unexpected happened: The government shut down.
“It was really frustrating. You see these great leaders and they’re supposed to be making life better for Americans — not only is that not happening, but they couldn't come to an agreement,” Ettman said. “You realize the impact of not being able to collaborate.”
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Ultimately, it was the women of the Senate who worked across party lines to get the government up and running again after being shut down for 16 days. They have worked to address sexual assault in the military and on campus and helped bring equal pay to the forefront of the 2016 presidential election.
Since its launch in 2009, over 70 Star Fellows have worked with women leaders on Capitol Hill with Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri; Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Joni Ernst of Iowa, Democratic National Committee Chair Wasserman-Schultz, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In Spring 2013, one fellow was placed in the East Wing with first lady Michelle Obama.
Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has hosted Star Fellows for two semesters. Also Running Start's Democratic congressional co-chair, Gabbard called the program "outstanding" with "hard-working and service-minded young women."
The recruits, she said, "will no doubt be among our nation’s future leaders."
Along with the daily hustle on the Hill, fellows are immersed in the topics of Washington: terrorism, religious liberty, fracking. More often than not, those subjects followed them home.
“It’d be late at night and we’d be arguing about policy, or talking about our different views of what should or shouldn’t be,” said Avery Bourne, a Columbia College graduate.
“When you find out where the views are coming from, it’s easier to understand. Living in the house led to conversations I would have never had otherwise,” Bourne said.
At the time, she was working with Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas. Bourne said discussing topics with her roommates at the end of the day led to broad, beneficial conversations at the office.
“You realize we’re all working in offices where there’s one party in that office -- you want to come home and say ‘hey, my congresswoman is thinking this, what do you think about it?” Bourne said.
Running Start asks participants to live in the house during the program and to conduct an interview with the congresswoman or senator they are matched with.
At the end of the program, some of the interviews are shared in presentations to senior staff at Walmart, the giant retailer that is the program’s principal funder.
In April, Walmart announced it would donate $500,000 to the program over the next three years, totaling $1.5 million in contributions since the start of the fellowship in 2009.
For many of the fellows, a Washington internship wouldn’t be feasible without the perks of free accommodations and a generous stipend. Several fellows are the first in their families to attend college, according to the program’s 2013 year-end report.
Roughly 15 graduates of the program were hired afterward into full-time jobs on Capitol Hill. Bourne, a Republican, was sworn in as Illinois’ youngest ever legislator, at 22 years old, to represent the 95th District.
Running Start’s 2013 report also found that all but one of the former fellows said they’d consider running for public office. More than half have been involved in leadership, campaign or government work following the program.
After her Fall 2013 internship, Ettman went on to work for the Wendy Davis campaign and Jannelle Watson, who interned with the first lady, ended up in the California governor’s office of business and economic development. Two fellows have landed jobs in Pelosi’s office and several others are now working for members of Congress and senators across the country.
Stephanie Tanny, who was a Star Fellow in Spring 2011, has become a national advocate for ending sexual assault on campus.
This semester, every fellow sees politics in their future – on and beyond the Hill. Megan Lehman, an Iowa native who just settled into the new digs, told MSNBC she wanted to become the first woman president of the United States, “but then Hillary Clinton got in there.”