When she was 17 years old and graduating as the valedictorian of Avondale High School in Dekalb County, Georgia, Stacey Abrams very nearly didn’t make it inside the Governor’s Mansion. She and her family took public transportation to the event and security, thinking the family didn’t have an invitation, tried to turn them away. Flash forward nearly 30 years later, and Abrams is one step closer to becoming Georgia’s next governor. On Tuesday, she made history by becoming the first Black woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in the nation. If she wins on November 6, 2018, Abrams – who defeated Stacey Evans – will also become the state’s and the country’s first Black female governor and the first Democrat in the office since 2003. While Abrams will owe her victory to her platform – including eliminating cash bail, raising the minimum wage, and expanding pre-K – it’ll also be the hard work of her female-driven team that will push her to this post. This includes Genny Castillo, a New Yorker of Dominican descent who currently serves as a senior political advisor for Abrams’ campaign.
Castillo, who moved to Suwanee, Georgia as a teenager, first started working with Abrams after she became the house minority leader for the Georgia General Assembly. As Team Abrams celebrates its success and prepares for the challenge ahead – Abrams faces an uphill battle to the Governor’s Mansion, likely against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle – Castillo hopped on a phone call with me to discuss her career in politics, working in a team made up of women of color, and how her heritage is an asset.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get involved in politics?
I actually was just recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in social service administration, and I was volunteering in Georgia because I was looking for work and I wanted to just do something, and I felt that working as a volunteer would allow me to get more involved, so I actually took a course in community leadership from the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, called the GALEO Institute for Leadership. I did a voting symposium where we invited local candidates running for office to come speak to the Latino community. And we had an interpreter, and I ended up being the emcee for that event, and after that my friend was like, “You should apply to work for Stacey Abrams, who just became the House Minority leader.” So I was like, “OK, let’s do this.” So I applied to be a legislative aide for her and they kept me on, so it’s been really exciting to see her work as minority leader and now as candidate for Governor of Georgia. It’s been incredible to be a part of it.
You’re the senior political advisor. Can you break down what your role is in this campaign?
For this campaign I, since I’ve been part of the team for so long I was brought in to help everywhere that I can. I do internship coordination, volunteer coordination, I also do Latino outreach, I also help with different events and just become a part of the team and the fabric where we’re needed.
Black voters made up 30 percent of voters in the 2014 midterm election. Since you are doing Latino outreach, what challenges does that pose?
We definitely want to make sure that we’re reaching out to all of our communities of color, and we saw such a great impact that that had across the state. And so a lot of our challenges include just getting people wanting to know a little bit more about this and understanding where they can be registered. In Georgia, if you move, you are no longer in that same place that you’ve been registered in, you have to re-register, and a lot of people don’t know that. And so, trying to make sure that I’m educating my network, but other networks to know that you should keep checking your registration, make sure where you’re registered, so you can go ahead and vote in that precinct that is closer to you, because if you have moved then you would have to go back to that old precinct that you were registered in. So just making sure people are staying informed about that and getting them excited about that, too. Another challenge is to get people to understand what this means for their state and making sure that we’re providing them with as much education as possible and letting them be a part of the dialogue as well.
You’ve worked with Stacey Abrams for a while. What drew you to this campaign?
Stacey (laughs). She has been incredible since the first day I actually met her. Like I said I had, I was told to send in my application materials to work as a legislative aide for her and she, first day meeting me, just really embraced who I was. She was like, “Oh what’s your name?” And you know in Georgia Castillo is pronounced Cas-till-o, and in the first moment, she was like, “Cas-ti-llo, nice to meet you,” and everything that Stacey does she does it with grace and she showed me what a proven leader is. Everything that she does, from talking to elementary schools during pre-K week or when she’s debating a bill on the House floor, she does everything with grace and that kind of leadership and mentorship has meant everything to me. Seeing her as a champion for the outsiders and making sure that they are part of the discussion has been everything for me. So I just follow her. As long as I can, for whatever role she wants to do, because she means that much to me.
This campaign is very female-led. What is that like?
It is incredible. I started with Stacey Abrams, so to see her leadership and to see what she’s been able to do has been life-changing. So everything to me just seems more organized, an opportunity to learn more about myself as a leader and seeing how she talks to other people and seeing how she goes into these different communities. And working with men is very different. Communication styles are different. Leadership styles are different, and I find working on this campaign is empowering – empowering to have so many women, so many women of color, so many coalitions coming together to make history, is truly life-changing.
Abrams previously said that “being a Black woman is not a deficit.” For you, as a person who is Latina and fluent in Spanish, how is your background an asset to this campaign?
My identity is everything. Everybody knows that I am Dominican and very proud of it, and I find that me having that sense of pride makes everything easier because I am a Latina in America, first generation. Being able to share my story with people makes it easier for people to understand why this campaign means so much, and so everything that I’m able to provide, and being able to translate and talk to different communities really makes this incredibly amazing for me. And I’m happy to be me in this campaign, and this campaign allows me to be that.