Yes, of the United States. 

If your first response upon reading that headline was “who?” then you are probably not alone. In our political landscape of senators, representatives, governors, mayors, and Starbucks CEOs whose names scroll across CNN as soon as there’s a whiff of possible candidacy, where does a woman from rural Central Illinois, with zero name recognition, running as an independent, fit in? Well, Crystal Bergfield is pretty confident that the White House is where she needs to be. She graduated from Arcola High School, and attended both Parkland and the University of Illinois with a stint in the Army in between. She worked at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, studied yoga, and eventually landed in city government in Westminster, Colorado before making the decision to pursue the highest office in the nation. Now, she’s traveling throughout the U.S. trying to build connections with people and create a groundswell of support.

Bergfield spent a few weeks back in the C-U area recently, doing what she does: talking to people in the community, attending meetings (I first encountered her at a Moms Demand Action meeting), serving where she can (she participated in a Champaign Community Coalition's Walk as One event), all while staying at her parents' farm in Bellflower. Before she headed out to the next city, I had the opportunity to sit down with her and find out what this campaign is all about. 

Smile Politely: Here at Smile Politely we are very focused on the local, so tell me about more about your connection to Champaign-Urbana.

Crystal Bergfield: When I got out of the military, I bought a house in Champaign, right before the housing crash. I was one of those victims of subprime lending. I went back to school at the University of Illinois, and studied both Psychology and Sociology there. While I was going to school I was working in the community, and was volunteering quite a bit. I fell into the Boys and Girls Club, and really just found a heart connection there. I started as an intern, then left to go to grad school, but when I came back they found a space for me as the teen program coordinator.

A friend invited me to The Church of the Living God, the Love Corner, so I fell in love with that and that became my church home in the community. Having traveled so many different places, the saying “there’s no place like home” is truly real. I don’t feel like I have a home, per se, in any one place, but Champaign feels the closest. It’s a collective of so many different cultures that come together...it’s just an amazing community.

SP: Have you considered getting involved in politics in the past? Is this something that you ever thought would be your path?

Bergfield: Leadership is my path. I’ve always believed that where there’s a need, we sow a seed. When I went to the military, I got to see what good and bad leadership looks like. The beauty of the military, is to become a sergeant, you have to first be a private. And in order to become a sergeant major, you have to have been that private as well. There’s this idea that you know what these privates are experiencing, so you can truly lead. As I have watched the lack of leadership in this country, what I see is that those who are in positions of leadership aren’t leading...there’s a lot of space in between our current leadership and the reality of what Americans are really living.

I’m a very spiritual person as well, really rooted in faith and understanding our whole potential as human beings. We can really use all of our gifts and talents. Running for president was not something that came quickly, but it was something that came to me “for such a time as this.” When I see children being killed in schools, when I see our veterans killing themselves, and black men being locked up at alarming rates for the same crimes that white men are committing, when I see all of these things happen...it brings me back to history. Seeing that we’ve been here before, we’ve experienced so many of these things before, and we haven’t learned those lessons. I believe that true leaders rise up when the time is right, and my leadership is that of somebody who acknowledges other people’s leadership...In order for me to become president, everybody has to stand around me and say that our human rights are valuable and worth fighting for.

SP: So the obvious question here is why president? Did you ever consider congress or state government? Why is the executive office the path you chose?

Bergfield: There are a lot of great people getting into the legislative path, and what I observe there is that system in itself is really muddy....But the amount of change that one person can have in the executive branch is major. It can shift the entire trajectory of our country, and we’ve seen it with our current president. The fear mongering and the hate has brought out this side of ourselves where we feel free to do that. The executive branch...they appoint over 2000 positions...they have the power to select all of these folks, but there’s also this bully pulpit that I think is underutilized. In a time when we don’t have adequate education, we don’t have adequate support for the people, someone needs to be shouting that these things are wrong. That we are not taking care of the people in this country. I feel like there’s been a lack of responsibility to the people, and truly I don’t trust the two party system at that level of executive office. It’s party before people. Good intentions are beautiful but when you have a party running that executive office, only so much can be done. So what I’m trying to do is bring people back into the White House...create a new way of leadership that’s transparent and responsible to the people.

SP: What is the appeal of running as an independent, especially in THIS election, where the stakes are higher than ever?

Bergfield: There are a few things. In 2016, 42 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote. That’s a huge proportion of our country basically saying “nope, we’re not interested.” I grew up in Illinois, and a lot of my family were Trump supporters. And I understand...I grew up with farmers who have been left behind, who have not been supported by a Democratic government. And I’ve also watched how this administration has really destroyed lives of people that I love  both in policy but also in action and the words they’ve used.

I have an eagle eye view. I don’t dive in and think that there’s one right way to view things. I think the beauty of leadership is we can take tools from so many different places...Being able to see not only what these two parties have created, this division, but also what they will continue to create. I don’t believe we will ever unify as a country under a Democratic or Republican president. People are too far into blaming one another. If we don’t unify, we will destroy ourselves. I’ve heard many people say they think there’s a civil war coming. Quite possibly, if we cannot find what makes us great...that diversity...and unify under that.

SP: But how do you find that thread of unity? It seems like the chasm is getting wider and wider. For me, on the progressive side of that chasm, how do I unify with someone who is still holding onto and championing someone with racist ideals? How do you even begin?

Bergfield: There are a couple of places. Suffering is a major one. We are all suffering in this system in different ways, and when we’re in that place of suffering we try to grasp for something that we think might save us. To me, that’s what Trump was about. These people that voted for Trump were suffering under the other system, so they grasped for the one thing that didn’t look anything like what they were used to. I would say that people of color in the United States have the most experience with suffering in our country, and finally white folks are catching up to begin to feel the suffering of their children going to school, and not being sure if they’ll come home. In that suffering, that’s a place that unifies us. We all need stability, we all need security, and that’s the responsibility of our government. To ensure that we have the right to pursue happiness. That we have justice and liberty for all. These things that our forefathers wrote in the constitution, and who, as flawed as they were, were intelligent men who understood how powerful words are.

As we’ve seen, the thoughts of a leader can take those fears and drive them into deeper fear, but we can also take those fears and suffering and drive them towards hope and prosperity by ensuring that we are responsible to people.

The other thing that unites us is our children. These younger generations are not in with the labeling, not playing the same game that their parents are playing. I think those two things are what really unite us.

SP: You have an impressive bio: Military, higher education, well rounded and diverse studies. You seem to have a thirst for knowledge, so opposite of what we have now. But name recognition is a big deal. Unfortunately that’s what got us the current president. What is your plan for building a campaign and getting your name out there?

Bergfield: 2019 is really about building that foundation. I recognize that I have this really bold goal — in two years to be in the White House. And that’s the goal. People ask me “what’s your real goal.” I envision myself in the White House as our president. Not as a president for a party, but for human rights and civil rights. Right now I am traveling the country meeting with activists and scholars and community builders who are already in the trenches doing the work. Because a president is not what will change this country. It will have to be a movement...to bring everybody out and support not Crystal but a cause. A cause for human rights and a cause for civil rights.

My campaign is a values based campaign, which means that I’m asking to be held accountable to certain values: justice, equity, innovation, inclusivity, and responsibility. When I was working for city government, they had a set of values and that’s how they hired, that’s how they fired, that’s how they made decision for employees and citizens of their city. Seeing the success in that gives me hope that just having values and understanding what it is we’re fighting for and how we’re going to fight — that can do so very much to change the conversation. I recognize that what I’m doing is so different from what we’re used to, but if we continue to do the same thing we’ll always get the same results. I’m going around the country asking people to think and act differently. I’m also asking people to get out their rolodexes. I know I do have to become a celebrity, and I’m open to that. I’m an open book. I just want people to see that I’m here to serve. I’ve lived many lives, and I have no desire other than to help us find peace and prosperity in this country, because I know it’s possible.

SP: What’s your timeline for this becoming a national campaign?

Bergfield: I’m very much a woman of faith, and I trust that as I continue to do the work people will come, and the light will shine brighter on this campaign. I have a small team already — I have a communications director and a project manager. I’m still looking for an amazing campaign manager, but I’m continuing to build that and do some outreach. If “national” came today, I’m ready. But certainly by January of 2020 I’ve got to have the base of young folks and old folks alike who are willing to go out in their neighborhoods and get me on the ballot — as an independent we have to get on the ballot in every state. Otherwise, Ellen, if you’re listening…

SP: Is there one issue that drives you more than others? Something that you are passionate about?

Bergfield: Education. An uneducated population is easily manipulated, and we see that with media, we see that even in our education system. If we could have critical thinkers in our country, we would question more how we are being treated and the policies that are being pushed through legislation. When we’re not educated, we tend to accept what there is. And the reality is that even a with a huge shift and an investment in education, it will take a generation to really come out of where we are. But if we invest in our children, and really invest, not just money but invest the time and energy to mentor them and share with them, that will be our greatest legacy. So education is absolutely the number priority of the nation.

SP: So I see your solid layout of ideals and values, but what are your intentions for crafting policy out of it? You can use education as an example. 

Bergfield: I’m still looking for those people who can really champion for me. Again, I don’t have the knowledge and the experience to know “this is exactly what we need” so I’m looking for those people to say "hey, this is what I think we should do." I do have people who are starting to craft some policy for me. Additionally, we have whole departments within the executive branch. The Department of Education to me is just bureaucracy at this point. Right now we see that they continue to take money away, supporting selfish ideals. When you put the right people in place, and you put down those ideals, you let them go to work. I’ve seen the people already, in communities like Champaign-Urbana, who are doing the work...already implementing what this nation needs, we just need to scale it.

I recognize I’m still young, so there’s a little bit of a trade off there. I still have hope and expectations for our country, but I don’t have all of the experience. I use that as a positive. I’m not drowned in this idea of “this is the way it is.”

SP: You know you’re going to get pushback on the experience thing. Current administration aside, people are still drawn to someone who’s been in some form of government role.

Bergfield: It frustrates me a bit, because people don’t understand government when they say those things. That’s the legislative branch. Those people have followed a path to be legislators. They may be lawyers, they may be political science majors, that’s what they know. But this is an entirely different branch...I think that if we were really intelligent as a nation, we would utilize all of the gifts and talents that our country has, and it comes down to will we be able to unify in our diversity?

SP: If POTUS is not in the cards for you, then how will you plan to channel your ideas and affect change?

Bergfield: There’s a legacy that I’m creating here. That I’m being bold enough to stand up and say what is happening is wrong, that the path we’re currently on is a path of destruction. I also understand that where we put our energy is where our energy goes. My energy is 100 percent on being in the White House as a leader, as the president. What comes after that...I will continue the legacy. I’m here to serve.

SP: What do you want to make sure people know about you?

Bergfield: I’m here to fill one cog in the wheel of change. I’m not the end all be all. I know that it takes all of us having personal responsibility that we will do something different, and we will do something good for ourselves and our families. That takes action, and often that’s difficult when we’re comfortable or when we’re tired. If I could share anything with people, it would be to invest in your community...whether it be your church community or city community or just your family unit.

We haven’t had great leadership in my lifetime, though just because you haven’t seen selfless leadership, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I’m here as a selfless person, to serve humanity, and I’m using all of the gifts and talents I’ve been given to be a voice for the voiceless, to champion civil rights and human rights in this country because it’s time to change. Some people will sit by and watch, and that’s okay, but a lot of us need to stand up and do something.

You can read more about Bergfield and her presidential campaign here

Photo provided by Crystal Bergfield