Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lifestyle Activism, The Realistic Way

The concept of “lifestyle activism” has been showing up on my radar a lot lately. It was the subject of one of our Leadership Training Institute Workshops, lead by Amy Richards, and I’ve heard many a young activist bring it up in conversation. The idea is basically, “practice what you preach”; if you’re an animal rights activist, go vegan; if you’re an environmentalist, go green; etc. I had never thought about it before, but I love this idea, because it really focuses on the grassroots spirit of activism—something YWTF is all about! It’s different from lobbying, joining an organization, or demonstrating. It’s something that anyone, anywhere, can do at any time, and it’s based on tapping into your own personal power as an agent of improvement.

Okay, I admit it. I am far from a perfect lifestyle activist. Not all of my clothes are sweatshop-free, I have been known to duck into a McDonald’s every once in a blue moon when the desire for a taste of the fries I grew up on overwhelms me, I have an inexplicable penchant for the kind of misogynistic hip hop that gives most mothers the vapors, and if someone offers me a cup of coffee, I don’t ask if it’s fair-trade. But, by this definition of lifestyle activism, who is perfect? In today’s world, it’s pretty impossible to avoid patronizing some people and corporations that aren’t exactly female-friendly. What’s important is that we recognize the value of our money and actions, and realize that we can enact significant and sustainable change, all by ourselves; what’s important is that we make an effort. By watching where we spend and being a good neighbor, we’ll find that even the smallest action can make a world of difference!

As a consumer, my money is highly coveted by a wide variety of businesses and corporations, so I try my best to make sure that, in spending, I’m supporting companies who will, in turn, support women. I use the services of woman-owned businesses as much as I can. Do some research to find out which companies, both locally and nationally, are owned and/or operated by women; most areas have women’s capital funds or economic development groups that would be glad to provide you with listings. Bars, restaurants, garages, cab companies, housepainters, law firms, boutiques, bodegas—whatever service you can imagine, there’s sure to be a female entrepreneur who offers it. Women are often marginalized and excluded from the male-defined world of big business, so do your part to support your sisters!

One way I do my part is by purchasing clothes and bath products from companies with healthy-looking models, who rely on quality products to motivate my patronage. This way, I’m advocating positive body image for all girls and women by refusing to give my money to corporations who make me feel like there’s something wrong with me that needs to be fixed (by their product, with my money, of course!) A lot of the music I buy comes from small, independent distribution centers who support female artists. I respect female performers who value their skill as artists rather than as major-label sex-appeal products, and I respect the companies who support them even more! If I hear a movie’s got an explicit rape scene in it, I don’t go! I’m not spending ten bucks to see yet another hack male director shove that in my face—I’d rather check out some sweet flicks penned by women that offer insight into my life.

If you want to take your activism a step further, an intense scrutiny of your favorite name brands is in order: What do they pay their women workers? Are they equal opportunity employers? What is their stance on child labor? Do they provide day-care to their laborers? What percentage of management is female? You can find answers to some of these questions here, here for international companies, and here for companies with progressive policies toward women. If you find that the business in question is seriously lacking in these areas, it’s time to find a new brand, or at least significantly cut back on your rate of consumption.

Lifestyle activism can also be conducted through how we form and support our relationships. Mainstream American media often tells us that sisterhood should be replaced by acrimony and animosity. Instead of sharing our experiences with one another and deriving strength from these connections, we’re often encouraged to be catty and immediately dislike women who aren’t exactly like ourselves. As a woman, I keep open eyes and open ears to all of the women in my life. Acquaintances, family members, co-workers, clients, neighbors, teachers, whomever—they all have my support and I make sure they know that I am always available as a resource. Whether you’re walking a friend to her car, lending your couch to someone who has problems in their home life, or just checking in to say hi, your sisterly actions probably mean a lot more than you think. Most of the women I’ve spoken to about this say that what they want the most is someone who knows how to listen. So listen to the women in your life without an ulterior motive, be silent when necessary and know when to offer constructive advice. Be empathetic without being overly sympathetic; no one likes to be labeled a victim. I try to be as empowering as possible when someone’s talking to me about, say, an overbearing boyfriend or how they’re getting harassed at work. If someone has a problem I’m uncomfortable handling, I will refer them to someone who will, and then I’ll make sure that person follows up. But most importantly, I let them know that they’re not alone!

So, yeah. I like fast food and bad rap. But I throw all-girl sleepovers where we watch Thelma & Louise and Waiting to Exhale, eat chocolate and popcorn, and get silly. I get super excited every time I see a Dove ad with healthy, beautiful women on the side of a bus. I make heating pads for menstrual cramps out of socks adorned with buttons and patches and filled with rice to give as gifts during holidays. I try to be a good friend and a conscious consumer as much as I can—and I truly believe that the world, or at least my world, is that much better because of it.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Musings on the F-word

When I began the application process for this internship, I noticed that the word “feminism,” or any of its derivatives, was nowhere to be found in the mission statement or goals of YWTF. I found this strange, since, to me, it was clearly a feminist organization. Although I was aware that the word was controversial, I thought, surely we must be past this by now! Of course you’re feminists—we’re all feminists here. What’s the problem? And so, I set about drawing my own conclusions as to why the word is such a hot spot within the Movement today.

Ever since my first sociology class, when the word “feminist” was defined as someone who advocated that women have equal social, political, and economic rights to men, I have identified it as such. I never understood other women’s reluctance to adopt the title, assuming that they were worried about being labeled as man-hating lesbians or “feminazis.” To me, this was retroactive; how could we ever fully take possession of the word, and ourselves, if we continued to hesitate based on the reaction of men? My mother, for example, has never considered herself a feminist, while in my eyes, she was the embodiment of the word: a strong, powerful woman who is proud of, and comfortable in, her identity as a mother, a worker, a teacher; a woman who raised two equally strong-willed daughters, often holding down multiple jobs to provide for us; a woman who always made sure her husband would meet her halfway; a woman who quit her job of five years with no back-up plan when she found out that the new guy, who was performing the same job, was getting paid more; a woman who respects herself. All of these things made her a feminist to me, but to her, she was just doing what she felt was right. And my mother is not alone; the more people I asked, the fewer I found that willingly self-identified as “feminists.” At this point, I had to ask myself: should we be using this word if a majority of women reject it?

“Isms” can be tricky things. I find them problematic for a number of reasons. Essentially, the attempt to condense a vast, interlocking, overlapping history of struggles and oppressions, both subtle and blatant, into a single, all-defining word, really downplays the importance, and intricacies, of the issues associated with the word. You know that old Kierkegaard quote, “If you label me, you negate me”? It’s similar to that. “Isms” take any number of intangibles and try to make them concrete, easy to pin down; and while this can be a useful tool for preliminary phases of education, it is in no way conclusive or illuminating. In fact, it implies a sense of separateness from other “isms,” when in fact, feminism is inextricably related to questions of race, class, age, sexual orientation, and a myriad of other factors.

Which brings me to my next point: as Katy talked about in her “Feminism Is Not an Island" blog, the “women’s movement” has a history of neglecting those it purportedly seeks to include. Early suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, thought that their goals were being distorted by those of the abolitionists, and believed that winning the vote for white women took precedence over basic human rights for all women, thus effectively removing the support of black women, who certainly coveted the right to vote, but were otherwise occupied escaping human bondage. The “feminism” of the 1950s and ‘60s, as exemplified by Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, sought to open up the world of work to the masses of American women so long confined within the domestic sphere, a goal which was irrelevant, if not offensive, to many women of color, and to poor white women, for whom work was not an option, but a mandate; some may have dreamed of being able to stay at home with their children, but for these women, it was not an economic reality. When African American women in the Civil Rights movement became disillusioned with their treatment in organizations fighting to end the more obvious manifestations of racism in the Deep South—Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael’s infamous joke, “The position of women in SNCC is prone,” comes to mind—they found a white women’s movement that was, by and large, unwilling to integrate, or to attempt to understand, the intersection of sexism and racism.

Since women who possess the faculties and resources to fight for equality (within the preexisting male-centric political model) have been socio-economically estranged from their sisters, by both internal and external forces, the “feminism” has become fractionalized in the public eye. We have all of these divisions: heterosexuals versus lesbians; career mothers versus stay-at-home moms; women of color versus women of white privilege; high school dropouts versus the academic elite. While these women do have differences that need to be acknowledged, I believe that they are able to coexist under the same umbrella. Their isolation is one of many inevitable negative results of a system that has historically underrepresented the voices of women. Those who perform on the socially accepted stage of activism and political efficacy have been able to do so, for the most part, because they have had the advantageous white, upper-middle class wind at their backs. Women’s fertility increases as economic status decreases; the poorest citizens are less likely to be educated about and utilize contraceptives; and school systems in low-income areas often lack the resources necessary to present students with the means to access further education. It is unfortunate that women with families, especially when single, are forced to divide their time between work that pays the bills and the unpaid work of housekeeping, as caretakers, laundresses, cooks, chauffeurs, and consumers. Because of this divide, childfree women are disproportionately influential on the stage of political activism. These inequalities have caused a bias in popular conceptions of the women’s movement by silencing the stories of those women who function somewhere beneath the radar of the media’s consequentially skewed vision of what a feminist is.

This is all changing, slowly, but we’ve still got a long way to go. YWTF’s choice to avoid the word “feminism” makes a lot of sense to me: feminism has too many ties to its sordid history of exclusivity and stodginess. We’re starting something fresh here, and we want to make the voices of all younger women heard, not just a select few.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Roller Derby: Uniting Younger Women, One Bout at a Time

You've probably noticed a recent resurgence in the great American contact sport of Roller Derby. Spurred on by the now-cancelled A&E reality TV show "Rollergirls," small all-female DIY leagues have been popping up like wildflowers in countless metropolitan areas across the nation, drawing spectators by the thousands. The game is simple (kind of): two teams of five "bout" by trying to lap each other in the rink. It gets a lot more complicated once you get into the extended rules, but basically you have three players, or “blockers,” who make up the “pack”; a “pivot” who leads the way and sets the speed; and a “jammer,” whose responsibility it is to make her way through the opposing team’s without getting sidelined. The rules are subject to change depending on the league, but this is the general template. There’s no elbowing or hitting allowed, but pretty much anything else is fair game, with body blocking being the coup de grace of choice. Spectators sit on the floor around the track, and shriek with glee as skaters careen into the crowd, as they so often do.

Roller derby has a kitschy aesthetic, attracts a wide array of women, and has a punk attitude. Each team’s “girls” wear bright, crazy outfits—one team in New York wears orange prison mini-dresses—and have names like Julie Unrulie and Carrie Shitkicker. In any one league, you’ll be sure to find students, teachers, mothers, lawyers, and activists. They don’t exactly fit preconceived notions of female athleticism: women, sometimes tattooed and pierced, of all shapes and sizes fill the rink, because each body type serves a purpose. There is absolutely no emphasis on weight-loss. The idea is simply this: to kick ass. Derby girls learn an impressive variety of skating maneuvers, such as backwards skating and hip-checks, all in an effort to block other teams and, at all costs, to stay on their skates, and they’re not afraid to bleed.

These women are incredibly dedicated. Ask any derby girl what the sport means to her, and she’ll tell you quite frankly that it’s her life. Roller derby gives girls who’ve always wanted to join a team sport, but have been intimidated for whatever reason, a space to play, and play hard. And despite the frequent scrape-ups and occasional broken bones, they wear their bruises like badges of honor. But don’t let the competitive attitude scare you: if you’re on the team, you’re family. Often, new girls haven’t laced up a pair of skates since middle school, and leagues usually appoint welcoming committees to make sure that each newbie is paired up with a veteran derby girl who will give them rides to practice, walk them through the preliminary moves, and introduce them to other teammates.

The spirit of community is amazing, and whatever happens in the rink, stays in the rink, as teams will often go out for drinks together after bouts or practices, and friendships are easily forged. Of course there are always going to be disagreements, but leagues are extremely democratic, and usually team-owned. And best of all, there’s no ideology pitch: derby girls aren’t getting someone else’s notions of feminism shoved down their throats. Instead, they are invited to experience for themselves the thrills of excelling at a hobby—competition, friendship, and time devoted only to themselves.

Young women all around the country have created these spaces for themselves, and that’s the beauty of the sport: it’s self-defined. Some have criticized roller derby as relying too heavily on shtick or sex appeal, but for many participants highlighting their sex appeal or kitschy fun adds to the value in the sport. Derby girls may be embracing their femininity in the form of funky (and often skimpy) outfits, but they are undeniably strong and fierce, evoking Kali on wheels. This duality is, to me, evidence of how far we’ve come: why shouldn’t our sexuality and our strength be displayed simultaneously? The glory of the third wave is this reconciliation of the restricting contradictions which have been placed upon us, as women, with the joys of being female. If society has told us that our bodies should be static objects, to be looked upon, talked about, and defined by the objective male gaze, but never directly self-engaged, let’s challenge that by making ourselves as active as possible—and there are few things more aggressive than a full-on body-check. If society says that revealing clothing makes for an easy target by stating that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be sexually harassed or objectified, let’s turn that double-standard on its head by putting the bodies that wear them into motion. As my friend Julie, a Richmond Rollergirl, said on the subject,“I think that it’s so true—and we’ve seen this happen again and again—what Eleanor Roosevelt said about, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ We’re not going to sit there and take it…we’re going to challenge it and we’re going to make our own rules as we see fit.” As she said, we’re making it our own, recreating it, for our own benefit. And if, in doing this, we giving younger women a place to connect, and develop their minds and bodies, then so much the better!

When I spoke with some roller girls from Richmond, Virginia, they relayed some amazing stories about the amazing transformations that new team members had undergone, not only because of the community provided, but because these women were, for the first time in their lives, encouraged to really blossom and devote themselves to something other than work, family, or school; an opportunity that many, unfortunately, never receive. Not only can roller derby serve as an outlet for stress and as a place to form new bonds with other women, but one girl I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the sport even served as an exit ramp to one of her teammates’ abusive relationship; once she had stepped outside of her isolation, she was able to gain the focus and clarity to move on with her life.

Roller derby is only one of many positive recreational outlets available to young women today. We should all get active in our communities—there are so many different ways to involve ourselves and each other! If you’d like more information about roller derby, check out some of these links:

Women’s Flat Track Derby Association
A&E’s Rollergirls
Gotham Girls Roller Derby, NYC
River City Rollergirls, Richmond
DC Rollergirls
Charm City Rollergirls, Baltimore

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

No Girl Left Behind

About three years ago, the rise in Afghani children’s education (of both sexes) was used as an example of the U.S. victory over the Taliban regime. U.S. officials boasted that, since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, children’s education was soaring – and they were right. Then.

Now, it’s a different story, especially for Aghani girls. The Taliban insurgency has become even more threatening, and the backlash against U.S. occupation tears apart whole provinces. A recent article in the Washington Post, “Afghan Girls, Back in the Shadows” asserts that “In the southern province of Kandahar, all schools are now closed in five districts. Attackers have thrown hand grenades through school windows and threatened to throw acid on girls who attend school.” The list of tragedies goes on, and too much of that violence is directed at schools, particularly those who educate girls.

And yet, the information about the progress of Afghani girls and women is sparse. When the New Faces, More Voices interns were researching for our lobbying day, many of us reported that we had found little to no research pertaining to Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s Afghan Women Empowerment Act. It’s understandable that it would be difficult to find Afghani research on the subject, but what about the U.S.? Why aren’t these horrible facts being shoved in the faces of complacent policy-makers? Why are we still pretending that the U.S. succeeded in Afghanistan when the insurgent backlash is almost worse than the original Taliban regime?

The answer is, we don’t want to know. It’s better if we pretend that Afghani girls and women are fine, that the literacy rate isn’t in the single digits, that the home schools for girls aren’t being bombed, and that the female teachers aren’t being gunned down by hired thugs. But all that we achieve – as women, people, a nation – by ignoring the Afghanis’ suffering is a false peace of mind and hardened hearts. We need to act.

Now, I’m not trying to say that we should rush into Afghanistan as Western saviors to the “helpless” Afghani women and girls. (That kind of attitude has gotten the U.S. into enough trouble.) The Afghani home schools for girls are proof that these women can help themselves. When it comes down to it, however, their resources are scarce. Afghani teacher Mahmad Agul admits, "We lack everything here -- paved roads, electrical power, deep wells, clinics. But this school was our highest priority."

Hence, the always burning and hard to answer question: What can we do? Well, for one, you can write your representatives in Congress, urging them to co-sponsor the Afghan Women Empowerment Act (SR 2392 in the Senate and HR 5185 in the House). This act will allocate millions of dollars to the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and, most importantly, to Afghan women-led nonprofit organizations. The Feminist Majority Foundation even has a page where you can send an email to your representative directly.

Other than that, I have to admit, I don’t know. I’d be more than happy to hear suggestions from you all. But I do know that just having the knowledge of the situation, and not ignoring the Afghani women and girls, is a step in the direction of real peace.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Leadership Training Institute, Pt. II

As it turned out, all of my event-planning worries were unfounded. The event went off without any (major) hitches, and we were all quite satisfied with the way things turned out!

First on the agenda was a meet-up at Buca di Beppo, an Italian restaurant in Dupont Circle specializing in huge family-style dishes, which I thought was especially appropriate since many of our leaders had never met before, and we wanted to foster a communal environment. I arrived late from putting together some last-minute packets to find a huge table of young women hunched over drinks, joking about the “fill-in-the-blank” ice-breaker worksheets in front of them. This was my first glance at YWTF, really, outside of my office, and I was immediately struck by the diversity of the leaders. Once we had all finished with the exercise, which included details and anecdotes about our backgrounds, personalities, and aspirations, each woman read hers out loud; much laughter inevitably ensued. Everybody was so engrossed in completing the activity that it took a good forty minutes before anyone even looked at the menu! This casual atmosphere really lent itself to the kind of conversation and acquaintance-making that is not as easily breeched in a strictly professional setting. All sections of the table were lit up in discussion—whether directly YWTF-related, political, or fun—as we discovered what we had in common with each other. After we had all consumed enough delicious Italian goodies to sedate a small army, food coma set in on top of travel fatigue, and people split up between going to the hostel and out for more drinks.

The next morning, we were fortunate enough to have Executive Director of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) Terry O’Neill as our first speaker. Terry’s topic was Fundraising and Event Planning, with a focus on the upcoming Women’s Equality Summit (also known as WESCAD). Since NCWO and YWTF would be working on this together, we thought this would be a great time to get a dialogue going about how we wanted to put the YWTF stamp on this monumental event. WESCAD is going to be divided into two days: March 26, which will be issue-oriented; and March 27, which will be a lobby day. To begin, Terry conducted a brief overview of possible resources to reach out to for funding. Individual donors—members and non-members alike—should always be considered important to an organization’s base. The majority of donations, however, are generally going to come from corporations. We discussed ways to engage corporations—which are often wary of donating to charity without a guarantee of profit for shareholders—in the event, such as charging for booths, or matching funds. This latter option is especially accessible to those of us who have friends or associates working at a corporation; apparently, it’s very easy to have your organization’s name added to the list. We talked about some companies that would be likely to want to match funds with YWTF. Then, we brainstormed some potential ideas for the workshops, awardees, etc., that would comprise the first, issue-oriented, day of the WESCAD. For example, for a topic like body image, we would want to call companies who had put some time into generating a female-positive public image, such as a women’s magazine or a beauty-product corporation like Dove. Stefanie, our YWTF-NYC chapter leader, pointed out that, instead of focusing on the same old hum-drum topics which seem to be common at these kinds of events, we should really try and make the workshops as practical and constructive as possible, lest we engage ourselves in preaching to the choir, as it were, by explaining issues to women leaders who are already well-versed in the intricacies of policy. Stef suggested using the workshop time to educate participants on such useful skills as making a fact-sheet, conducting public education and outreach, and running media campaigns. This segment was really interesting and informative, I’m sure, for all who were involved, and gave us a much-needed platform to expand upon our plans for the WESCAD, which is only a few short months away!

Next we had Pat Reuss, Senior Policy Analyst over at NOW. Pat is feisty and extremely hilarious; she is also the author of Title IX, was a key player in the drafting of the Violence Against Women’s Act, and is considered a foremother of the second wave feminist movement. We knew we were in for a treat. When she showed up she asked us, “What was I supposed to talk about again? I totally forgot,” at which point I officially deigned her a woman after my own heart. You wouldn’t have guessed it, however, as she took the conference room with the ease of a pro. Her talk, on consciousness-raising practices and new innovations, was very well-informed, as she filled us in on tips for connecting other women without being exclusivist or didactic and walking the thin line between consciousness raising and education. Though she didn’t offer a definitive definition for “consciousness-raising,” she said it was integral to organizing and is essentially what happens when two people connect with one another, overcome their differences, and share commonalities. It happens best when it is not planned—over coffee, while planning an action, or in reaching out to strategic partners. Consciousness-raising is a powerful tool for building a movement that includes allies and influences other for change. According to Pat (and I agree!) this understanding of consciousness-raising (finding commonalities, recognizing privilege, and building deep connections) is what makes organizing sustainable, meaningful, and powerful. She was, of course, drawing from a very extensive catalogue of experience, as she has been helping to create safe spaces for women for the past twenty-six years of her impressive career!

Unfortunately, I missed the end of her session, as I had to run across town to pick up our lunch. We feasted on Chinese food from City Lights and the most amazing chocolate-covered strawberries I have ever tasted, donated from the infamous (and deservedly so) Cakelove Bakery on U St. Next, it was on to the resource-sharing roundtable, which was, I thought, the most integral part of the retreat. In this roundtable, chapter leaders discussed what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past, and ultimately honed our national foci for the upcoming year.

Our leaders had tons of inspiring stories to share about their chapters’ various successes! Natalie Wasmer told us about the Voting Vixen initiative, which seeks to get younger women in the area to register and vote, that our Miami chapter is putting together. Natalie said that the techniques they’ve been using to really target that younger audience—such as creating a sleek, trendy-looking mini-zine, organizing pub crawls, and setting up events in small local record stores—worked so well that lots of people not only wanted to participate, but also wanted to help with the initiative! Brie Blumenreich, of the DC chapter, talked about the AIDS awareness event she put on last month. Aimed at building community, and especially important in a city with frighteningly high rates of young women battling HIV, it was a brown-bag lunch in the park with free AIDS testing, speakers, and goodie bags. Brie said that these kinds of “padded topics” are great for getting people interested and involved in what the chapter is doing. Krista Thomas shared the Chicago chapter’s experience of hosting a screening and panel discussion of the landmark film “I had an abortion.” YWTF-Chicago’s members were pleasantly surprised by the large turnout which could only be explained by the power of personal networking via listservs and word of mouth. New York City’s Stefanie Lopez-Boy also spearheaded a voting initiative, in which NYC members put together a voter’s guide which, instead of focusing on candidates’ platforms and issues, highlighted exactly the responsibilities of each local office, and related this directly to how it might affect younger women. YWTF-NYC did registration outreach from booths in the street to targeted calling. Alison Stein, YWTF board chair, founder, and active member of the Philadelphia chapter, told us about a training session the Philly chapter put on to educate younger women about running for local office. The location, at a community college, turned out to be a crucial benefit, drawing a large and diverse crowd and engaging women who had not previously heard of YWTF. These sessions were followed by happy hours, which further connected the women involved and brought even more into the community! Through these examples, it is magnificently, wonderfully, amazingly clear just how many different ways there are to execute YWTF’s missions and goals. For such a young organization, we have already enacted so much change!

In the next part of the resource-sharing roundtable, we worked on elaborating our national focus for the year. Every year YWTF takes on one focus that all of the chapters commit to organizing around. The focus is decided each year at the retreat so that chapters can weigh in on what that focus should be. Last year the focus was networking. This year we narrowed it down to the following categories: women in the media; women in leadership; civic engagement (and specifically the Equal Rights Amendment); creating intergenerational dialogue; mapping younger women; and working against the glass ceiling, whose familiar “thump” women often don’t encounter until their late twenties or thirties. There was extensive discussion about the Mapping focus. It was also the most interesting of these to me. I wondered: where are all the younger women? What are their lives like? This is a huge project, but it could definitely be accomplished.

In terms of what worked and didn’t work, we decided to reactivate the short-lived “buddy system,” except this time, with the suggestion of Natasha Chatilo from Boston, we would pair more experienced chapters, like New York City, with our fledgling chapters, like Boston. We reviewed strategies to draw bigger crowds at meetings (do them later in the evening i.e., after 6:30 or 7:00pm, include educational as well as social and recreational activities); we talked about creating a boiler plate for common language our chapters could draw upon; we got into chapter leadership accountability, and what to do if removal becomes a necessity; we talked about how to create bylaws for each individual chapter.

Next, the YWTF coordinating board gave reports on their latest work on diversity, fundraising, and groundwork; among some of the more remarkable items discussed were the creation of separate chapter bank accounts, instead of passing all funds through the national office, and the drafting of our first ever YWTF Member Survey, as we often know little more about our members at the national level than their email addresses, and would like to change this as soon as possible.

Our next speaker was Kate Geyer, who is the Legislative Director to Maryland Delegate Anne R. Kaiser. Kate was, herself, a younger woman, who came in looking every bit the D.C. professional and proceeded to tackle most of the myths, and real problems, facing younger women getting involved in local politics. The first thing Kate told us is that we can’t be afraid to “tell the truth to power.” It is a well-known fact that most Americans feel disillusioned with their government—to them it is inaccessible, far away, even corrupt—but don’t know how to directly enact change. We started with a brainstorm on formal versus informal politics, and found out that there’s actually not much of a divide between the two; the largest gap is between the paid work of formal politics and the unpaid work of informal advocacy. But the question remained: how do we bridge that gap? For one, Kate said, we need to have very specific goals. There is a big difference between complaining and implementing change, and in order to accurately represent your population, you need to know the history of your issue and what’s already been done so you’re not backtracking. In order to do this, you need to access your resources: start at the bottom (Google, Wikipedia, university libraries) and work your way up (legislative and judicial records, community organizations, join a meeting with a Congressperson). After you’ve researched your case inside and out, you should know your “benchmarkers”: it’s rare that you’re going to get complete, uncompromising support, so you need to be aware of your limits. What’s good enough for you? Be flexible and ready to compromise, and to offer viable alternatives, but don’t be too quick to back down. If you don’t know an answer, just say “We’ll get right back to you on that,” instead of looking flustered and stammering for a response. Work your pitch down to ten seconds, because the people you’ll be pitching it to will be very busy! Most importantly, you have to be ready to reframe your issue using language that will appeal to the opposition; bipartisan support is integral to all types of coalition building. Kate was really inspiring to me, and gave us the kind of practical, no-nonsense advice that we needed.

Juanita Boyd Hardy was up next. She came prepared with a very detailed slideshow entitled “Leveraging 3 P’s for Effective Public Speaking,” and brought her husband along to film the presentation! Juanita has traveled all over the world, training young executives for IBM in the art of public speaking; on top of this, she has her own consulting company, Tiger-I, so she was really just a wealth of knowledge on the topic. Some of the participants were seasoned public speakers, and some, like me, turn red as a beet whenever more than a few pairs of eyes are turned towards them; for this reason, her opening quote, “The brain starts working the moment you’re born and never stops until you get up to speak in public,” really hit home for me. She proceeded to shed light upon the “three P’s” of public speaking: Preparation, Perspective, and Presence, bringing up many tricks of the trade along the way. Perhaps the most constructive exercise was one in which she had us split into teams and get our YWTF pitch down to one minute in what Juanita dubbed, “The Elevator Pitch.” I know this was really useful for me, because sometimes when I’m trying to explain what YWTF does, I end up sounding quite long-winded and wishy-washy. Now, I know how to articulate our missions in a concise, to-the-point manner.

By this time, it was getting late, so we all headed out to the Community House Party. YWTF-DC board member Kate Farrar was generous enough to open her beautiful home to us, and those of us who lived in the area each brought something to the potluck. This was a chance to really unwind and get to know each other better. Several courses and a few bottles of wine later, we were sitting on the floor gabbing about everything from Tupac to socioeconomic self-identification. We were all tired, though, and the last of us left Kate’s apartment at about eleven-thirty for the comfort of our bunk beds back at the hostel.

The next morning, Fran Strauss, Director of Women’s Health and Health Care Plans from Adeza, came to deliver a presentation called “Pregnancy, Preterm Birth and Infertility: Current Trends and Practices.” Fran and I had an opportunity to chat for a while before the session actually began, and I found her to be really sweet and genuinely interested in helping younger women. She brought along t-shirts and glue sticks to add to the beautiful tote bags donated by Lifetime. She educated us about “fetal fibronectin testing,” a new development which allows expectant mothers to predict the likelihood of a premature birth. I have given lots of thought to birthing in general and the obstetrics industry in particular, but had never before thought about the huge numbers of families dealing with the complexities of premature birth, let alone the lack of information offered by doctors during the pregnancy. FFN testing, as it’s called, is especially efficient because it is a biochemical indicator, and not biophysical, like assessments of contractions and changes in cervical length which doctors have traditionally applied. Certain states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, are low Medicaid reimbursement states who have legislation making access to FFN testing harder for poorer women. I know that many of the retreat participants were significantly moved by this presentation, and I’m sure that we’ll see action on this subject in quite a few of the chapters in upcoming months.

Our final speaker was author and columnist Amy Richards, perhaps best known for her two tomes of local organizing: Grassroots: A Guide for Feminist Activism and Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Amy was fresh, down-to-earth, funny, and anything but didactic. She talked mostly about ways to integrate your activism with the rest of your life, and showed us ways to engage and inspire others. This is what YWTF is based on, so Amy’s session was really important and just as helpful. She gave us a lot of time, so we really got a chance to bounce some of our own ideas off of her, ranging from getting attendance up at meetings, to issues with philanthropy, to educating younger women on voter initiatives. The thing Amy said that stuck with me the most was that you have to reframe your opponents’ issues, instead of working within the frame that they provide. She said that you have to find the one thing they haven’t focused on yet, and hone in on that. While YWTF doesn’t really have any direct opponents per se, it’s good to know how to present your argument to persuade other women who might be hesitant about joining up.

In closing, Deva and I were so tremendously pleased with the way the Leadership Training Institute turned out. I want to thank all of the chapter leaders and representatives who gave their weekends to the cause—that’s no small feat, and we really appreciate it. And, of course, thanks to all of the amazing speakers who came out and donated their time and wisdom to us; obviously, organizations like YWTF would not be able to exist without the inspiration these people provide us. Special thanks go out to Cakelove, Lifetime, and Adeza for the donations; and thanks to Deva for all the hard work she put in to make this a success! There is no doubt in my mind that each and every person involved in the retreat left more informed and more excited about the future of YWTF!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Planning the LTI

Being a women's studies major, I often heard a lot about non-profits as an alternative (or, for some, as a supplement) to a career in academia. I never had time for an internship during my four years as an undergrad, so when I graduated in May, I took the summer off then headed up to D.C. to see what kind of a job I could land. When Deva Kyle, YWTF's national Project Director, hired me as the new Project Intern, visions of the mythical world of non-profits danced through my head. I saw myself looking all professional, commuting to an office downtown full of eager young up-and-comers and eccentric movement veterans, where I would sit at a desk filing papers, completing various tasks too monotonous for anyone on the payroll to stoop to. I had no idea.

Of course, the internship turned out to be nothing like this. The national YWTF office is a space shared with the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) and the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), the umbrella organization housing YWTF, NAPAWF, and about two hundred other non-profits. No one but me keeps regular office hours at YWTF--they all have nine-to-fives, like Deva, who works as a pension lawyer, and run YWTF when they're not working at their main job. This meant I'd be doing a lot more work than I had originally expected. At first, this worried me: I was to be all alone, fielding the myriad of questions asked of a national organization? Within the first week, I received the daunting work plan for the national Leadership Training Institute, and by week two, there were hundreds of emails in my inbox! I felt like the biggest novice, but luckily, I ended up not being as alone as I thought: I had the help of Deva, Ilma and Terry from NCWO, the two previous interns, Katy and Dara, and a big computer file on previous YWTF activity. So, I got to work.

The Leadership Training Institute, or LTI, is a sort of chapter leaders' retreat, wherein the directors, or their substitutes, and board members converge in our nation's capital for a weekend of roundtables, speakers, and dinners. The goal, obviously, is to better equip the leaders of YWTF to improve upon their chapters, but there's a second goal which is equally important: camaraderie. It's crucial for the members of an organization to be close, or at least to be able to put a name to a face, in order to enable the kind of networking and assistance that would best sustain growth. Even though the LTI only lasts three days, it takes a ton of work to execute. The interns before me researched and found speakers, a conference room, booked the hostel, compiled most of the in-city transportation information, and solicited donations to feed our guests. I picked up where they left off. Event planning requires confirming and re-confirming, checking, double-checking, and following up again. As a first-time planner, you are consumed by this intense fear that you're forgetting about some crucial element and the whole thing is just going to fall through at any moment. It can definitely be a little nerve-wrecking, but I'm hoping that my fears will prove unfounded and I'll be fulfilled by the success of the event.

I got in touch with all the chapters to find out who was coming and who wasn't, when they'd be arriving, when they'd be leaving, how they'd be getting here. This alone was a weeks-long process, as a few of the chapters didn't end up finding a representative who was able to fly out. I reconfirmed with the speakers and scrambled to fill in the blanks when some declined. I reconfigured the schedule accordingly and sent copies to everyone. I checked back with the places who had confirmed donations a month ago, and one of them ended up not being able to contribute, but didn't tell us until the Monday before the conference, much too late to find another donor. I called the board members to see which of them was planning on attending. I called Lifetime, who donated goodie bags for our guests. I gathered the speakers' bios, compiled handouts, transportation information, and a list of contacts for the out-of-towners, and made lots of copies. Looking back on this list, it doesn't seem like that much work, but belive me, it was.

Tomorrow is the first day of the retreat. Deva and I will run around pulling last minute strings, making sure everything runs smoothly as planned, picking up supplies, and setting up the conference room. At five o'clock, we're all meeting at Teaism for dinner, drinks, and discussion. I'm excited to meet all of these women I've been communicating with for the past month, and I'm hoping to learn a lot more about the non-profit sector in discovering the differences and similarities between the chapters. At any rate, this experience is invaluable and I'm sure I'll look back and laugh at my initial trepidation.