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!

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