Support System

News, Spring 2017
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When Women Have Each Other’s Backs, the World Progresses

BY SARAH WENGERT

On January 21, 2017, women, men and children worldwide gath­ered for the Women’s March in an effort to stand together in sup­port and send a bold message that “women’s rights are human rights.” The march, now the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. his­tory helped reinvigorate important conversations about how women can organize in support of one other and in solidarity with the variety of inter­secting identities represented across the spectrum of womanhood.

For many Omaha women, supporting and being supported by other women is crucial to their progress in various areas of life.

“I do better in my personal and professional life if I find ways to put myself in rooms of people who challenge me on a regular basis,” says Meggan Thomas, development officer at Habitat for Humanity of Omaha and Women’s Fund Circles steering committee member.

“I wanted to hear what other women were talking about, build relationships and figure out where I fit into the Omaha community,” she says of her inspiration to join Circles.

Circles allows members to create a valuable interior network of support while also supporting women and girls throughout the region by working towards the Women’s Fund’s mission. Thomas says the group is a release and functions to support members in a variety of ways.

“Sometimes that looks like a member sharing a troubling article on workplace bias and confirming a recent meeting’s topic on social media with comments quickly piling up. Sometimes that looks like a member of­fering to babysit another’s children after noticing that she seems a little harried. Other times that looks like phone-banking for the payday lending bill and feeding off of pizza and the magical energy of taking group action, and sometimes that looks like starting a planning meeting 15 minutes late because a member sits down and immediately starts telling the story of her impossible morning, juggling her family, work, pets, appointments, and feeling like nothing had gone right,” Thomas says.

While women supporting women in both formal and informal groups is certainly nothing new, it remains just as important as ever despite ongoing incremental societal progress.

Terri Sanders, president of the Omaha (NE) Chapter of The Links Incor­porated, recalls looking up to women who were Links members when she was a young girl.

“They conducted themselves with class and grace, and I admired their service to the community,” Sanders says. “The Omaha chapter of this in­ternational organization is over 60 years old and we’re known as a legacy chapter. The organization was started in Philadelphia by two ladies who were forming a group of friends. So, we are friends linked together for service in our communities.”

While some membership criteria is directed by the parent organization, Sanders says members of the invita­tion-only, African American women’s group represent many different walks of life.

“You’ll find people who are Links who are judges, attorneys, doctors— or housewives,” she says. “It’s not about who you are, it’s what you do in your community.”

Links members create an important network of support among them­selves, which they extend to the greater community through their commit­ment to service.

“We’ve given scholarship money to young ladies in our community, pro­vided support to children and schools, had programs that sponsor young people in the arts,” says Sanders. “We’re currently involved with college freshmen at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) in what we call the Sisterhood. It’s actually a component of the Young Women’s Empowerment Initiative (YWEI), a national initiative for our organization. The unique thing about the Omaha chapter’s effort is that the program is usually done through Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), and we are one of the first chapters to do it at a non-HBCU.”

Omaha Links members Sanders, Janice Garnett and others recently ac­cepted a Community Service Award for their Sisterhood/YWEI program at UNO’s 2017 Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women luncheon.

“I think that program is so import­ant, because everybody was supported by somebody coming up, and what bet­ter way to give back than through young people,” Sanders says.

Sanders is not alone in her emphasis on the importance of supporting girls and young women, in addition to creat­ing networks of support for women.

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Sarah Tvrdik

“Growing up in the ’90s, the first time I ever heard ‘girl power’ was out of the mouths of the Spice Girls,” says Sarah Lorsung Tvrdik, co-founder of Hello Holiday, a Dundee boutique catering to women.

She says the phrase didn’t signify much to her at the time, as she hadn’t really heard messages of female empowerment from other sources. But Tvrdik says she sees things changing for the current generation of girls—from empower­ing cultural imagery to the messages girls receive about the variety of their future career choices—and she strives to be a part of that positive change.

“So much of what we do, for me personally, comes from not having those voices or that support when I was younger,” says Tvrdik. “So, we really want to work to change that: To make sure those voices are present and that we’re bringing up the next generation right—to be supportive of other women and girls.”

Tvrdik and her Hello Holiday co-founder Megan Hunt use their retail plat­form in a variety of ways to foster networks of support and solidarity for women. Their model focuses on supporting small, emerging designers, which are mostly women. They also have an ongoing commitment to encouraging body positivity by offering inventory in sizes from XXS to 4X.

“We want to make sure that all of our customers can come in here and find something that works for them,” says Tvrdik. “We always want to be the kind of store where people feel welcome. We never want to seem intimidating or like we’re too cool—we want to be your friend.”

Hello Holiday has become increasingly known for selling designer Daisy Natives’ incredibly popular “Girls Support Girls” T-shirts.

“That was our No. 1-selling item of 2016,” says Tvrdik. “I think with the dif­ferent events of last year, especially politically, it kind of became a rallying cry for a lot of people. For us, it was a message we really wanted to get behind.”

After witnessing the message’s growing popularity, Hunt and Tvrdik decid­ed to create a fundraiser around the item.

“We worked with the designer, who was immediately on board, to create a limited edition of the shirt. We did a small run to see how it would go, with 100 percent of the funds donated to Planned Parenthood. The majority of them sold within an hour with very little promotion,” says Tvrdik.

“So that was almost $5,000 raised for Planned Parenthood in just a couple of hours,” says Hunt, empha­sizing the importance of not mere­ly selling a pro-women message on shirts, but also following it up with action that embodies the spirit of that message.

Hello Holiday also sells a “Never Again” coat hanger lapel pin, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Planned Parenthood of the Heart­land, and they’ve hosted fundraisers for the ACLU, Nebraska Appleseed and the Lydia House. In December 2016, they hosted Girls Support Girls Period, a donation drive for menstrual prod­ucts. If you drove down Underwood Avenue past the store during the event, you likely noticed the wall of tampons, pads and menstrual cups that over­took Hello Holiday’s storefront.

“We never could have expected such an amazing response,” says Tvrdik. “Our customers donated more than 700 boxes of menstrual products to the Lydia House. They said it was the biggest single donation of that type they’d ever received.”

Those who donated also received a coupon for 25 percent off an item at Hello Holiday.

“When Sarah and I started the business, we were always surrounded by strong women we admired who were doing cool things in the community—starting businesses, raising children, pursuing ambitions and careers, leading households. We kind of wanted to start a store for them,” says Hunt. “That strong feminine energy, the female leaders, the cool girls, the girls we aspire to become—we wanted to reach them and support them; maybe take a little bit of stress out of their lives.”

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Eris Koleszar

Another key way local women contribute support is by donating their time to organizations that help women and girls develop skills and confidence. Eris Koleszar, senior developer at SkyVu Entertainment, has helped teach classes and volunteered with organizations such as Omaha Coding Women, Girls Who Code and Omaha Girls Rock.

“I’m teaching a class now with Sandi Barr, the founder of Omaha Coding Women, with the purpose of providing support and making sure women in tech don’t burn out because of bad workplace culture, and to nurture our skills in a safe space where we feel supported and know we’ll be taken serious­ly,” says Koleszar. “The goal of Omaha Coding Women is to support women in tech positions in whatever ways they need. The group of women I’m work­ing with on Girls Who Code have partnered with Omaha Coding Women to be sort of like an educational branch.”

Koleszar says there are many sexist assumptions about women’s roles in the tech space, and that these are es­pecially pronounced because women are typically a minority in the indus­try. She sees pipeline problems, hiring problems and HR problems in tech that could be improved with the ad­dition of more women to engineering and leadership roles.

“Just getting girls interested, learn­ing about tech, and learning how to support each other as women that ear­ly on is so important,” says Koleszar. “The more we can get women to see tech as something they’re just as capa­ble of doing as men and give them the space where they feel OK to make mis­takes and learn—because so much of tech and programming is making mis­takes—that in itself will start to restructure the system in a way that’s more equitable for women.”

In addition to being part of the not always female-friendly tech space, Koleszar is also a trans woman and a musician—two more areas where wom­en can benefit from wider networks of support. She emphasizes the impor­tance of showing up for trans youth and giving everyone the rightful space to define themselves on their own terms.

“Don’t assume people’s gender. Give them the freedom to tell you who they are and honor that. It can save them from so much suffering and repression,” she says. “Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBTQIA. We need to support youth by making sure that schools and other spaces have protections and policies in place that support them. If you work with youth, make sure your organization pushes for that in whatever way you can. Let trans youth know you’re there for them and use the names and pronouns they ask you to use. Don’t question or belittle them.”

Likewise, on the music front, Koleszar says we should work to support our local women artists in concrete ways.

“One thing a lot of people don’t want to say outright, as far as support—and this goes for trans women, women in tech and women in music—give them your money. Literally, just give them your money. If you want to sup­port them, make sure they can eat and pay their bills and survive,” she says. “We give our money all the time to people and companies that already have a lot of money, power and privilege. It takes a more conscious effort to go out of your way and put your money where your mouth is. So, show up for these artists and support them. Buy their records, go to their shows, cham­pion them. Use your platform to boost women’s voices—and the voices of all the marginalized identities that women intersect with.”

Koleszar says the support that her band The Boner Killerz has received from the community is heartening. She also sees increased representation of local women in music and a general strengthening of that community.

“I’m seeing more women booking shows, running [venues], running soundboards, being in bands, fronting bands, writing songs and even doing their own festivals, like Benson First Friday Femme Fest. I love Becky Low­ry (BFFFF organizer) and she’s done so much to support other women in the local scene. I think the more we can support those events and organizations, the better,” she says.

Carrie Kentch, media consultant at Cox Media, agrees that representation matters. Kentch is part of Women in Media and Marketing, an Omaha group that offers a relaxed network of friendship and professional support and aims to showcase nonprofits that support women and provide crucial representa­tion of women in leadership at quarterly meetings.

“We get a lot of inspiration from the leaders we’ve brought in to speak,” Kentch says. “Seeing these women in roles that you may not necessarily see them in at your own company—presidents, VPs, CEOs—is really valuable. Karen Goracke, the president and CEO of Borsheims, had a great story. She actually left the company, went home and raised her children, then came back and climbed back through the ranks at Borsheims to take a role in leadership, which is just not very common to see. So many times when women step out of the workforce to go raise children, they have to step backwards when they return, but she kept moving forward.”

Kentch agrees that many women face undue judgement and obstacles in this arena. She says many talented women who leave the workplace entirely after pregnancy would be more likely to stay—adding value to their orga­nizations—if offered part-time or otherwise flexible opportunities.

“It’s such a difficult decision for women to make, because it can feel like career suicide for them to take time off or take a step back,” she says. “We need to be more flexible in the workplace and adapt.”

Kentch is hopeful that as more women join leadership ranks this will help the workplace evolve to better serve women.

“What I’ve experienced since coming [to Cox Media], where we actually have more women in lead­ership, supports that idea 100 per­cent,” she says.

Another important element of women supporting women is ensuring that when we stand in support of women we are truly including all women, honoring all identities, and listening to diverse viewpoints.

“My mind has been opened up to the fact that while many people may gather for a common cause—like the women in Circles—we may see issues and solutions very differently,” Thomas says. “This has moti­vated me to stay curious.”

“It’s important to constantly learn about and practice intersection­al feminism and to be critical of the narratives about what it means to support women,” Koleszar says. “Do the ways in which we say we’re supporting women boost only the most privileged women? Because oftentimes policies or the way we go about supporting women are aimed at the least marginalized women—white, straight, mid­dle class, Christian, neurotypical, able-bodied women. We should stop and ask: Are we also support­ing the many women who don’t fit into this neat, easy, little model? Not that all of these narratives are wrong, but it’s important to criti­cally consider things to make sure that we’re being inclusive and that our attempts at supporting women actually do support all women, and especially the ones who need it most at the end of the day.” W

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