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Women & Girls’ Empowerment

The Ongoing Struggle for Rights & Recognition

By March 11, 2020June 10th, 2020No Comments

Originally published by The Point Reyes Light

A new study released by the United Nations on gender social norms to mark International Women’s Day reveals that, despite decades of progress in closing the equality gap between men and women, close to 90 percent of men and women globally hold some sort of bias against women, providing new clues to the invisible barriers women face in achieving equality. Across the globe, women activists celebrated this day with demonstrations for the recognition of women’s rights. The day after, tens of thousands of women across Mexico went on strike to protest the rapid rise of femicide in their country. Here in West Marin, the wish for equity and shifts in leadership is also growing.

When West Marin Fund launched its women and girls’ empowerment program in late 2018, we faced some skepticism. Was there really a need for such a program in West Marin and the progressive Bay Area? Weren’t most of the nonprofit leaders already female? Wouldn’t such a program open up differences in a community that has already suffered deeply from divisiveness? Now, 18 months along and with grant reports in, we can safely say that we’re struck by the strength of the need, enthusiasm and energy of the 12 nonprofits that received the first set of grants.

“It was a game-changer,” said Nicole Ramirez, the director of human services and programs at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, which received a $9,500 grant. The community center responded to a need expressed by parents for an empowerment group for middle-school girls. The concept was to create a safe place for girls to interact, with a focus on body-awareness and other topics. The project, led by female staff member Cory Van Gelder, took on a life of its own from the very first meeting, when one youth spoke up to say that they identified as non-binary, and asked, “Why is this only for girls?” Non-binary students were included, and the group drew up agreements about confidentiality to create a safe place for frank discussions. The chemistry of the group helped create bonds that crossed the usual social divisions in middle school. Ms. Ramirez recalls an eighth-grader saying, “Honestly, I would never normally hang out with these people, but here, they are my friends. We are all safe here.”

With a women’s and girls’ empowerment grant from the West Marin Fund, Amber Smith-Dulin offers a monthly self-defense course at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. Beyond practicing moves, the sessions allow students to talk about situations in their lives that have made them feel uncomfortable or threatened, and they are encouraged to listen to their instincts and find a trusted adult should anything happen in the future. Ms. Smith-Dulin plans to lead another session for the community center’s female staff. Photo by Ginny Felch.

Leaps in leadership and career development for female staff were a common theme among grant recipients. Several organizations applied their funding directly to enhance the skills of female staff, benefitting not only those women but the whole organization. The Bolinas Community Land Trust is on a steep growth curve, and some of its $8,000 grant went to improve staff skills to meet the demands of that growth. A QuickBooks course for office manager Leilani Fraser gave her the skills to work together with the organization’s bookkeeper and take the nonprofit through its first audit. “Our organization has changed so much in the past year,” executive director Arianne Dar said. “It is hard to know how much is the result of the grant and how much is our growth, but it feels like they are hand-in-hand to me.”

West Marin Senior Services used its $8,000 grant to support career training for several female staff members, including Maria Medina, who worked as a caregiver at Stockstill House. She was offered the chance to become a certified administrator of a residential care facility for the elderly. The course work—60 hours of classroom work over three weekends and 20 hours of online work before the exam—was difficult and unlike anything she had done before, she said, but she applied herself and passed the exam on her first try.

Being appointed as an administrator at Stockstill House changed Ms. Medina’s life and that of her 14-year-old daughter Viri and her 9-year-old son Geo. A single mother of two, she had lived in Point Reyes Station since graduating from high school. “I was living paycheck to paycheck to pay for bills, rent and food,” she said. With her new position and salary, “I can afford to take my kids places, shopping, or to a movie.” Seeing her mother go back to school inspired Viri to improve her grades, and Viri was January’s student of the month at West Marin School.

West Marin Fund recently hosted a celebration of women and girls’ empowerment so that grant recipients could share their stories of change and success. Female staff of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association described how they worked with the National Park Service to build working relationships and discover shared strengths. CLAM is responding to the wishes of women in the community for intergenerational co-housing living solutions. West Marin Community Services has supported Latina staff and leaders with new career opportunities and participation in healing processes grounded in the natural world. Its executive director, Socorro Romo, highlighted how women often go unrecognized for their contribution to society, citing the example of mathematician Katherine Johnson, an African American working at NASA who played a critical but publicly unacknowledged role in the success of the Apollo 11 mission. Ms. Romo referenced how women are treated unequally, face wage disparity and “have few opportunities to advance in our work.” According to national statistics, one in four women experience violence and one in 10 are raped by an intimate partner. “This breaks our hearts, because women make the news only when they are raped or killed, but the grant from West Marin Fund gave us the platform to raise our voices, and invite men to be part of our empowerment,” Ms. Romo said.

The struggle for women’s rights and equality has been taking place in the Americas for more than 150 years, and clearly we still have a way to go. But West Marin Fund’s women and girls’ empowerment program has shown that when a community rallies and resources are made available to women, big steps forward are possible.