Women4Change Indiana creates an activist sisterhood that fights for all

(Nuvo, February 15, 2017)
So, what happens when a rabbi and a funeral director get together to talk about the state of the world? You get women championing for change.

It’s not the set-up or the punch line of a joke, nor was it meant to be.

It’s the truth of how Women4Change Indiana began.

Like a lot of women in our community — and around the country — Rabbi Sandy Sasso found herself disheartened by the national results of the general election.

“Some people say our hearts were broken,” says Sasso. “But more than that there was a sense of despair and we were hearing that from a lot of women.”

Sasso heard the sentiment from so many women, including Jennifer Williams, president of Aaron-Ruben-Nelson Mortuary (ARN). It didn’t take long for the two to decide that they should offer the women they knew — and others they didn’t — the chance to talk about the despair all were feeling.

“We called through social media a meeting of women who were interested in the same social values as we were,” said Sasso. “It wasn’t against Trump [and] it wasn’t politicized in any way. But it was to stand for the values of inclusivity, against the negative hate rhetoric and intimidation of minorities and of immigrants.”

That meeting was met with overwhelming success. Sasso and Williams had hoped a hundred women or so would attend the gathering last fall. Instead the meeting filled ARN’s Zionsville location on Michigan Road to capacity at 500, with a few hundred women turned away at the door. Williams says the facility was not equipped to distribute audio from the room to the rest of the building, but the women standing outside didn’t care. The feedback indicated they just wanted to be a part of the overall energy.

“That was the beginning of the first sign of some hope,” remembers Williams. “I felt so isolated and I felt so alone and that night [of the first meeting] I felt like I was a part of a sisterhood.”

“And we felt empowered. After the election there was a sense of powerlessness,” adds Sasso. “And by coming together with all of these women, we really felt empowered. And I remember saying, ‘this is the sound of hope.’ Because here are people that care about these values that we cherish and they want to do something about it.”

So, instead of being a flash-in-the-pan moment, Sasso and Williams decided to harness the ideas, passion and personnel of the women in the room and develop a movement — an organized body of women who could systematically change the world — Women4Change Indiana.

“One of the things that we did very deliberately was we had everyone write down issues that were most important to them and we took a census of what those issues were,” says Williams. “From those statistics we came up with four key goals that we are working on.”

The four key goals — Dignity & Safety, Mentor & Empower, Inclusion & Civility and Restructuring & Activism — capture the essence of what stemmed from that first meeting. Each is the focus of its own task force so that a woman can get involved directly with her area of interest.

If working on behalf of health services for women through Planned Parenthood is your thing or shedding more light and legislation on sexual assault is your thing, the Dignity and Safety Taskforce is where you can find your tribe. If motivating women to become pubic servants by running for office or achieving other leadership roles in government, then the Mentor & Empower taskforce is where you want to be. Interest in civil rights issues and breaking the cycle of systemic racism of all kinds is directed to the Inclusion & Civility taskforce. The Restructuring & Activism taskforce is dedicated to voter rights and civics education including fighting to change gerrymandering in our state.

A second meeting, in the form of a summit, took place last week at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. The taskforces, strategies and organizational logos were revealed as well as next steps and the overall direction of the new organization. And like the first gathering, reservations for the Feb. event reached capacity very quickly. Williams and Sasso say the goal is for Women4Change Indiana to grow to where smaller community chapters can develop, mobilize and organize to affect change at the local level across the state, with guidance, mentorship and leadership from sister chapters and the larger state organization as a whole.

“It’s very important to us to develop the infrastructure so that it is sustainable,” says Williams. “We would like people within their own communities with our support to have their own meetings.”

And the concept could easily grow well beyond Indiana as Women4Change continues to gain attention outside of the state. Various ecumenical publications have covered Women4Change and most recently the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) attended a taskforce meeting to learn more about the movement.

The goal for Women4Change is to gather together quarterly to harness and maintain the momentum that continues to build. And Williams hopes they can secure an even larger venue for the next summit tentatively slated for April. The individual task forces will conduct the groundwork while the summits will gather for speakers, motivation and fellowship.

Sasso and Williams are motivated and know so many other women are too. Just knowing that they are not alone as been life-changing and reaffirming in what could happen for the future.

“This feels like an immediate need and where you can have an immediate impact,” says Sasso. “We just can’t go back to where we were 40 years ago. And there’s a feeling that some of that is happening.”