Women’s Advocacy Day Remarks at Massachusetts State House 2016

Women’s Advocacy Day Remarks at Massachusetts State House 2016

Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women
Women’s Advocacy Day Remarks
Gwendolyn VanSant
May 23, 2016

Good morning! I am honored to be invited to speak this morning on Advocacy Day for Women and to advocate for three new Regional Commissions.

I thought I might start with a quote for all of us from one of my favorite African American Women Voices, Audre Lorde:

“I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you... What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language."

I began to ask each time: "What's the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?" Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, "disappeared" or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.

Next time, ask: What's the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it's personal. And the world won't end.

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don't miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

I love this quote because on Women’s Advocacy Day and every day, we must remember the power we share as women in all of our intersections of womanhood.

We are women living well above and well below the poverty line, women of African American heritage, women who are transgender, women who are of Latina heritage, women of the millennial generation, women of Muslim faith, women seeking refuge in our new country, women with disabilities, women of European descent, women who identify as survivors or in recovery. And all of our voices and collective wisdom are needed.

We should speak whenever, however we can because now, more than ever, I am convinced women will save the world alongside our counterpart at board tables, in the workplace, right here in the State House as well as in our neighborhoods, churches, school committee meetings and town meetings and Chambers throughout the Commonwealth. Please advocate strongly and hear the many benefits of adding these three Regional Commissions to connect women statewide.

Over the last three years, I have had the honor of serving as Chair of the Berkshire County Commission, the longest standing Regional Commission in Massachusetts. This is one of the key ways that I use my own voice and connect with other women who are using theirs. Originally, our Commission made a singular bold goal of reducing teen pregnancy in our County. We have been successful reducing teen pregnancy by 50% and have effectively leveraged this as a community issue carried forth by our local United Way, health professionals, and community organizations in a “Face The Facts” Campaign still running to date. Our Commission is active, engaged, and diverse across ethnicity, age, geography, and professions. We have principals, nurses, community health workers, and councilwomen. Many of our members are graduates of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and LIPPI (Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact). We carry the bulk of the political advocacy and engagement work going on in our corner of Western Massachusetts.

Most recently, our Commission has focused on lifting up the voices and experiences of Berkshire County women to create equitable access to healthcare, increase safety from violence, and amplify resources in our County while leveraging and advocating for effective policy change. We do this locally and in service to our mother Commission here at the State House from our own local knowledge of what would most positively impact women and girls in our county and state. This includes welfare reform, raising the minimum wage, affordable care, healthy youth, and the Equal Pay Act.

We advocate for incarcerated women who are separated from their families with the closing of our local Berkshire prison for women. We have advocated for the anti-shackle law of women giving birth in prison. And we advocate for Survivors and Victims of Human Trafficking, which is another local and state epidemic.

Looking at the feminization of poverty in rural Western Massachusetts and the many ways it manifests across race, impoverished communities, and the impact it has on families and our elderly population (our largest Berkshire County population) has been a top priority locally. We know startling rates of domestic violence come along with poverty. We truly believe a focus on equity and reducing disparities will reduce substance use and domestic violence. This is why we continue to advocate for women and reduce the number of women and children living in poverty.

We partner with philanthropic leaders, the cultural industry, nonprofit leaders, educational institutions, and policymakers. Our delegates make themselves available at all times to our County residents and to the Commissioners. On the ground, we hold open forums and share the status of women in Berkshire County through Facebook, local TV stations, legislative breakfasts, and with our local City’s Human Rights Commission to name a few targeted spaces. Through social media, we educate on global and national women’s issues and strides as well as the issues that our local delegates advocate. We aim to reinforce the interconnection of our Berkshire status of women and where we stand as a County, State, and Nation. Our collective mission is to provide access to resources, services, and information and have every women’s story heard and understood to leverage policy and advocacy.

Every year we host a forum focused on listening to young women. Since I have been on the Commission and this year in partnership with Miss Hall’s, we have had girls speak on leadership and reach out to other Berkshire County girls at a separate stand alone event and as part of the legislative breakfast. Next year we plan to have double MHS interns run a youth-led forum and talk show highlighting policy and best practices for healthy women and girls in partnership with another local nonprofit partner, BRIDGE.

When we held our writing forum at Edith Wharton’s Historical Home, the Mount, women from all walks of life came to share their personal story. Local leaders of the Diaper Project shared their story, which has now taken form as policy to enhance literacy and family success by providing diapers to families in need. Other women have shared their stories about the history and legacy of domestic violence and what it means to be a survivor. Others have shared their struggle for equal pay in the professional world. Every woman’s story mattered because every woman’s story will always matter. Every woman’s story was heard. Whatever impacts one woman, impacts us all.

With that, I ask that each of these three Regional Commissions that are proposed today, have the opportunity to unite with other women. To reduce isolation and struggle. When we share our stories and listen to others’ stories and move to policy change, we create a better quality of life for all women and girls in the Commonwealth. These Commissions bring the needs of women and their families to the forefront and help us advocate for and alongside women in their Counties.

Just to give an example of our work, our annual legislative breakfast provides a space to educate funders and corporations, connect with legislators, support legislators’ advocacy work at the State House, and reduce the isolation intrinsic in our rural Berkshires. At our most recent annual legislative breakfast, an immigrant Muslim youth spoke of her lived experience in the Berkshires while making a call for other young women to speak out and take leadership for the needs they see in their communities. An advocate for African American girls in need of pro-social-emotional support spoke about the need for greater educational opportunities. In addition, we focused our attendees’ attention on the opiate epidemic and reducing the stigma for families and women in recovery.

Each County—Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden—deserves to have a vehicle focused on the rights of women. We aim to create more opportunities for women’s success and diminish the systemic barriers women and their families face. Many policies must be upgraded to meet the needs of the 21st Century family and address the incredible disparities in health and access.

Our work has just begun. It is time for us all to lean in today as we begin our day of advocating for the Women of the Commonwealth.

The Regional Commission Bills: An Act Establishing a Hampshire/Franklin Commission on the Status of Women (H.1867), An Act Creating the Hampden Commission on the Status of Women and Girls (S.1080) and An Act Establishing an Eastern Regional Commission on the Status of Women and Girls (H.3463).

  • These three bills would add to the six current regional commissions that exist in the rest of the Commonwealth, increasing coverage to most of the state.

  • The regional commissions already in operation have members appointed by the Massachusetts Commission and provide critical local input. They make it possible for the Commission to hear from women across the state, expanding its reach and including more voices.

  • The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts submitted a testimonial for the Northampton hearing, airing their support for the creation of the Commissions in Hampden and Hampshire/Franklin. They spoke on the perceived gap in communications between Eastern and Western Massachusetts, and how the commissions could work to bridge this gap. In addition, they identified the specific issues that plague this County, including a high rate of births to adolescent mothers in Hampden and Franklin.

  • One woman stood up to testify that with the female population in Hampshire County is the highest in the state at 53.4%, while they still lack representation. As a result, she notes that there are predatory loans that target female single heads of households, while men are given better rates and terms.

  • Another woman testified at the Northampton hearing that they needed these new commissions, especially since rural poverty is a gendered issue.

So I repeat, we should speak whenever, however we can. Our voices and collective wisdom are needed. Don’t ever doubt this. Thank you again for allowing me to speak on behalf of the importance of Regional Commissions, each one of us different and remarkable in our own regard & action.


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