A force for change: Zionsville-founded advocacy group looks to expand around state

(The Lebanon Reporter, March 22, 2017)

By Elizabeth Pearl 

Like many, Jennifer Nelson Williams and Sandy Sasso were concerned about the state of their country after the 2016 election.

Like many, they took to social media to create an online-based group of women who shared their concerns.

Unlike many, the group ballooned to nearly 11,000 members, pulling in supporters from around the state who have attended rallies and workshops and volunteered to run task forces.

“We’ve touched the lives of 11,000 women,” Sasso, a retired Indianapolis rabbi and author, said. “That’s pretty incredible. To be able to create that kind of sisterhood is extraordinary. I think we are slowly but surely making a difference. We certainly are a voice in the room.”

The group got its start in November, shortly after the election. Sasso and Williams, who is the funeral director at the Aaron Ruben Nelson Funeral and Cremation Services in Zionsville, both had grown concerned about the vitriolic rhetoric on display for the months leading up to President Trump’s victory.

“It was kind of like, ‘Are we going to sit here and complain about it or are we going to do something?’” Williams said. “I’ve never had any political aspirations before. I’ve never been involved politically, so making that first call, like so many women who are now starting to call their legislators, I was intimidated.”

They decided to reach out to the community to see whether any other women shared their fears. The pair put together a panel on women’s issues that featured Betty Cockrum, president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky; Christina Hale, the Democratic contender for Lt. Governor; and Sheila Suess Kennedy, a professor of law and public policy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

They expected about 100 women to attend the panel set to take place at the funeral home. About 900 showed up, only 500 of whom could fit in the room.

Williams said all plans went out the window. She and Sasso ended up passing around index cards, asking the huge crowd of women to write down their top concerns about their state and nation.

The four most common concerns became the four pillars, and the four task forces, of Women4Change:

Dignity and safety: This group focuses on women’s health and safety concerns, reproductive health and LGBTQ rights.

Mentor and empower: This task force works to empower women to take on political leadership roles at the local, state and national levels.

Inclusion and civility: This group fights racism and promotes civil discourse in politics.

Restructuring and activism: This group fights to reform redistricting in Indiana and supports voter rights and civics education.

Huge numbers of women began volunteering to head the task forces. A group of volunteers, calling themselves “Lawyers 4 Change” provide legal services to the group, while a group of volunteer accountants have helped file tax forms. A Women4Change member designed their website for free.

Williams said that group members have come forward to help every step of the way.

“The people I’ve met are incredible,” she said. “They are leaders in their field, in their respective communities. It’s just so empowering.”

In January, only about two months after the group’s founding, Gov. Eric Holcomb invited Women4Change’s leaders to meet with him on his inauguration day.

One of his staffers told Williams and other group leaders, “Right now you have a voice. If you want to be a force you have to be in every district around the state.”

Williams and the other women took his advice to heart.

Building a base

Ask any leader in Women4Change why the group’s message has proved so potent and they’ll all tell you the same thing: civility and inclusion.

On March 14, hundreds of men and women gathered at Beth-El Zedeck to hear Sheila Suess Kennedy, the law and public policy professor at IUPUI, speak about civic literacy. Before Kennedy took the podium, though, the crowd recited together what has become Women4Change’s mantra:

I pledge to be civil and respectful in my public discourse and behavior.

I will honor the dignity of others whether in agreement or disagreement.

I will respond to incivility and speak up in the presence of name-calling, stereotypes, slander and slurs.

I will do this for the sake of our children, for the healing of our country, for the future of democracy and peace.

“Incivility has always been around, but boy, in the last election it was taken to a level never seen before,” said Sujata Chugh, Women4Change’s director of policy and programming. “We want to push back on that and speak up for discourse.”

Sasso points out that the group makes an effort to include women from all religious, racial and political backgrounds in its leadership. The group actively seeks out Republican voices, finding value in civil discussion and differences of opinion.

The members don’t have to fall completely in line with Women4Change’s values to join, Williams said. She believes that the members’ shared experiences as women means that no difference of opinion is insurmountable.

When a friend told Williams that they were on different sides of an issue, Williams pointed out that that may be true, but that at the root they have something in common.

“I said to her that I have to believe that the bridge between us is much smaller than the bridge between me and a man who is looking at the world with different eyes,” Williams said. “We are mothers and sisters and daughters and friends. That has to make us closer together. I don’t see a way that it can’t.”

Another reason group leaders believe that Women4Change’s message has resonated with so many people is that it partners with well-established organizations to promote issues important to them. Partners include the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, Jewish Community Relations Council, Freedom Indiana, American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women, among others.

Women4Change amplifies the needs of these organizations, rather than “reinventing the wheel,” Williams said. The partnerships have brought Women4Change members to the airport to protest President Trump’s immigration policy and to work toward getting a hate crimes bill measure passed in Indiana.

Since February, Women4Change has hosted events on feminism, civic literacy, redistricting reform and rape culture.

Across the state

As the group grows, the organization leaders have begun to discuss several innovations, including a statewide book club that would read books from diverse cultures; a speaking bureau to train women to give presentations on Women4Change around the state; a leadership series to train women in running for political office; a civility campaign for legislators; and a database for the organization’s members.

The biggest project of all, however, is to create Women4Change chapters in every congressional district in the state.

Williams said that she has heard from people in Fort Wayne, Evansville and even Florida asking her about starting their own Women4Change chapter, but for a while turned them down.

“Initially it seemed like a wild dream. … I answered back that I’m just a mom in Indianapolis,” Williams said.

But in the last month that dream, of becoming what Holcomb’s staffer called a “force,” has become a reality.

Chugh said that she plans to visit each congressional district to hold informational sessions and to visit with local women on the interest in starting a chapter. Then it will be a matter of setting up the infrastructure within those groups and determining their relationship to the larger Women4Change base.

The goal, Chugh said, is to “each morning, each week wake up and feel we’ve provided them with enough information and tools to be effective members at the grassroots level.”

Getting involved

Having nine chapters throughout Indiana will strengthen not only the organization, but women who want to become more involved in local politics but do not have a solid support system, Williams said.

“It really has to start from the very first circle,” Williams said. “Being involved in your party, being on the town council or the school board. You have to start somewhere. I think of it as a root system, like laying that system and letting it develop and mature.”

As the chapters are rolled out in the coming months, Williams said that she expects Women4Change to grow by tens of thousands around the state.

“When we voice our concerns, people are going to listen,” she said.

Williams and Sasso both said that they spend so many hours on Women4Change that it has become like a full-time job. But neither would give it up.

“It’s been absolutely worth it for a number of reasons,” Sasso said. “One is the pure delight in meeting so many incredible women wanting to work for change and for the values we care deeply about. Another is that we’re making progress.”