Story by Selah Maya Zighelboim
Video by Elise Cardenas
Photos by Elise Cardenas and Yelitza Mandujano
Graphics by Yelitza Mandujano and Julie Gomez
Audio by Julie Gomez
In an Austin Community College classroom on a Saturday morning, a group of women gathered to learn about running for public office. The youngest was in elementary school, while the oldest had grandchildren. They varied in race, ethnicity and even nationality, but they had all shown up to “Preparing to Run,” a class put on by Annie’s List, a Texas-based organization that supports progressive women’s political campaigns.
“While women are less likely to run, women are as likely to win,” said Kimberly Caldwell, Annie’s List program director who led the session.
“Preparing to Run” was just one of the 18 sessions that made up the Women’s Empowerment Conference, or WE Con. On Saturday, April 22, the fourth annual WE Con took place at the Eastview campus of Austin Community College. The conference held workshops and discussions on issues such as intersectionality, self-care and civic engagement, with sessions like the “Reproductive Rights Panel,” “A Lion’s Voice: Creative Writing Workshop” and “Bilingual Yoga.” The conference also aimed at being inclusive and welcoming with Spanish-language programming and a childcare room.
Learn more about WE Con’s inclusive & bilingual programming
WE Con is put on by the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas, an organization that seeks to create a space for different feminist organizations to come together and connect.
“I love being able to go to a feminist conference that is built from the community and made up of people who are all interested in broadening their perspectives and talking with each other,” said Nora Greenstein Biondi, an attendee at the conference and Women’s and Gender Studies student at the University of Texas.
According to staff member Danea Johnson, the Center chooses organizations for the conference that engage and empower women. Johnson says she looks at organizations that help women get involved in activism, express themselves creatively or take care of their mental well-being.
“We were looking at different ways to get involved in the community,” Johnson said. “[We were] looking at different organizations that have been doing things for the past few years, different ways for women to plug into the community and get involved, whether it’s arts or activism or social justice.”
Civics 101: WE Con speaker, Amy Stansbury of the Austin EcoNetwork explains how to get involved in local government.
For Johnson, one particular group that encapsulates this idea of “plugging into the community” is Annie’s List, which participated in WE Con for the first time this year. This group encourages women to get involved with the political process, which the Center’s team sees as necessary for women’s needs to be met politically.
Annie’s List communication director Awo Eni said they saw the conference as a perfect fit for one of their “Preparing to run” classes. Eni says that women tend to need to be asked to run for office, so the program and its workshops aim to encourage that idea for women.
“In Texas, women make up the majority of the state’s population, but they only hold 20 percent of elected office in the state of Texas at both the state and local level,” Eni said. “When progressive women are put in office, they make life better for everyone. Representative democracy is very important to us, and that’s what we’re working towards.”
Though Annie’s List doesn’t have plans to work with the Center in the future, Eni said they probably would if they had the opportunity.
Annie’s List spokesperson Marjorie Clifton says that more women are needed in public offices so that women’s needs are taken more seriously. For example, prostate cancer research used to receive significantly more funding than ovarian cancer research, but because there are more women in public office now, those numbers are more egalitarian.
“It’s natural that we consider things in our life experiences that are unique to us,” Clifton said. “One of the most important things about having parity in any kind of structure — whether it’s businesses or the legislature — what our legislature is designed to do is not only represent all the genders, but all the races and socioeconomic backgrounds and making sure that it’s truly reflective of the people we’re taking care of.”
Along with WE Con, the Center has a film series called Alt Girl Cinema and workshops throughout the year. Currently, the Women’s Community Center has office space at the PeopleFund, but its board would like to get the Center its own building. To do that, the team is gathering input from the community to hear what individuals would like from that space.
“There’s an interest in women’s issues, a tide that may have started with the Women’s March and a yearning to keep that momentum going,” interim executive director Susannah Erler said. “We want to help keep that momentum going.”