by Chris Bavender
Two years ago, immediately after the 2016 election, Sandy Sasso, rabbi emerita at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, and Jennifer Williams, funeral director and president of the Aaron-Ruben-Nelson Mortuary, had a conversation. The two women had had a strong professional connection for many years.
“We shared a deep sense of loss, a fear that we were moving backwards as a country, that many of the freedoms for which we had fought were slipping away. The political rhetoric was polarizing and mean-spirited, tearing us apart rather than binding us together,” Sasso said. “We decided that we needed to do more than commiserate with each other.”
So the women invited three panelists, Betty Cockrum of Planned Parenthood, former state representative Christina Hale, and Sheila Suess Kennedy, a professor with the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI, to help them move forward. They shared a Facebook post but didn’t imagine the overwhelming response.
“The meeting was designed as a panel discussion to help the women in attendance, many of whom were feeling helpless and hopeless at that moment, find concrete action steps for the future,” Williams said. “Due to the overwhelming number of people in attendance we also took a poll of what issues were most important to the group. Sandy and I felt it may be helpful information to have for the future.”
The two women said they have “marveled many times over how it all came together,” calling that first meeting “truly a magical night.”
“Women stood in the driveway of the funeral home, straining to hear what was happening inside. We sang, we laughed—it was a cathartic experience. Over and over we heard women saying they wanted to be actively involved in making the country a kinder, more welcoming place than it was being at that moment,” Williams said. “Everyone agreed that it was time for more women to become involved in the political process. We had no idea that similar conversations were happening around the country.”
That meeting led Williams and Sasso to co-found Women4Change Indiana. The mission of the nonpartisan, grassroots organization is to “equip and mobilize women to engage effectively in political and civic affairs in order to strengthen our democracy and to advocate for the leadership, health, safety, and dignity of all women in Indiana.”
A CIVILITY PLEDGE
“The national discourse was becoming more divisive, demeaning, and hateful. Jennifer and I believed that we could address issues without attacking individuals or whole groups of people,” Sasso said. “We wanted to lift up the quality of our national conversation in ways that could build community instead of dividing us.”
They created a civility pledge that is read before every Women4Change Indiana meeting:
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 for peace.
On Nov. 17, Women4Change Indiana, which is headquartered in Midtown in the Indiana Interchurch Center, 1100 W. 42nd St., celebrated its two-year anniversary. In addition to the state chapter, there are now two student chapters—one at IU Bloomington and another at IUPUI—with interest in starting additional student chapters across the state.
Rima Shahid has been executive director of Women4Change Indiana since September 2017, the first person to serve in that role. Shahid was serving as the executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana when she was invited to be a part of Women4Change Indiana’s original task force. “I enjoyed being a part of that and seeing so many people come together to bring positivity to Indiana. I was invited to speak at the first Women’s March in Indianapolis. As I was looking out, really overwhelmed with emotion of all people flooding in,” Shahid said, “I had a moment where I thought to myself, ‘I am here advocating for this small group of people,’ but to be a true advocate I wanted to be able to serve and bring positive change to so many more.”
Shahid was the right person to help advocate for Women4Change Indiana, Williams and Sasso said. “We knew her from her work with Indiana Muslim Alliance, where she was well-respected and well-liked. Rima was supportive and helpful in our new venture,” Williams said. “Sandy worked with Rima on Interfaith activities and was impressed. It just happened that the timing was right for her to make a switch to advocating for all women, not just those in the Muslim community.”
Also on the Women4Change Indiana staff are Haley Bougher, education and advocacy coordinator, who is assisted by Butler University intern Megan Loveless. Alysa “Lys” Villelli is in charge of communications and community, aided by Anderson University intern Charis Grubbs. “Life does not exist without them,” Shahid said.
The organization hosts meetings throughout central Indiana and around the state to listen to women and what affects them and their homes, and to learn how Women4Change Indiana can help. “Our programs in 2018 have been in a variety of ZIP codes, but all of the meetings are accessible by bus. Just because you don’t have access to a vehicle, it shouldn’t stop you from attending Women4Change events,” Shahid said. “There is a cost for some programs, but if someone has issues with paying there is sponsorship available. Cost should not keep women from being able to attend. I think every single person brings a unique perspective of learned and lived experience and we use that to help us provide high-quality, effective programming.”
A late October program was on gun violence as a public health Issue. “A lot of our topics are set by needs identified in the community. Gun violence, unfortunately, is something we see increasing throughout Indianapolis,” Shahid said. “We had a really good discussion—we had close to 100 people in the room and it was a very engaged crowd. I was also very excited to see some teens in the room. It was diverse in all aspects of the word.”
A panel discussion on opioids is scheduled for Jan. 17 at IUPUI and the Ready to Run conference is set for March 15-16, 2019 at Marian University.
Other ways Women4Change Indiana works to keep women politically and civically engaged is with a focus on civics education. “We have Constitution 101 classes. We have a program called Youth Engaged to bring civility back into schools, and book discussions, and we tackle hard topics such as how to talk to people you may not politically agree with,” Shahid said. “We also have discussions on how the Statehouse works and what bills we are tracking, and provide opportunities for women to attend committee hearings. It’s an inspiration to have women come up and say it was their first time to come to the Statehouse and that they are hooked. We are really trying to build a movement.”
With the midterm election over, Women4Change Indiana is now turning its attention to the 2019 session of the Indiana Legislature. The group had a large presence at Organization Day at the Indiana Statehouse Nov. 20, holding a rally supporting redistricting reform. “We are members of the hate crime, equal pay, and redistricting reform coalitions,” Shahid said. “We are closely monitoring the legislature and look forward to working with our elected officials in an active and proactive manner, especially around our core values of the health, safety, and dignity of Hoosier women.”
Sasso said that, given the polarization of the country, Women4Change Indiana would like to see more bipartisanship in the 2019 Indiana General Assembly. “We need political leaders to model what it means to work together for the welfare of our country, to understand our diversity as a strength, and to speak in ways that bind us as one state, and more broadly as one nation,” she said. Going into the 2020 election, Sasso, Williams, and Shahid strongly believe Women4Change Indiana will be important in helping guide discussion and civility. “We have and will continue to enable more individuals to be active participants in the democratic process, to be informed about issues, to write and call legislators, and to be present at legislative hearings. We hold our elected representatives accountable,” Sasso said. “We model respectful, nonpartisan dialogue on difficult issues. We bring together Republicans and Democrats and Independents to have thoughtful conversations.”
Reflecting on the mission of Women4Change Indiana in the coming years, Shahid is focused on several goals. “We want to have student chapters at all of our universities across the state. To engage young people—pass that baton—and make sure they are part of this movement,” she said. “Success to me would also be seeing more elected officials at the Statehouse who are women—that goes back to our mission. When that happens, then I will know we have fulfilled what we set out to do.”
Sasso agrees. “The state of women in Indiana is abysmal. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that Indiana’s best grade is for political participation, for which it received a C-minus,” she said. “It received an F for the area of work and family. We hope to help change that, and to have a report card of which we can be proud.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of the magazine.