|WWOCN: Empowering women through life skills
by Ka Bao Lee
| It was not a big gathering of women, but members didn't seem to mind. Most of the women were busy getting acquainted with new members while others were chatting away with old friends. Everyone was welcome at the Wisconsin Women of Color Network's (WWOCN) annual conference in Madison on September 15-16. This two-day event featured some of Wisconsin's finest women of color leaders and professionals. (Editor's Note: the September 15 coverage -- with Dept. of Tourism Deputy Secretary Sherri Dallas Branch as guest speaker -- will be featured next issue.)
Among some of the amazing women who attended the September 16 conference was Frances Wilkins, founder of Networking Together, Inc. Wilkins said that while working for the Women's Bureau in 1979, she realized there was nothing there that was addressing the unique needs and concerns of women of color.. Wilkins went to her supervisor about her concerns, but like all Women's Bureau programs, Wilkins said that funding was a problem.
Wilkins didn't give up though. She explained, "I had this dream, and in this dream there was this conference of all women of color. It was just gorgeous." Ironically, as Wilkins was desperately trying to find a way to bring women of color together to form some sort of sisterhood, one of Wilkins' former sorority sisters was about to help make her dream come true.
At the time, Wilkins had a sorority sister working in Washington who had funding for a project. In order to receive the money, Wilkins had to submit her ideas to the program. Fortunately, Wilkins' dream was shared by many. Wilkins' idea finally received the funding it needed.
Although funding was supposed to be the hard part about getting started, Wilkins admitted, "I got this money and it's been approved by headquarters, now I don't know what to do." With no experience or knowledge about how to hold or organize any sort of conference, Wilkins didn't know how to bring women of color together. Nevertheless, Wilkins' connections soon came to her rescue once again. Sharing her dream with a co-worker, Wilkins was able to convince her co-worker to help organize her dream conference.
The first step was to identify women of color in their area (Chicago area) representing four ethnicities: African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American. These women were personally identified by people in their community as prominent women and leaders in their fields and neighborhoods. Wilkins said, "I was in awe of all of them."
Knowing that these women were very busy and had little time to spare, Wilkins explained that the first gathering was just a brunch. Wilkins laughed as she remembered writing letters to them addressing them as "Dear Busy Lady." In the letters, Wilkins asked these "busy ladies" if they would be interested in attending and meeting other women of color. From then on, more and more women of color became interested and the program took off.
Today, there are Women of Color Network affiliates in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, California, Florida, and Louisiana. At its peak, the network had over 900 members, but today only 250 members remain. Wilkins attributes the decline in members to the decrease in outreach programs that encourage participation in networks such as this one, especially government agencies that have stopped paying for employees' participation in such programs. Nevertheless many still believe in the program and are continuing to bring in new members.
|Dr. Jacqueline Wiltshire keynotes|
|Atty. Yer Vang receives one of the Achievement Awards|
| Wilkins said that Wisconsin is one of its "stellar" affiliates. The Wisconsin Women of Color Network was established in 1982. Committed to bringing women of color together through a variety of programs, WWOCN concentrates on helping women who are in need especially in job training, support those who are taking on new challenges and acknowledges the extraordinary accomplishments of others.
Not only was this year's conference another chance for women of color from all over Wisconsin to come together to support each other, it also taught them how to take care of themselves. The focus of the conference was minority health. Keynote speaker Dr. Jacqueline Wiltshire shared information about the differences in health concerns between minority women and Caucasian women. Talking about sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) to aging, attendees asked questions and laughed along at times. Many were interested in knowing how to take better care of themselves and their families.
Dr. Wilshire was not the only one who brought attention to health concerns. A panel consisting of Millie Jones from the Wisconsin Division of Public Health, Pang Vang from the UW-Milwaukee House of Peace Community Nursing Center and Lucretia Sullivan-Wade from the African American Health Network of Dane County also explained specific projects that their organizations are doing to help women of color. From giving advice and information to sharing their own experiences, these speakers definitely got the attention of every woman in the room from young to old.
In addition to learning about health, members also got a chance to learn about making money from their hobbies in a session called, "Learning a Hobby and Making It Pay." Presenters included artist Sharon Kilfoy, herbalist and author Huma Siddiqui, decorator Julia L. Lamp, and spirituality specialist Latisha Gray.
Not only did the conference focus on what women can do, it also presented awards to women who are doing great things. The program presented Women of Achievement Awards to Yer L. Vang and Mona Adams Winston. Vang was acknowledged for her work as a Hmong American attorney practicing immigration law and fighting for immigrant victims of sexual and domestic abuse. Winston is an African American activist and leader who is committed to supporting many voluntary organizations that help people of color and disadvantaged people.
Two scholarship awards were also presented. The Mabel Smith Memorial Scholarship Award was established in 1990 by WWOCN to remember Mabel Smith, who was a member of WWOCN, for her work on affirmative action in the work place. The award was presented to Roland Bravo, a Madison Area Technical College student in the Automotive Technician Program; and Grace Jackson, a student in Licensed Practical Nursing Program at the Milwaukee Area Technical College.
President JoAnn Moore estimated that over 50 people attended the conference. The conference achieved its goal of informing, supporting, and acknowledging all women of color. With conferences like this one being held, Wilkins said, "My dreams have definitely come true. It has gone beyond my expectations."