Reading all of the wonderful stories of women being shared for Women’s History Month inspired me to think about the women who have influenced me. I realized that they fell into three categories: women I personally know, women (and girls) in pop culture, and women who have been major leaders in advocacy movements. This week, I’m going highlight my female role-models and hope you find someone to be inspired by!
What do you say when someone asks who inspires you? For me, it’s often the people I have a personal relationship with. Our greatest role models can be right in front of us.
My mom: My number one female role model in my life has always been my mom. As bonkers as we make each other – in that special way only mothers and daughters can – we love each other deeply. As a teacher in an inner-city school district, my mom instilled in me a dual love of learning and service. She was unrelenting in her dedication to her students, buying thousands of dollars in classroom supplies and more than once seriously considering fostering or adopting a student. She taught me what the word “privileged” meant before I ever heard the term, emphasizing that I was lucky to be both physically and emotionally taken care of. Reminding me that many children had neither of those – often, children she worked with every day – she taught me be grateful for what I have and help those who don’t. In her retirement, she’s volunteering at the local nature center and food bank. She’s also the one who inspired my love of cycling. While my family had always gone on short bike trips, her decision to bike 500 miles across New York State during my junior year of college motivated me to sign up for the AIDS Ride for Life. It was the first time I had ever done a major ride and made me a convert to cycling advocacy. In my family, my dad’s mom was the another major influence, whom I’ve written about before.
Nancy Breen: On the bike front, Nancy Breen, the chair of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee, is another real inspiration to me. I know she’ll probably raise an eyebrow at her name being on the list, but she totally deserves it. She’s been the chair of our all-volunteer committee for several years now and it’s a pretty thankless job. Besides motivating us to get into gear, she’s spent endless hours with our city’s Mayor and City Council, whose meetings regularly run to midnight. She’s spoke in front of local policymakers on topics varying from police training to bike lanes. And she does all this in the very male-dominated field of bicycle advocacy. In fact, I think Nancy is a big part of why women are well-represented on RBAC and our concerns are heard. I’m also putting a major shout-out to my friend Sophie Chan-Wood, who does a lot of our group’s marketing and is the Rockville Roll Model for the Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association’s Women and Bikes program.
Sister Lucy Poulin: Lucy is the toughest nun I have ever met. Admittedly, I haven’t met that many nuns, but she is a total badass. She founded Homeworkers Organized for More Employment in the 1970s in very rural Maine and still runs it. (She had co-run it with fellow awesome nun Sister Marie Ahern until two years ago, when Marie passed away.) What started as a simple co-op for crafters expanded to a substantial network of services including multiple homeless shelters, a food bank, a soup kitchen, a land-trust program that helps people build their own houses, an alternative high school, and much more. In addition to the main campus, she’s the matriarch of a rambling farm property. Chris and I volunteered at HOME for about a month and stayed in a plumbing-free house next to a lake at the farm. We ran the summer day camp, which at that time was down to 3 girls. Two of the girls were sisters and came from an incredibly tough background – they lived in one of the homeless shelters and their mom was a user and seller of illegal prescription drugs. Living and working there was super-hard and rewarding. But we had the luxury of it being temporary. Lucy deals with some radically difficult people, both those seeking services and volunteers, day in and day out. I saw her frustrated and even angry, but never impatient or mean. Most importantly, she created an atmosphere of fundamental equality. If you were more than a short-time volunteer, no one made the distinction between you and someone who needed paid work. It was never said but widely acknowledged that we all needed to be there, even if it was for different reasons.
Sylvia Robinson: Sylvia is another local activist that is the heart, soul, and backbone of an essential community organization. Leaving her steady job, she sunk her entire life savings into pursuing her dream of establishing a community center for her neighborhood. Housed in a impressive and historical but crumbly brick building in the DC neighborhood of Pleasant Plains, the Emergence Community Arts Collective hosts dance classes, children’s summer programs, poetry open mics, swap meets, and support groups. Through the organization, Sylvia has also led several projects delving into the history of the neighborhood, with a particular focus of highlighting the contributions of black women. I had the pleasure of knowing Sylvia when I volunteered for Ecolocity, a Transition Towns group that focused on sustainable food. She gave us free space for meetings and events as well as use of the building’s yard for a community garden and mini-food forest. Despite the fact that running your own non-profit is relentless, she was always willing to give our group time and energy as well. I’ll also offer a shout-out to my friend and fellow Ecolocity volunteer Gerri Williams, who now lives in Duluth, MN and co-hosts a radio show.
All of these women are dedicated to their greater community without losing sight of the individual relationships that truly make up that community.
Who are the female role models in your life who have inspired you the most?