Looking in the Mirror: Part Two

A few years ago a woman I was dating asked me this question: “Why are there hardly any women selling Spare Change?” It was a question I had heard before and for the life of me I couldn’t answer it. I remember mumbling something about I didn’t know if the board of directors or anyone else in the organization had ever really given it much thought. Truth is I didn’t really know why, and up until recently maybe I just didn’t want to know.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at our female vendor membership but women have been a vital part of Spare Change, from founders to Editors to Executive Directors to Board Presidents. There was even a time when there were so many female vendors they could have broken off and started their own street paper. Yet despite those many contributions, many women that have been a part of Spare Change — in the opinion of yours truly — have never been given the recognition they richly deserve. Some will argue that point, but the fact that  instead of the words “great job,” it’s either been “good girl” or an even more demeaning thought; that she accomplished tasks because of her looks instead of just being smart.

Strong women have also not had a smooth ride here. Some were pushed out or the atmosphere was so hostile that many would leave rather than deal with it. There have been exceptions but I can probably count them on one hand. Again as I said in Part One (last issue’s column): all this can be traced back to our early months, the cowardly act of we as leaders choosing our significant others as co-chairs thinking they would never go against us, which shows how little respect we had for them. It established a culture that had never really been addressed, more than once the know-your-place  tactics have risen its ugly head to silence women’s voices; they’ve been labeled crazy, used as tokens, belittled, bullied or just plain taken advantage of. Sometimes out loud and sometimes behind closed doors it happened.

What part did I play in all of this? All of it, I never questioned the culture, the shady deals, the locker room talk, the silent putdowns, even when I knew it was wrong, and I’m sorry for those weak moments. Sometimes it takes something painful to wake us up, and for me I saw the error of my ways and the organization when someone close to me was hurt by this culture that was ignored all these years. No need for particulars, just know that I finally figured out why I couldn’t answer that question that was asked of me.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and move forward, and this organization has. We’re starting to add  more female vendors by creating a more welcoming atmosphere, our Board of Directors has more female representation than it has in quite a while, and our former Executive Director Katie Bennett is starting a new project called Circle Of Friends that will no doubt attract more women to the organization. It’s not much, but it’s a start. Change is painful, but then again what good would it be if it wasn’t?

 

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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