By Ruwani Ekanayake, Research Intern, Women’s Foundation of California
Like a lot of bright ideas, ACT for Women and Girls (ACT) began with a group of women sitting around a living room debating and conversing. Since that 2003 listening circle, ACT has become one of Tulare County’s most influential reproductive health and youth empowerment organizations. I recently sat down for another conversation, this time over the phone, with Robyn Flores and Erin Garner-Ford, co-directors of ACT, to ask them about their roots, their future and their connection to the Women’s Foundation of California.
Robyn was a member of the first class (2003-2004) of the Foundation’s Women’s Policy Institute, which gave her the networks and resources she needed to develop the idea of a leadership training and social justice advocacy program for young women. The listening circle, which was hosted by the Foundation, gave Robyn the perfect opportunity to “sell” her Female Leadership Academy to a group of progressive women that saw the need to address women’s voices and feminist issues in Tulare County. Mary Wiberg, an attendee of the circle and the current Executive Director of the State of California Commission on the Status of Women, challenged the group to focus. “You know, you can’t save the whole world and do everything,” Wiberg said.
ACT decided to focus their work on reproductive justice, which was—and continues to be—a contentious issue in conservative Tulare County. The Tulare Kings Right to Life organization maintains a pervasive presence in Visalia and surrounding communities. When ACT for Women and Girls launched the inaugural class of the Female Leadership Academy (FLA) in 2005, they were the first progressive group in Tulare doing reproductive justice activism.
According to Robyn, the Women’s Foundation of California was the first funder to identify the need to build the capacity of progressive organizations in the Central Valley. This led to the Foundation giving ACT its first grant. “The only organization that did anything close to reproductive justice work was Planned Parenthood, but their focus was a little bit different—they don’t do leadership development or outreach to rural communities.” While partnering with Planned Parenthood when possible, ACT also reached out to Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) and immigrant communities.
Erin, Robyn and other progressive parents and community members in Tulare County saw that “there were youth who were progressive but didn’t feel like it was even safe for them to have a voice, or an opportunity to learn.” This was especially true for young women from immigrant communities. Erin explained that the few leadership development programs that did exist were costly, which made them inaccessible for young people who were interested in community organizing but couldn’t afford the programs. “This leaves out so many voices that never get to influence policy because they have to pay for it,” says Erin. In contrast, the Female Leadership Academy (FLA) is open to all young women aged 16-23 in Tulare County.
FLA is clearly a source of pride for Erin and Robyn, both because of its political influence on social justice ballot issues, and the confidence boost it has given the young women of the Visalia area.
“The FLA girls really have a large part in organizing here in the Central Valley. They’re not afraid to talk to people… and they’re also not afraid to write editorials, or just really make sure that the reproductive justice voice is heard,” notes Erin. This is quite a change for Visalia, a place where in the past, “if you were pro-choice, you better not say that you are.”
Robyn and Erin freely acknowledge that they still face a lot of opposition in Visalia, whether over FLA, their comprehensive sex education in schools campaign, or their youth-friendly pharmacies campaign. As Robyn puts it, however, “one sure thing that helps us overcome these obstacles is that we know that we have each other. I think that if we were organizing by ourselves, we wouldn’t survive. But the fact that we have the FLA girls who are fierce and ready is one really great thing. We have a really strong board… and then also we have funders who believe in what we do.”
The Women’s Foundation is proud to have supported ACT for Women and Girls with policy advocacy training, capacity building, and grant support totaling $121,500 since 2003.
About the author: Ruwani is about to graduate with a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies (Public Systems of Reproductive Health) from UC Berkeley. She will begin her Master in Public Health (Maternal and Child Health) degree at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health in Fall 2011.