Leading the Table: YOU Can Change the Narrative

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Since the results of the midterm election, I've been feeling energized and optimistic—a sadly unfamiliar feeling, at this point.

So many barriers were broken with those who were elected: the first Muslim women in Congress, Ilhan Omar and Michigan's own Rashida Tlaib; the youngest woman Congress has ever seen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; and the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, Ayanna Pressley, to name just a few.

So, how do extraordinary women like them get their start? Where did their motivations come from and in what ways did those motivations begin to emerge and form into actionable steps?

It's a story we hear from women over and over again, in a variety of areas: "I would have started sooner if someone would have shown or told me where to start—or simply told me I could do it."

In November, women spanning all degrees of career and interest gathered at West Michigan Woman's Wine Down to network and hear the stories of women who made the choice to serve. The powerful panel of speakers shared what sparked their motivation to step up, where they got their start, what got them where they are today and how women can help each other get to where they want to be.

The panel of speakers included women who are influential and fierce advocates, unapologetic in their power:

Jennifer Crowley, Vice Chairperson of the Library of Michigan and co-owner of Highland Group
Denavvia Mojet, political campaign manager and host of Political Pulse with Denavvia Mojet on WJWC 97.3 FM
Michelle Rabideau, former Board of Education president for East Grand Rapids Public Schools and board member for organizations including Michigan Women Forward

The room was buzzing with excitement—not just because there was plenty of wine. Women of varying ages, backgrounds and life experiences were conversing enthusiastically with each other, identifying possible ways in which to amplify and further strengthen the powerful female voices in our community.

"Running for office wasn't something I ever saw myself doing," began Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, the City of Grand Rapids' first female mayor and special guest for the evening.

"My friends and I would get together to complain about all the things we would love to see change. It wasn't until there was an open seat on the county commission that I thought about actually doing it."

Mayor Bliss went on to describe her election journey and how the women around her lifted her up.

"It was women who supported me by knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and being especially supportive on the days when the internet decided it was going to be mean," said Bliss, who added she faced hurtful comments relating to her looks, hair and the way she dressed.

"Women must do better—we must call on our better selves, because we truly do rise and fall together."

When asked about what her turning point, Denavvia Mojet recalled the realization she had that she would always be on the backend of things unless she helped and got involved.

"I was so unsatisfied that nobody had the answers," said Mojet, who initially used her platform as Miss Benton Harbor to reach the people in her community.

"Sometimes you're called to be a storyteller, and changing the narrative is exciting!" Mojet said. "Walk into the scary rooms and sit at the scary tables, because there are issues in the community that may not necessarily impact you, but they absolutely require your participation."

Michelle Rabideau challenged those in attendance to determine what their values are and use that as a way to create a personal mission to determine what you should get involved in. She also got real when it comes to the reality of running for elected office.

"Be prepared to be vulnerable; be prepared for someone on the campaign trail to possibly hate you," said Rabideau, who opened up about her own experience with encountering those who were less than kind during her journey to becoming president of the Board of Education for East Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Making a difference can start with small acts, but be sure to know there's always more work to put in when it comes to flipping a long-broken system on its head.

"You can do good things, but you have to ask yourself if you're really changing the system," said Debra Bailey, who moderated the conversation and serves on the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees and is a founder of Gilda's Club Grand Rapids.

"It's an evolutionary process."

While speaking on the topic of being called to serve, Jennifer Crowley emphasized her love for working behind the scenes and being someone who helps provides resources to those who need it.

"When opportunity knocks, answer. Even if you're in your pajamas," said Crowley, who began the process of joining the Michigan Library Board while recovering at home from a mastectomy she had in response to breast cancer.

"Just do the thing! The worst that can happen is that you don't like it and can stop."

If one thing is certain, it's that women deserve to be represented and must advocate for themselves and other women.

Bliss encouraged women to tell their friends that would make great leaders to go for it and run.

"Don't just sit at the table—lead it."

Remind your friends that they're smart, worthy and capable of changing the landscape of our society for the better.

And remember that you are, too.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Staff Writer for West Michigan Woman.

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