I was home alone on November 7, the night of the 2016 election. Laying in bed, my mobile phone was the only source of light in my dark apartment. Like many people who watched state after state turn red, a deep sense of foreboding took over. I am a progressive woman from New York who had been transplanted to Virginia, and I remember thinking what will I do now? By the end of the night Virginia was little more than a small blue dot buried in an ocean of red.
The fact that this country would hand the presidency to a man who was not only offensive, but openly misogynistic and racist rocked me to the core. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I spent the late fall and early winter in a state of shock trying to come to terms with what the next four years might hold. But the more I looked at my young son and the America he was inheriting, the more I came to understand that sitting idly by was not an option.
The tipping point came when President Trump issued his executive order banning travel from certain majority-Muslim countries. Seeing thousands of people trapped in our nation’s airports, made my head spin uncontrollably. I was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore, so I joined a group of women who were not going to be defined by this new president. It was time for us to take action, so I suggested that we start a non-profit. Our mission mission would be simple, to take tangible actions to affect change and hold the Trump administration accountable. Together, we would light a candle in the darkness.
If only it was that easy.
I had experience working for non-profits before, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to start one. What type would we become? How would we run ourselves?
What people don’t realize is that the process of setting up an organization is extensive, so the next few months became a whirlwind: researching, looking for competent lawyers and accountants, writing corporate bylaws and the rules of the organization, electing a leadership team and executive board, structuring the organization, building and running a website, creating and maintaining events and sending out a weekly newsletter.
Because of the reams of red-tape, we incorrectly filed the wrong paperwork to the state costing us additional time and money. But even amongst the challenges something amazing started happening, as we waited for our non-profit status to be approved our membership grew from the original 10 to over 1,000.
Today I am the Chief Executive Officer of Peninsula Voices for Change (PVC), a 501(c)(4) in Hampton Roads. Our organization is dedicated to advancing policies of inclusion, education, and respect for all communities, as well as pushing Virginia towards a more progressive future. A year ago we didn’t even have a platform to address our fears over the current state of politics and now we’re organized, motivated, and growing.
The sense of powerlessness that crippled me last winter is gone. It has been replaced with a growing conviction that the work my team and I are doing is making a difference.
Already, we have scheduled two town halls with gubernatorial candidates and candidates running for state delegate. We have created and launched a “Yes we Vote?” campaign, which not only encourages people to vote but also utilizes social media to bring the importance of voting to younger generations. We have held workshops on citizen activism, redistricting reform and religion and politics, along with other relevant socio-political issues. We have coordinated with Planned Parenthood in order to create volunteer opportunities for our members. We created approximately 70 graduation cards for transgendered student Gavin Grimm whose case went to the Supreme Court. We have organized a round table event for people of different political affiliations to discuss their belief, thoughts, and ideas in a safe space to see if we could find common ground.
However, old habits die hard. And as the CEO, I’ve had to quickly learn how to navigate the still male-dominated world of politics: This includes being told I am too aggressive when I believe I am being confident and self-assured. This includes having my kindness mistaken for flirtation more than once. This includes having to re-write more than one email in fear that the person on the receiving end would perceive me as “cold” or “harsh”. These are constants for women in politics in Virginia.
Yet the most difficult thing in running a non-profit has been to identify the balance between being determined and focused, while also not offending the patriarchal world of Virginia politics.
I now find myself in the middle of a battle zone where often, the fire comes from both directions. There have been challenging days, but the PVC mission statement continues to anchor me: ‘take action to affect progressive change’. As the President of the United States continues to make erratic and unsafe choices for our country, our organization continues to grow, thrive, and fight back.
People have a right to be part of something where they can enact change that matters. At PVC members are given an opportunity to join with a task force they are passionate about.
We have eight task forces each dealing with critical issues such as: gerrymandering, healthcare reform, women’s issues, environment and science, campaign and election education, refugee support, presidential accountability, and social justice. We connect them with their local congressional district, help them attend workshops and lectures, or join our leadership team. I believe that this nonprofit and all non-profits dedicated to progressive change are empowering a generation of people, especially women, that have laid dormant for too long.
We are here, we are invigorated, and we are making instrumental changes to the progressive future of Hampton Roads and Virginia. And we are just getting started.