Grow Great Women nurtures leaders

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Kim Loper’s roots are in Milwaukee, but she spent her college years as a transplant in Minneapolis. So when she returned to her hometown, she needed to reestablish herself.

Loper found Diverse & Resilient’s Grow Great Women to be an organic program to identify, teach and nurture lesbian and bisexual leaders in the Milwaukee community.

Some participants use gardening jargon to describe the program – think of GGW as Miracle-Gro for leaders.

Others, with the project’s reproductive justice origins in mind, say Grow Great Women is a prescription for better living – for the individual and the community.

Already a volunteer with D&R, Loper began participating in GGW in February. “I wanted to get connected to what was happening in Milwaukee,” she says.

In GGW, “strong and smart women come together in this space. The thing I most love about it is the sense of mentorship,” says the 25-year-old artist and educator. “I feel like I have mentors that I can look up to.”

Two such mentors are Brenda Coley and Cathy Arney, co-facilitators of the GGW meetings that take place monthly at Diverse & Resilient, 2439 N. Holton St., Milwaukee, after socializing over a take-out dinner. 

Coley is director of special programs at D&R, including GGW, which developed under a grant to address reproductive justice in the LGBT community and has a major ally in The Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee.

Coley says Diverse & Resilient was looking for ways to engage lesbian and bisexual women in Milwaukee, and the initial grant allowed the nonprofit to do just that. While dealing with the broad issue of reproductive justice, which is about choice, the group is also concerned with economics, homophobia, racism, marriage equality, adoption rights and access to fertility treatments.

Coley says from the start a goal was to have diversity in GGW participation. Many LGBT organizations and institutions have struggled with this goal, but D&R has longstanding and deep connections in the communities that make up the larger LGBT population.

“From the start we had a diverse group of women,” Coley says.

Arney, a vice president at Pathfinders, became involved in GGW as one of those early members. “What drew me to the project was the fact I was going to be in a room with true diversity – in age, in race,” she remembers.

Also,  Arney says, the invitation to GGW, a pitch from Coley, helped her to realize that she needed to take a leadership role in the LGBT community.

“I had taken a long break,” she says. “And I realized I need to be involved in the group. …It’s really important for us to be out there, voicing what we think, voicing what our needs are, being leaders.”

GGW participants recognize that visibility is a prerequisite for invincibility. They also recognize that follow the leader is just a kid’s game. GGW is an adult program about growing and identifying women leaders.

Women develop goals and a mission as they come into GGW. “They look at the ladder of opportunity in the community. They decide where they want to be on it and how they are going to get there,” Arney says.

Coley and Arney prepare an agenda and co-facilitate each GGW meeting, which begins with socializing and dinner and then transitions into discussions and activities. Discussions among the 20 or so women who regularly attend have focused on current events, political affairs, health matters, racism, oppression, homophobia, crime, violence and media coverage.

“It’s an incredible think tank,” Arney says.

Activities can focus on effecting change and improvements.

“Everybody leaves re-energized,” says Loper.

Coley emphatically says GGW is not a “support group.” Rather, one might describe GGW as an action group.

“It’s about turning contemplation of leadership into action,” she says. “A leader sees a situation and makes a decision to do something. To lead you have to make a decision … and a commitment for the long haul.”

Arney adds, “Being a leader is having a clear understanding of your own opinion and being willing to voice it in a public way. It really involves action.”

Action comes at the individual level – some GGW participants decide to take leadership roles in other campaigns in the LGBT community, in the women’s community and in the broader Milwaukee community.

Action also comes at the group level – GGW has conducted a survey to collect data on intimate-partner violence, sponsors a women of color retreat each year and an annual Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Health Forum, which took place on Oct. 20.

The forum provided an educational opportunity, but also a chance to recruit more regular participants in GGW.

“We want more and more women to engage in the activities we conduct. I see us building a cadre of leaders,” Coley says. “Sort of continuing to populate the community. The LGBT community needs women leaders, and the larger community needs women leaders.”

Loper says she’s working to be among those women and to mentor others. She says Grow Great Women, to return to the garden jargon, is about sustainability and cultivating new generations of leaders.