Correction: The name in a photo caption was misspelled. The correct spelling is Diana Rhodes. CityLife regrets the error.
On July 13 the phrase “Whores Unite!” echoed off the walls of the Regional Justice Center, stopped traffic and flowed down toward curious tourists on Fremont Street. As lawyers in dark suits busily filed by, nearly two dozen sex workers gathered on the steps of the justice center to rally for their civil rights and publicly declare pride for their chosen vocation.
The rally was the culmination of the first known sex worker rights conference to happen in America since the Whore Conference was held in California in the 1970s. The week-long affair — which brought together academics, feminists and sex workers from all over the world — took place in part because of the work of one UNLV graduate student, Crystal Jackson.
A sociology student who spent her late childhood years in Las Vegas, Jackson had long been fascinated by our society’s views on sex and sex work. But Jackson says if she had missed out on a little-known program offered every summer by the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, she would have never felt the motivation to take on activism, feminism or some of the work she does today. The program? National Education for Women’s Leadership.
“I was very, very jaded about that whole thing,” Jackson says, referring to feminism and activism. “NEW Leadership helped jump-start my feminist activism.”
Chances are, if you’re a young feminist in Las Vegas, you’ve bumped into Jackson. To many in Las Vegas, Jackson is at the center of feminist activism, including working with the sex worker rights organization Desiree Alliance and organizing a book reading last month by feminist author Michelle Tea and her band of fellow writers dubbed Sister Spit. Many also know Jackson’s activist-fueled Feminist Drinking Club.
But Jackson’s not the only one to sing the praises of the women’s institute program. In fact, many activist projects in Las Vegas that have garnered headlines during the past few years are fueled by women who have gone through the leadership program. The organizers behind the May Day march for immigrant rights on the Strip in 2006 are alumni of the same program. Likewise, last year’s female-centric grass-roots entertainment festival LadyFest Las Vegas benefited because its primary organizer attended the program.
“It’s kind of like feminist boot camp,” says Diana Rhodes, a LadyFest organizer and recent UNLV grad.
So what is this program that has had such a profound impact on many of the valley’s most influential up-and-coming feminist activists?
NEW Leadership is modeled on a program started in 1991 by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. As the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada — a statewide institution housed at UNLV — turns 8 this month, the local NEW leadership program is gearing up to launch its fifth six-day session next month. Open to undergrads at Nevada state universities or Nevada residents attending colleges outside the state, each year approximately two dozen women are hand-selected following a rigorous application process. The participants are matched with professional female mentors while working their way through six full days in sessions on everything from organizing on the grass-roots level to understanding the legislative process to public speaking. (Full disclosure: Last year this reporter was a moderator of one panel put on by the program.)
“I was never the politics kid. I was more the kid who would protest politics,” says Rhodes, 22, who went through the program last year. “I never knew I wanted to be involved in [politics].”
For many, the experience of NEW Leadership is a lasting one, building deep bonds with fellow participants. And in some ways, that’s by design. As Jackson says, NEW Leadership is a way for women to create their own sort of girls club to counterpoint the “old boys club.”
“Men have been doing this sort of thing for years. This is a way for us to have some of that,” she says. “Las Vegas has a lot of loose feminist connections. We’re not as tight-knit, unless something happens to bring us together.”
Jackson is so enamored with the leadership program that when its coordinator left to work as a women’s lobbyist in Carson City, Jackson successfully applied to step into the role this year.
“I went through it the first year [in 2003] and I just never left. I was constantly bugging them to let me do anything,” Jackson says.
But NEW Leadership isn’t about funneling proven leaders through yet another gold-star program. A founding principle of the program is to target women who may fall through the cracks of traditional avenues of leadership like sororities or social organizations. In particular, program organizers seek out women of color, poor women and those from rural parts of the state. This leadership program seeks to help women plug into their potential.
“We try to target latent leadership potential,” Jackson says.
One such woman is Evelyn Garcia, a 23-year-old UNLV graduate now working for the National Hispana Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C. The national, nonprofit organization runs similar programs to NEW Leadership for younger and older Latina women, helping them build the skills they need to become leaders in their communities. Garcia says before going through the leadership program in 2003 she was pursuing an education degree but afterward she switched to political science and started looking for ways to do more for her community.
“I saw all [the elections and politics] on TV but there was nothing I could relate to,” Garcia says. “It wasn’t for me. … But as I went through NEW Leadership and learned more I got angry and I couldn’t [sit by and] do nothing about it.”
One of the biggest impacts on Garcia was seeing women like herself who had risen from humble, Hispanic roots earn Ph.Ds and become active in politics. Now Garcia, who is the first in her family to earn a college degree, is looking at graduate school programs on the East Coast.
“Education is the only thing that nobody can take away from you and NEW Leadership reinforced that, to always be learning,” Garcia says. “[The program] was the first time I saw a woman like me, who had grown up eating beans and rice, who had an advanced degree.”
In fact, Garcia is working on building a one-day program with fellow NEW Leadership alum Jennifer López, 25, to reach Latina women in their mid-20s who may drop out of college because of social or financial pressures. Garcia says she and López have already approached a major casino company on the Strip for financial backing and hope to bring the program to UNLV, since they are both from Las Vegas and alumni of the school.
“It’s just a matter of putting our resources together,” Garcia says.
This is perhaps the biggest lesson women take from the program: get involved. One of the requirements of NEW Leadership is for women to do something for their community, whether it be organize a protest, start a grass-roots campaign or create a new organization to fill a need.
Trudy Parks, 42, went through the program in 2005. After years of working at WestCare with troubled girls, Parks came out of the leadership program with a solid plan to create a community organization after years of dreaming of a way to help girls who get lost in the system.
“I’d see the girls come in [to WestCare]. They’d be excited and graduating but then a few months later they were back in the program,” Parks says.
In December 2006 Parks took the first step toward making her project a reality. She bought a 3,300-square-foot house in northwest Las Vegas. And in March, Parks’ new organization called “NeXt Step; Xposure to Life Group Home” came to life when the first girl was assigned to her Lori Reneé House, which she named for a niece who was murdered six years ago. Once at the house, girls take a variety of courses including GED preparation, public speaking and health.
“I’ve always known I was going to do something but before [the program] I didn’t know what it was going to look like,” Parks says. “The women I met at NEW Leadership helped me by mentoring me and answering questions. You get a network.”
It’s networks like these that are so key for young women to become tomorrow’s leaders, says Jackson, who received her master’s degree in sociology from UNLV last week and is in a fast-track Ph.D program at the school.
“It was inspiring, actually, [for me],” Jackson says of her experience in the program. “It sounds corny, but it’s true.”
Nevada NOW President Jessica Brown, who has worked with the program in the past, says programs like these are what’s needed to create more parity in the numbers of men and women elected to office.
“Programs like NEW Leadership are crucial to develop the skills of the women leaders of the future,” Brown says. “As NEW Leadership [coordinators] have said before, women are not represented proportionally in the federal government, state government or corporate boardrooms.”
Program alum such as Garcia and López, who works as Nevada deputy press secretary in U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s office, are perfect examples of this. And the two women have become friends after their respective experiences in the program.
“To be surrounded by such strong, smart women was particularly inspiring,” López says. “The basis of the program is really exposing women to the basics of communication and networking.”
And Garcia and López are not alone in their post-Leadership trek to D.C. Emily Powers, who is an intern in Reid’s office and who works with López, is a 2005 alum of the program.
“It’s a program that introduces them to leaders in the community,” says Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid. “It does a really good job of instilling values of giving back to the community and community service. Those are good traits to have when you come to work in Washington for someone like the senator.”
Clearly, the NEW Leadership program is working as an incubator to start women on a path into politics and community activism. Another big moment for many of the women in the program was attending the grass-roots lobby days in Carson City in March.
A program highlight for Powers, 21, was meeting Jessica Brown, who inspired her to start a chapter of NOW at UNLV. But Powers didn’t stop her community activism there. Last semester the double-major (English and political science) undergrad launched Art Smart at Shade Tree as her required community project. Powers uses art to help children and their mothers staying at Shade Tree. (The program is on hiatus now while Powers completes her internship in D.C., but she hopes to get back to it when she returns this fall.)
And Powers is not the only leadership program alum who has used her activist training for the arts. Diana Rhodes, an alum from last year, wishes she would have taken the leadership program earlier because she went through it only a month before helping to organize LadyFest Las Vegas, a sort of local feminist Lollapalooza. Rhodes says some of the things she learned in NEW Leadership could have helped make LadyFest a bigger success.
“It was something I had never done before,” she says. “I had never done anything on that scale. I was able to expand on it through NEW Leadership because they give you business cards and you meet high-powered women in the community. … NEW Leadership gives you tools and resources you didn’t have before.”
Rhodes is coming back this year to help behind-the-scenes. During the six-day program everyone involved stays on campus in the dorms. Jackson says it is inevitably in the downtime at the dorms that she ends up answering questions about human sexuality and Rhodes says it was in the dorms last year that some young women met their first lesbian when they met her.
“There were some girls from rural Nevada who had never met a lesbian before,” Rhodes says. “I admit, I was nervous about staying in the dorms because of that, but in the end they just had questions.”
Perhaps the most attention-grabbing leadership project is that of Evelyn Flores Rangel, 24, and three other program alums. The leadership program alumni created the United Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which coordinated the May Day march on the Strip last year as well as smaller marches this year. This summer the group is applying for nonprofit status and hopes to do more work in the community on the issue of immigrant rights.
“We want to make it a mechanism so people’s basic human rights are protected,” says Flores Rangel, who got her bachelor’s degree from UNLV last weekend. “This is a vehicle for change through activism.”
While Flores Rangel says she was politically active before going through the leadership program in 2005, it helped her make connections with others in the community and network with women in powerful positions.
“It was an eye-opener in terms of meeting powerful women,” Flores Rangel says.
A key for many of the women who go through NEW Leadership is that the program is free and provides seed money to help start the community activism it encourages.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise,” Flores Rangel says. “It does open big doors. More than that, it breaks down a lot of barriers, helps break the glass ceiling.”
The next NEW Leadership session is slated to begin on June 4 with a dinner that will feature former UNLV President Carol Harter as guest speaker. The program is just one aspect of the women’s research institute, run by Joanne Goodwin. In addition to NEW Leadership, the nonpartisan institute collaborates with other researchers to put out the Status of Women in Nevada report. And the Las Vegas Oral History Project is an important part of its work as well, capturing records from women such as the Westside mothers who started Operation Life.
Emmily Bristol is a CityLife staff writer. She can be reached at 871-6780 ext. 344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Seriously, take 8 minutes out of your life and watch this whole thing. It’s a good breakdown of why feminism is still so important.
“Men are taught that they are better than women and stronger than women. That isn’t genetics, it’s learned behavior.”
You can’t be what you can’t see. Go out there and get yours women
The first time she was raped, school officials told her she was lying. They even demanded she write and hand-deliver an apology letter to her attacker. Twisting the knife a little deeper, the school expelled her for the rest of the year. The devastating sequence of events that followed suggests that school officials may actually have wanted the girl to have been attacked, or punished for speaking-out, once more She was raped by the same boy in the library the following year.
According to the Springfield News-Leader, the 7th grade special education student at Republic Middle School in Springfield, MO reported her rape in the spring of 2009. School officials refused to believe her, and after suffering through “multiple intimidating interrogations,” she recanted the claim. What’s more, a school psychologist’s report said the girl “would forego her own needs and wishes to satisfy the request of others around so that she can be accepted.” In other words, the already victimized twelve-year-old might have taken back her statement after school officials demonized her for being raped.
When she returned to school the following year, the school refused her mother’s request for extra monitoring and did not separate her from her rapist who, thanks to the apology letter, knew she had told. If the school wanted the girl to be victimized a third time, they got their wish. In February 2010, the lawsuit says her attacker “was able to hunt [her] down, drag her to the back of the school library, and again forcibly rape her.” This time, she and her mother reported the rape to the police, and a rape kit tested positive for her attacker’s semen. He plead guilty to charges in juvenile court.
The school’s next move made it clear that it was not lack of evidence fueling officials’ accusation that she was lying, but a deep-seeded hatred for women: Incredibly, the twelve-year-old rape victim was suspended for for “Disrespectful Conduct” and “Public Display of Affection” - two absolutely disgusting ways to categorize rape. The school had victimized the girl a fourth time, slut-shaming a rape victim for an attack that happened on school property, and one her mother sought to prevent by requesting their separation.
Her lawsuit requests damages for medical expenses, emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees, in addition to “punitive damages to deter School Officials and others from similar conduct in the future.”
But the school district denied every one of the girl’s allegations, as well as responsibility for the attack, the same way they denied her rape.