Interviews with Tarana Burke and Laura Richards
On October 15, 2017 actress Alyssa Milano, tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within 24 hours, the #metoo hashtag had been used over 800,000 times.
Stories of women who were assaulted as children to stories of women experiencing injustice in the workplace are now being told all over the world using those two little words.
But Milano didn’t start the #metoo movement. In fact, it started in 2006 when Tarana Burke founded the me too Movement™ through Just Be Inc. to help survivors of sexual violence—particularly women of color from low-wealth communities—find pathways to healing. Her career as a youth worker exposed her to heartbreaking stories about broken homes and abusive or neglectful parents, she says.
Now, Burke says, survivors are feeling seen, validated and supported in ways they never have before.Today, the movement continues to liberate women to declare that they, too, have been sexually harassed or assaulted, including Lady Gaga and Gabrielle Union.
Women of Denver Magazine interviewed Burke and Colorado activist Laura Richards about #metoo, supporting survivors and getting involved.
Tarana Burke: Showing empathy is powerful
WODM: The me too Movement™ was birthed from your organization, Just Be Inc. which focuses on the health, well being, and wholeness of young women of color. Why was that mission important to you?
Burke: Women and girls of color are consistently treated as though our lives and humanity don't matter. We endure violence of all kinds, erasure and criminalization at disproportionate rates and have limited access to the support and resources necessary to navigate those things. As a black woman who is also a survivor of sexual violence, I knew that if I was going to do this work, I had a responsibility to center women and girls of color in it not only because it's the right thing to do, but because so few people and organizations acknowledge our humanity.
WODM: You founded the me too Movement™ in 2006 using the idea of "empowerment through empathy." Why use this method?
Burke: Empathy does far more for people than sympathy, which is the emotion many people pour onto survivors of sexual violence and abuse. Sympathy is rooted in remorse and pity, but empathy is the act of trying to understand what someone has gone through by putting yourself in their shoes.
Being a survivor myself, I remember feeling very alone, like no one understood what I was feeling. Pity doesn't help people move through their pain, but people showing empathy, saying in their own way “me too” and “I see you,” is powerful.
WODM: How did it feel to have Alyssa Milano, promote #MeToo on social media?
Burke: I was very surprised at first. It happened so quickly that I didn't have much time to process it. But Alyssa reached out to me shortly after the hashtag went viral to thank me for the work I have been doing for more than a decade.
WODM: How can we continue to support survivors outside of the me too Movement™ ?
Burke: Each survivor is different and has a different story, a different path to healing and different needs. It's important to not make blanket statements and assumptions about survivors and the kinds of support they need. Approaching survivors with compassion and empathy is key. Listening to them is the best way to learn how to support them.
Laura Richards: I want sexual assault in all its forms to be extinct
Laura Richards, a Colorado activist, decided to make her voice heard about the #metoo movement by organizing a rally at the Colorado state capitol in November 2017. She is a survivor of several sexual assaults. She gathered other survivors and advocacy leaders to bring more awareness to the issue and to highlight resources that are available in Colorado. Here’s what she had to say.
WODM: Why is it important to demand respect and equality for women?
Richards: Women have worked hard to open doors; when we first began in the workplace we juggled everything: career, children, home and marriage. It has been a long hard road.
Before 1993 we did not have the right in every state to press charges against our spouses for rape. We still do not get equal pay for equal work. I once found out a male colleague received more money than me for doing the same job. When I asked for a raise I was told he had to care for a family. At the time, I was a single mother having to do the same.
For me, the question should be, why would you not treat us with respect and equality? We have had to battle for every right we have today. The right to vote, the right to not be beaten by our spouse, the right to have control over our bodies and the right to own property. We must continue to demand respect and equality and fight for what is right. We have to honor the women that sacrificed so much so we can have the opportunities we have now.
WODM: What do you think of the culture for women in Colorado?
Richards: Women in Colorado are proactive, vocal, and engaged in their communities, families and careers. It’s amazing to see them embrace feminism in a way I couldn’t have imagined in the ‘80s. There’s a diversity that is phenomenal to watch.
We have strong, diverse women in our state legislature that bring so much perspective to the legislative process. The women who organized the Women’s March are young and vibrant, and they are carrying on the work of my generation. I am always in awe and have been honored to work alongside so many impressive women.
WODM: You told the Denver Post that you don't want the conversation to go back to the shadows. Can you explain?
Richards: Sexual assault hits the media for a minute then disappears off into obscurity. We make a few changes but can never really move the agenda to changing the culture. Organizations that provide free or sliding scale services get a little bump in donations, but then they fall back to the bottom of the list.
There’s a fear that we have been fighting this fight for so long, that once Donald Trump is not President and the issues (are not covered by the media) it will be like every other time. I think now we can capitalize on this opportunity and not allow it to fall back into the shadows.
WODM: What inspired you to organize the rally outside the capitol?
Richards: Our stories have power, but telling them only moves the agenda so far. In 10 years, I don’t want to hear more stories. I want to see women feeling safe reporting sexual harassment and receiving fair and equitable treatment (so they no longer) fear ending their careers. When rape victims report, I want to see more than 3 percent of of those cases being prosecuted. I don’t want people telling us what we should have done to avoid sexual assault.
I hope that one day, men and women will read history books to know what sexual assault is because the education exists. I want sexual assault in all its forms to be extinct.
That is what inspires me. I am driven by my sad story, but I am inspired by the courage of women who want to end sexual assault, especially for those who haven’t found their voice.
This article was originally published in Women of Denver magazine.
By Ali Correll
Ashley Beirne is a driven, inspired woman who has identified a critical need that is often neglected and unmet in the majority of the homeless population in our current society. She has gone above and beyond to provide the homeless with period kits, effectively ensuring that many of Denver's homeless population will no longer wonder how they will care for themselves every month when the need arises. This selfless act improves the quality of life around and in Denver, and helps to build and foster the sense of community in which we call home.
What inspired you to start collecting and providing period kits for the homeless?
I grew up very poor with a single mother and 3 siblings, and like so many, we eventually became homeless. We were lucky enough (after being waitlisted) to find beds at the Red Cross Emergency Shelter where we stayed for the next 7 months. It was during this experience that I personally witnessed and felt the impact that just one volunteer or staff could make and, 10 years later, I still remember many of their names.
From ages 15 to 18, every period I had was sustained by the donation and kindness of others. I never thought twice about it. At the end of February this year, I walked past a homeless woman who was around my age while I was on my period and thought: where does she get products? Does she have to use the money she gets for food to purchase products? What does she do about cramps? And leaks?
My mind started racing and I went home and looked for someone who was already meeting this need. To my surprise there wasn't an individual providing this service! I thought that I would do a drive and try to collect enough supplies for one third of the women living on the streets in Denver for a three month supply to try to alleviate any worries.
How does the program work? How do you collect and distribute them?
We have a few different ways to collect products. The first is through collection boxes that local businesses sign up to host and promote. We also have an Amazon wish list, which is kept updated with the items we are in need of, and people can purchase directly from that list and send supplies and donations right to us. Lastly, we use the crowd-fundraising on YouCaring to fund needed items that haven't been donated, like drawstring bags from the Dollar Store. We fill each bag with a 3-month supply of period products and distribute them to those living on the streets around Denver and to programs that serve the homeless, such as Metro Caring, The Empowerment Program, Volunteers of America Colorado, and Father Woody's.
Why is this mission important to you?
As a human, I think it is my job to do what I can for those who are in need. It's important to look at what these people are going through, how they survive, and what their experiences might be like. So often we look away and don't make eye contact because we are afraid that we might feel something or we may feel called to action. It is important and crucial to me that I support these women in a way that lets them know that we are thinking of them, they are not forgotten, and that we love them.
What's at stake for the women you're supporting?
The women we support often have no other resources for products. What we've heard is that women have gone as far as digging through the trash for napkins to use as pads, or even leaves to help sustain their periods. Imagine only having 1 pair of underwear and leaking through it. So many of these women have told us that it directly effects their self-esteem and sense of dignity, which are two things that are critical to maintaining a healthy and hopeful mental state.
Get involved! Find Ashley at:
Amazon Prime Wishlist: http://a.co/gprnjSa
by Joce Blake
Behind every painting or piece of art, there is a creative individual that gave their entire soul to make you feel connected to the work of art. As a young girl, Adri Norris had no idea that she would blossom into a startlingly impressive artist. When meeting this powerful woman of Denver, you can sense her intense compassion.
Instantly, you can tell that she seeks compassion. She said, “There is a lot in this world to be angry about, but I find that if I communicate with compassion, it is easier to be heard. That is where my art comes from. I could rail on about the injustices against women and people of color, but I choose instead to hold up examples of people who overcame those injustices in order to pursue their own goals and to improve the world around them.” The unique thing about this female artist is her tenacity through diversity.
The defining moment of Norris’ career was the moment she agreed to do a show about women in history. For her, taking the time to look deeply into the lives of these women and the times in which they lived has changed the way she views the world. “I see patterns of thought and behavior and recognize the need for context. It has relieved me of much of my judgment while encouraging me to question my own actions and those of the people around me,” Norris explained.
For years, people have told Adri that she should find a career with more stability but like the renegade she is, she persevered. Norris shares this characteristic with many of the women she has depicted in her revolutionary collection entitled, Women Behaving Badly. The aim of this collection is to highlight the indispensable contributions made by women from various realms like activism, athletics, arts, science, and politics. As for the title, Norris said, “I wanted a provocative title for my series to showcase women who stepped outside of their pre-prescribed roles to do meaningful work. The title grabs you and makes you want to learn more, even if it's not what you originally thought you'd learn,” Norris said.
Adri Norris was born in Barbados and her family moved to New York shortly after. She also spent some of her childhood in New Mexico. Falling in love with traveling the world, she decided to study abroad in Italy and then made the brave decision to join the Marine Corps. No matter where she was in the world, one thing remained constant: her sketchbook.
Norris told us, “When I was seven years old, I announced that I would be an artist when I grew up after flipping through a book containing the work of Leonardo da Vinci. That was the first time I realized that you could get famous as an artist.” She went on to say, “Growing up, I became fascinated by all the ways you could put marks on some surfaces and how you could manipulate other surfaces. I became a maker. It is something I can't not do.”
Norris created Afro Triangle to show the world her art. Creating Afro Triangle was something Norris knew she had to do. Each and every creation is from Norris; from the fine art to the clothing. “I started this company back in 2009 with a simple Facebook page to showcase my work,” Norris wrote on her website. The Facebook page has become an amazing presence on multiple social media platforms, art shows and festivals around the Mile High City.
Moving to Denver seemed like the right choice for the artist. Norris shares, “I had already applied to the Art Institute Online when I was sent on my second deployment to the Middle East with the Marines. By the time I returned, I had only six months left on my contract, so it made sense to wait and go to school in person. The Colorado school has a program I was interested in called, Illustration and Design. Although this was canceled before I got to Denver, I opted to switch to Media Arts and Animation and follow through with the original plan. I figured that Animation would be Illustration-plus. I love the sense of life I am able to bring to my paintings.”
For centuries women painters have been ignored by art historians. We are familiar with names like Leonardo da Vinci, Turner, and Monet but are not aware of names like Artemisia Gentileschi or Rosa Bonheur. Norris shared some of the trials and triumphs she has experienced as a black female artist. One of her biggest challenges came from doing commercial artwork for the corporate sector.
Norris shared, “The office was always freezing and I found that there was this weird split between how I was treated and how I was compensated. My work was highly praised, but my paycheck was tiny.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, black women are now the most educated group in America. The more shocking statistic is that they are grossly underpaid across many platforms. With this in mind, Norris had to make a decision that ultimately changed her life. “When I left, I had to learn how to be an entrepreneur, something they didn't teach in art school. Over the past two years, I feel like I am finally seeing my efforts pay off,” Norris said.
That’s why “Women Behaving Badly” is so important. This series, according to the artist, has brought more meaning to her life than any of her creations. Of all of her work, she feels that this series is truly inspirational and made her feel complete. Norris exclaimed, “I started to tell the stories of women from all races, nationalities, and walks of life through my series “Women Behaving Badly.” I want people to see themselves in those stories, to consider how they may be like those women and think differently about women in general. Originally, I aimed these stories and this art at women and girls. I wanted to inspire them to be more than they thought they could be. Now, I see that these pieces can become a vehicle to combat an ideology that puts people into a box with an incorrect label in order to stop them from being their full selves.”
From Dolores Huerta, a Latina civil rights activist to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in the House of Representatives, Norris has found a way to depict these powerful women in the most beautiful way. Combining watercolor paintings with old photos and newspaper clippings, she creates artwork that is unmatched. In creating these masterpieces, Norris wanted to focus on three questions: Who was she? What did she do? Why does that matter? Norris said, “I started learning about women who invented things I use every day or who enacted policies which benefit me and I asked myself, why have I never heard of them before?" Often times the historical achievements of women are not documented and shared with the world. Norris has championed the role of showing recognition to those powerful women who have been overlooked and neglected.
Watercolor is a unique form of painting as it allows for glow and transparency in a brilliant light. Norris told us, “ I am the kind of person who, if you tell me something is hard, I have to try it. Most people consider watercolor to be a difficult medium but I love that it has a mind of its own. It forces me to adapt to the changes I see as I put color down.” She goes on to say, “That said, it is also more forgiving than most people think. I routinely go back and pull out pigment to create highlights in my paintings. And because it is a transparent medium, there is this luminosity in my paintings that I have not achieved in other media.”
With the current climate of our country, this powerful woman feels our world is not a safe climate for her and her wife. Being a black, queer woman and a part of a mixed race couple is frightening. However, if she could tell her 10-year-old self something, she would tell her, “Keep doing what you’re doing because it will all come together someday.”
By Angela Jackson
The battle of the sexes has been going on for centuries. But the young women at Wrestle Like A Girl are building their defenses to win.
“I have learned that I can be something bigger, something better. As an athlete and as a (young) woman, it gives me confidence. It gives me strength,” said Raquel Gray, a WLAG wrestler.
What else is a girl to gain from participating in a historically male sport? The answer: a lot.
“Combat sports are great for girls, as it helps with confidence and requires you to become very self aware. Wrestling offers knowledge of self-defense, fitness, nutrition and body appearance,” said Katherine Shai who is a board member of WLAG and founder of her own educational blog LuchaFIT.
WLAG was originally founded by Sally Roberts, a two-time World Bronze Medalist in women’s wrestling and a three-time national champion.
Her goal is to bring the mission of WLAG all around the country. She takes her team of elite coaches to different schools to advocate, empower and support young female athletes.
“We teach them the importance of nutrition, hydration and sport psychology including how to build their confidence, how to dig within themselves so that they can become whoever, whatever they want to be both on the mat and off the mat,” Roberts said.
It was a natural fit for Shai to become part of WLAG because she is a lifelong athlete herself. And you might say it‘s in her blood. Literally. Her father competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic games in wrestling. He began coaching women’s club wrestling in the 1980’s and went on to start the only four-year college women’s wrestling program in California.
The sport had such an impact on her life there was no other choice but to share it with others. Her love and experience for the sport led her to become part of an organization that specifically advocates and speaks to girls.
The young women featured in our photos are members of the Chatfield Junior Wrestling Team in Littleton. Their coach, Sandra George, also knows firsthand the difference this sport can make on a person’s life.
“I played team sports when I was younger until I learned I could wrestle, my life literally changed. Wrestling is a sport where you learn self-motivation, how to strive to do better, how to learn to lose on your own. With a team sport you have others to help you win or lose,” George said.
The eleven girls on her team may be typical in that they are interested in everything from hashtags to the latest headphones, but they are also “tough.”
George says her girls are dedicated to the sport and as opportunities grow each year, stereotypes are being broken when they get the right support.
“Girls are breaking the barrier to sports and accomplishing great things,” she said. Six of her wrestlers also practice Jiu Jitsu with a Black Belt judo professor in Lakewood, CO.
Train. Fight. Win. is the name of the gym these young wrestlers were at the day we caught up with them. Gym owner, L.A. Jennings, Ph.D.‘s goal is to create a place where female athletes can feel comfortable.
She says over the years she has encountered some coaches and gyms out there that weren’t necessarily vested in the success of female athletes. That was not the type of space she wanted to create with her gym.
“One of the things that has been really important to me as a gym owner, and that I know was important to WLAG too, is to change the dialogue around women in sports and to not use the idea of ‘wrestling like a girl’ as a pejorative, but rather to see that as a strength,” Jennings said. “What I’ve tried to do as a coachis provide a place where women are valued as athletes and not seen as anomalies and that they are in an environment that is welcoming to them.”
Jennings also authored the book She’s a Knockout! A History of Women in Fighting Sports. She shares that women’s participation in sports was a very natural part of cultural play thousands of years ago. It wasn’t until the 19th century that rules were put in place that omitted women.
“It’s not like women are suddenly doing something new. We are in a certain extent in mass, but rather that we’re combatting those institutional forces that have sought to exclude women from doing something that is very human,” Jennings said.
She offers her vision of the future of female fighters.
“I think we will see much more growth as we see acceptance of and interest in girls being able to participate in sports like wrestling and boxing and kickboxing at a younger age,” Jennings said. That is a sentiment shared by the other female coaches.
“Providing more opportunities for girls to be exposed to combat sports will help their parents and the public realize this is not a sport exclusively for boys,” Shai said.
“With all the female athletes in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) more and more girls are learning wrestling is a foundation to all other sports. Girls are breaking the barrier to sports and accomplishing great things,” said George.
The young women of WLAG, like many Women Of Denver members, are rewriting their story and getting the tools to slay with the best.
“Wrestling is a stepping stone to help you with confidence and bravery and just to step out of your own element of comfort,” George said. “A girls comfort line gets pushed further as she realizes how hard she can work, what she can endure and what she can accomplish because of that.”
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by Joce Blake
Today marks the one year anniversary of the Women’s March on Denver.
Last year, this single-day protest brought out women and men by the millions around the globe and hundreds of thousands in the city of Denver. From the inception of the Women's March, national co-chairs Vanessa Wruble, Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour had a clear mission "to harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change."
The mission also states that the Women’s March is a women-led movement providing intersectional education on a diverse range of issues and creating entry points for new grassroots activists and organizers to engage in their local communities through training, outreach programs, and events. Above all the Women’s March has been committed to dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance and building inclusive structures guided by self-determination, dignity, and respect.
The momentum the 2017 march created was exceptionally regenerative as many women felt liberated to run for office and take on roles that are typically dominated by males. Never in the history of woman-dom, have 390 women been empowered to run for the House of Representatives with the goal of giving the boot to the patriarchal men who currently occupy those seats.
This year the March on Colorado Board, Tish Beauford, Lisa Cutter, Jessica Rogers, and Jolie Brawner, knew they wanted to be intentional and inclusive. Jolie Brawner, organizer and executive director at local non-profit Washington Street Community Center, shared some of the details from what goes on behind the scenes of an event of this magnitude.
How long did it take to organize this year’s march?
We officially obtained the permits for the March and Rally on November 1st, and we announced we would be having an anniversary march at the 28th of October March on Colorado Women's Summit. The planning has really been in full gear since the permits were obtained on the 1st.
What goes into the effort to organize thousands of women?
Lots of time, patience, and support. Everyone working on the March is a volunteer, meaning we have given up our evenings, weekends, and any free time to make this happen (not to mention the amazing support and understanding we are all getting from our families and friends). So what goes into an effort like this? Everything we have because it's a labor of love.
Is there a small group of leaders or is this part of a larger organizational effort? What individuals or groups helped coordinate the event?
After the 2017 March on Denver a board was formed to facilitate strategic forward movement. Members of this board work to support all aspects of march planning, and thoughtfully direct momentum resulting from the march into the community. We believe that social justice, human rights, and equality are shared American values. We firmly believe that there is still much work to do and that real change will only happen when all marginalized people are an active and respected part of the conversation. Until we have socio-economic justice and are active participants in a government that works for all of us, there is a reason to march.
Last year’s March demonstrated the power of our combined voices, and many were galvanized to run for public office as a result. We believe it is important to continue the momentum created in part by the Women’s March, and serve as a forum for women, transgender, and non-binary communities to express their intention to create real and significant change in our society. The Women’s March belongs to all of us. To that end, we recognize that many groups have been working on women’s and social justice issues for decades. In our sincere effort to honor the women and communities engaged in this important work, we have created a March On steering committee. This steering committee is helping us shape the January 20th theme and speaker roster, in addition to helping channel the march momentum into impactful community efforts moving forward. https://www.marchoncolorado.org/about
What do you hope will change as a result of the Women’s March?
I hope the Women's march re-energizes individuals that have become so tired in this past year. Last year so many women were galvanized to run for public office by the moving display of the women's March; I hope this year is as inspiring. I hope this year as we urge people to March to The Polls in 2018 they hear the message and use the energy of the Women's March to become involved in their community, feel a new connection to their fellow Coloradans, and show up in force to vote this November. To ensure we have opportunities to direct the energy of the Women's March beyond the March we have established a "Continuation Committee" and have events available for people to connect to their local activist community starting the day after the March.
More information on events is on the March On Colorado Facebook page under events: https://www.facebook.com/pg/marchoncolorado/events/?ref=page_internal
What do you think drives so many women to participate in the Women’s March?
I believe people are driven to participate in the Women's March because they are sick of yelling at the news alone at home. The Women's March offers an opportunity for individuals to come together and feel connected to and supported by their community. There is something so powerful about looking around you and seeing thousands and thousands of people who want to celebrate what they are pro, support every individual in their community, and connect.
This year's Rally theme is "Hear my Truth." All speakers and artists are meant to be “everyday women”--women who have opinions to share and stories to share but who aren’t normally given the platform. Specifically, women who are marginalized but who feel comfortable in speaking in front of a large crowd will be given the microphone to share their stories…their truths. The idea is that if each community can be heard, they will rally stronger together.
I hope that two things happen.
1. That people hear a voice they have never heard before, and reflect on how different all our experiences are, but also
2. That everyone can hear parts of a story that they connect to and realize we are not so different after all.
By Joce Blake
Picture a kitchen full of refugees working on lifelong, empowering skills—that kitchen is Comal Heritage Food Incubator in Denver’s TAXI development, located in the River North neighborhood. These young women are not just refugees but are also bright, intelligent entrepreneurs determined to change the world. Initially, the space was used to provide Hispanic women with job and language skills; it is now a safe place for Syrian women, as well. In the eyes of these strong women, intense ambition is their only choice, leaving behind a bomb-ridden home in pursuit of their goals and dreams.
We had the opportunity to have a conversation with Slavica Park, Director of Economic and Workforce Development at Focus Points Family Resource Center. Park was also once a refugee, so she understands the feeling of the unknown, and that understanding fuels her passion to pay it forward. Focus Points is responsible for the program at Comal, and it is more than deserving of the spotlight. We also spoke with one of the refugees, Sara Nassar, to see how this program is truly affecting lives.
WOD: What is Focus Points Family Resource Center?
Park: Focus Points Family Resource Center is a Denver nonprofit organization whose mission is to build better communities by strengthening families. Focus Points achieves that by providing programming in the following areas:
School Readiness, Adult Education, Economic and Workforce Development, Health and Wellness, and Community Engagement.
WOD: How did you get involved in the Focus Points Family Resource Center?
Park: I started working at Focus Points in May of 2016 as their Director of Economic and Workforce Development. I was very drawn to the mission of the organization and excited for an opportunity to re-engage in community work.
WOD: What is the importance of the community outreach program?
Park: Community outreach is important because it gives organizations a pulse on the community they are serving. If community outreach is not properly conducted, organizations are often unaware of what the community truly needs and how to best serve its members.
WOD: What are five things you want the world to know about the community outreach program?
Park: The Focus Points community outreach program helps ensure the following:
WOD: Where do you see the program in 10 years?
Park: I would love to see our graduates realize their dreams of launching their food-related businesses. Additionally, I would love for Comal to grow and become a true cultural center that bridges the cultural gaps in the city by engaging all communities in a conversation around food. I believe that our misunderstandings stem from simply not knowing other cultures that make up the fabric of our city.
WOD: Why did you choose Comal Restaurant as the spot to start this creative kitchen?
Park: I think Comal chose me! When I first started working at Focus Points, I met a group of community members who were interested in starting food-related businesses like catering, small restaurants, and food trucks. They had talent and passion; the only thing missing was the commercial kitchen. It was at that time I learned that Zeppelin Development had a vacant kitchen space that they wanted to use for social purposes. After meeting and planning for three months, Comal opened in October of 2016!
WOD: How did you come up with the idea to teach classes to the community spanning from cooking to culture?
Park: It was what the community asked for. Cross-cultural interactions are something I am truly passionate about. I have lived in three different countries, and learned that integration is a difficult process. One must have an international mindset in order to create spaces and opportunities for integration to occur. We have so much to learn from each other in order to help us grow.
WOD: Why do you think the program is essential to women?
Park: In addition to providing women with an immediate earning potential (50% of our revenue goes directly to women in the program), the experience gained sets them on a trajectory to successfully own their small businesses. Entrepreneurs in Comal are able to test out recipes, marketing strategies, and management styles. They build confidence and experience, all while having the opportunity to share their culture and their families’ recipes.
WOD: Why Hispanic and Syrian women?
Park: Focus Points predominately serves a Hispanic population, and therefore our first cohort was very representative of our community. As our operations got settled in the first few months, we realized we had the capacity to take on another day of lunch service, and decided to extend out to the refugee community. We focused specifically on Syrian women because of the current political climate. We wanted to show them that they are welcome here, and since their first day in Comal, our customers have been huge fans!
WOD: How did you meet Sara Nassar?
Park: I met Sara through Colorado Refugee Network Services. I reached out and asked them if they had any newly-arrived refugees who had a passion for cooking and wanted to be a part of our program. The very next week Sara and her friend Waala came to Comal and brought some delicious, authentic Syrian food for us to try. Their food was fantastic, and so were they. I am so impressed with the level of compassion, resilience, and drive that Sara has! I know she will be successful, no matter what she chooses to do!
WOD: How has working and learning at Comal restaurant affected your life?Nassar: Working at Comal makes me feel welcome in Denver, and helped me to learn more about the people here. Comal is such an amazing program—I love everything about it, from learning how to cook and serve in a restaurant, to meeting nice people. It's hard to pick my favorite part, but if I have to it will be the happy feeling I have when I see the joy on the people’s faces while eating what we are cooking. I am happy because they come every Friday. I am happy because we made something that makes other people feel good.
WOD: What would you like people to know about your life as a refugee?
Nassar: As a refugee, I have been in hardship, but achieving my goal by coming to a safe place and being here in Denver is priceless. I thank the god of the universe every single day. This taught me that everything is possible, and life has so much more to give than we'll ever know. I will work so hard, so no one will ever lose hope.
WOD: How has moving to Denver affected your growth and passion?
Nassar: The first thing I noticed when I was at the Denver airport was the sky—so big, so close, so beautiful. This city just gave me peace and hope. I am so excited to wake up every morning to continue living life again. I thought it was just because it's a new place, but no, it's real. I have been here for 8 months and I am not just feeling the same, but I am feeling better every single day !
WOD: What makes you feel empowered as a woman?
Nassar: What makes me feel empowered as a woman is having equal opportunities, and not being judged,stereotyped, or being treated as a human and nothing else.