Finding strength in working together

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BRATTLEBORO — For International Women's Day, local business owners and entrepreneurs celebrated the inclusiveness and collaborations happening within their community.

"The women's community in Brattleboro is uniquely creative, supportive and collaborative," said Michelle Simpson-Siegel, Downtown Brattleboro Alliance board president who started The Intentional Classroom. "There is a Yankee sensibility here, and local women leaders embrace the idea that even though we can't do everything, we can all do something. So much gets accomplished when we put one foot in front of the other, especially with an open and inclusive network."

DBA Executive Director Stephanie Bonin collected quotes from more than 20 people and organized a downtown photo shoot for this story.

Anne Latchis, general manager of Strolling of the Heifers, considers herself "an ambassador of sorts" as she represents and advocates for organizations across several industries. She is not concerned with being a "powerful woman."

"Being effective, supportive, inspiring and community-minded is the better path to being a productive leader," she said. "I'm inspired by anyone who shows up to do the teamwork with an open mind and a generous spirit."

Nancy Braus, owner of Everyone's Books, hopes to inspire others by running the downtown store with "openly progressively politics." Her other work, on environmental issues, is meant to help create a sustainable future.

"The most obvious way we share and care is to support each other, and to support the creative endeavors in the community," said Braus.

Annie Richards, a family psychiatric nurse practitioner at AWR Associates, said any power she has as a female leader in the community is fueled by the company she keeps.

"I draw inspiration from other strong, creative, passionate people around me," she said. "To me, being powerful is not always measured by how loud one's voice is, but by how well one listens and thinks with a multifaceted lens. I have the unique luxury of working with young children and their support networks — parents, teachers, social service providers — every day, so I like to believe I am helping to shape the next generation of our community through my words and actions as soon as I step through the office doors. Plus, as someone with physical disabilities, compassion and advocacy are essential to my leadership style. When I see that reflected back to me through the eyes and voices of the children with whom I work, I know I must be doing something right."

Carrie Simmons, owner and creative director at New Ground Creative, called her integrity as an entrepreneur essential to keeping employees loyal and building a brand that reflects her personality.

"But it's not easy. It means aligning everything in my life with my personal values, including the decisions I make, the way I run my business, how I hold space for my team, as well as the clients and other people I choose to engage with," Simmons said. "As a parent, community member and business owner, I want what's best for our community and state. I want to share my experiences and learn from others in order to increase wages and improve the overall health and well being for all."

Simmons said she loves being a party of a community full of effective, gender-diverse leaders whom she can learn from and connect with to push ideas forward.

Olivia Jean DeWolfe, co-owner of Elliot Street Fish, Chips & More, loves the "strong female energy" at her shop and said there is no place like Brattleboro.

"I feel empowered by working with other similarly aged mothers as well as with young women in their first job and witnessing them getting to 'meet' that part of themselves," she said. "Just by existing, we are role models for all women and girls who may want to own a business some day."

Her group is always looking for ways to support other women and diverse-gender-owned businesses by creating projects together.

"Stepping into my own practice has allowed me to identify, acknowledge, and foster my own unique gifts and ways to serve," said Emily Megas-Russell, a clinical social worker and therapist at Soma Wellness Center. "As a self-employed woman, I love that I don't have to ask anyone's — especially any man's — permission to actualize on my visions, intentions and goals. It's easy to dismiss how much internalized patriarchy has led women and trans and gender-queer folks to silence their own inner voices of power and seek approval and permission from the outside, especially from male power. It's time to take our own power!"

She said the momentum in Brattleboro helps keep her motivated, engaged and supported in her work. It also inspires her to "think outside the box and continue to explore creative ways to build connection and community."

Kristin Cassidy, owner of BODHIFIT Hot Vinyasa Yoga Studio, considers herself "simply a person working hard to follow her calling and the deep desire to assist others in the same in order to live a healthy, vibrant and fulfilling life."

"In recognition of National Women's Day, it is with deep gratitude that I recognize, honor and acknowledge the ancestors and those women before us that have tenaciously taken a stand for women serving a powerful place in the world and who have paved the way for me to be where I am doing what I do today," she said, hoping to inspire others "to be true to themselves, to experience what's possible for them in order to live a higher expression of who they are. When we feel good in our bodies, we are strong, confident, balanced and strong."

Brenda Siegel, founder of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, said she felt male-dominated leadership weighing down upon her heavily early on and fought to be heard among "gray-haired men."

"Even today I gain criticism for choosing to lead instead of follow," she said. "However, it has been my great pleasure to watch the community become vibrant with women leaders and gender diversity."

Collaboration, Siegel said, is the key to success.

"What makes me most inspired is the little girls who are looking up to us and see themselves," she said. "To see the young women who might be starting out as single moms or new moms to see themselves reflected. To allow people who are struggling to see themselves reflected in leadership roles is extremely important to me."

Trisha Selbach, fitness entrepreneur, changes the lives of women by helping them to take care of their bodies and health "not so they can take care of others, but because they deserve it."

"We need to break a lot more stereotypes and be more inclusive of all women," she said. "The conversation needs to go deep. We must be brave and be willing to say out loud what we think and feel."

Gayle Marie Weitz, co-owner of ArtRageUs1 arts collective, said she enjoys being part of an intelligent, creative community. She hopes to contribute talents, resources and time to "the magic that exists here."

"I approach life from an artistic perspective, making me hypersensitive to people, place, and things and appreciative of beauty, love, and goodness," she said. "All of this provides direction for running a business and participating in community."

Tamara Mount, head of Hilltop Montessori School, considers collaboration and buy-in an important part of her job.

"People need to be included and feel invested to really work toward something all feel is important," she said. "I love being in a community that is so diverse with LGBTQ folks. It is easy to have a very diverse community of staff, parents, and students when it comes to LGBTQ. We are working hard to provide equal access to all."

Mel Baiser, partner at HELM Construction Solutions, said HELM is well aware of its unique position of being a genderqueer owned and operated construction management and consulting firm in a cis male-dominated industry. Cisgender, or cis, is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

"As members of a variety of construction-related organizations we find that time and time again. it is those who experience institutional oppression — be it based on gender, identity, race, immigration status, disability — who are leading the efforts to demand change in our profession," Baiser said. "We look forward to more cis men joining in our efforts in solidarity with the realization that truly an injury to one is an injury to all."

Sue Graff, community impact director at United Way of Windham County, said women have "enormous power" but often need to feel empowered by their communities, workplaces, families and themselves before utilizing that power. As the mother of two teenage girls and someone who works with the community, she looks for other female mentors for guidance, wisdom and support.

"I draw on these resources a lot, and offer those gifts to other women in return," she said. "The Brattleboro-area was attractive to our family when we moved here in 2005 because of its diversity of thought, but we now realize how meaningful it's been to have gender, socio-economic, and ethnic diversity fully represented in our community, especially since we moved from an urban environment and often took those things for granted."

Nancy Heydinger, executive director of Girls on the Run Vermont, finds power in "living with intention, free from a mind filled with clutter, and being available to embrace challenges and to share what I can to help others to thrive."

"It has been a privilege to bring up my children in the diverse, proactive and accepting Brattleboro community," she said. "We have always been encouraged to freely voice and express our beliefs."

Marybeth Kover, who owns Easeful Journey, is also grateful for being part of a supportive community. She encourages other women to take better care of themselves.

"I teach them how to listen to the wisdom they hold within and support them to realize their full potential in life," Kover said. "I am inspired by the number of people being true to who they are and living their truth. The more people who are 'awake' to their purpose, the better off our world becomes."

Erin Sprandel, co-owner of Echo Restaurant & Lounge, called Brattleboro "such a warm and welcoming community."

"My work family and I are honored to able to contribute to the diverse community," she said.

Loretta Palazzo, co-owner of Boomerang, enjoys running the store where so many people come to laugh, talk and shop.

"I never thought it would be so much a part of who I am, but it is, and I am proud of it," she said. "I also love working very hard to keep it fresh and interesting. A great bonus has been mentoring people, especially women, and sharing my experiences with people visiting here looking to relocate. It isn't hard for me to talk up Vermont. I love it here."

Lisa C. Mendelsund, partner and art director of 118 Elliot St. and local yoga teacher, has worked in Brattleboro for 14 years. She has seen an increase in female vendors since Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

"One thing that I really value about working in Brattleboro, is the collegiality between shops owners," she said. "We are wonderfully inter-dependent."

Kim Stice said she is embracing her position at the front desk/reception area at the Vermont Department of Health with "bold style and confidence, enjoying comfort in my skills and the fit of my personality to the job."

Senja Curran, who runs Holistic Skin Health and Wellness, said she is honored to provide a safe space that allows her to foster the "sacred practice of self care as ritual" through holistic facial treatments.

The Latchis Theatre, in partnership with the Women's Action Team and Elliot Street Fish, Chips & More, is hosting a special showing of "A Wrinkle in Time" at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets will be discounted at $5 for the first 100 guests. The book that inspired the movie will be given to the first 25 kids.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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