Junior League of CU brings women to the table, discusses social justice


Photo courtesy of Junior League of Champaign-Urbana

The Junior League of Champaign-Urbana poses for a group photo. The group will host its annual Leadership and Advocacy Conference on Thursday. Roundtable discussions at the conference will encourage women to talk personal health and politics.

By Elizabeth Sayasane, Staff writer

The subjects of the roundtable discussions for the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana vary from personal health, nutrition and education to rape advocacy, human trafficking and female reproductive rights.

JLCU, in partnership with the YWCA, is hosting its annual Leadership and Advocacy conference on Thursday.

A ticket to the conference hosted in the newly renovated Bluestem Hall is $15 for students and JLCU members and $25 for any other woman in the community. It includes a shared meal, several keynote speakers and a variety of roundtable discussions for the women to participate in.

JLCU member Laura Edwards was responsible for coordinating the event this year. Edwards is the chair of the public affairs and advocacy committee. Her goal for the event is to create conversation amongst the women of the community.

“We know that the women of Champaign-Urbana are involved, whether emotionally, or actually physically involved, and they have things to contribute and things to say and they definitely have questions to ask,” Edwards said. “The best way to achieve that is through conversation.” 

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    Laura Gerhold, vice president of JLCU, stresses the importance of variety in discussion topics.

    “They’re not all necessarily going to have the exact same concerns or areas of interest,” Gerhold said. “By providing diversity in the topics, it allows them to choose what’s going to benefit them the most and what’s going to educate them about the things they’re most interested in.”

    Several keynote speakers will be present to share their thoughts and knowledge from their areas of expertise.  

    Jaya Kolisetty, the educational specialist and assistant executive director at the Rape Advocacy Counseling Education Services Center (RACES) will be speaking on the #MeToo movement and how to use the momentum to move forward.

    Representatives from the League of Women Voters will be attending to speak about the changing of women’s reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade.

    The Mayors of both Champaign and Urbana will be keynote speakers. Together, they will present on the topic of women in politics.

    Mayor Diane Marlin of Urbana emphasizes the importance of having a conference that is by women, for women.

    “More than ever it’s just critical in our country’s history, in our community’s history, for women to step up and feel like they can have a voice,” Marlin said.

    One of her hopes for the conference is to create an environment of support. She recalled that it took the support of other women in her life to convince her that she could run for mayor.

    Marlin also acknowledged the power the current movements including the #MeToo trend or the Time’s Up movement have in the fight for gender equality. She believes these causes are proof that change needs to happen.

    “(The movements) shine a light on issues that need to be addressed and that have been around for decades and that we’ve all experienced,” Marlin said, “but change needs to happen, and I think you start by describing what the problem is and then working together to make some changes.”

    Mayor Deborah Feinen of Champaign shares similar sentiments.

    A prominent focus of hers during her time as mayor has been to encourage others, particularly girls and young women, to be civically active.  She hopes to “demystify” what it takes to be a civil servant.

    Feinen, a graduate of the woman’s college Mount Holyoke, highly values the all-female atmosphere.

    “I think that there is something empowering about being surrounded by other women and seeing women in charge of all of the processes,” Feinen said. “It’s an important space to be in and for some people more comfortable to learn and grow in that environment.  You can be challenged, but still be supported.”

    Feinen also finds the strides toward gender equality encouraging. She contrasted the empowering atmosphere provided by the JLCU’s conference with the environment of competition and negativity amongst women in the past.

    Both Marlin and Feinen hope that their speeches will encourage women attending the conference to pursue a career in politics. However, Marlin acknowledges sexism will not be solved by just passing laws.

    “You know, you can pass a law, but you have to change what’s in people’s hearts and the way they think, and that takes time, but you’ve got to start,” Marlin said. 

    Another key speaker at the event is Becca Guyette, director of leadership giving for United Way of Champaign County.

    Guyette was an active member of the JLCU for eight years. She is now a sustaining member.

    The focus of Guyette’s speech is fundraising. She will explain the importance of fundraising in sustaining the programs and establishments that help support the community.

    “I think it’s the empowerment and the idea that it’s critical for women to recognize how important it is for us to learn from each other, to build one another up and to work together,” Guyette said. 

    Edwards hopes attendees feel inspired for change by the end of the conference.

    “I hope the attendees gain some enlightenment and leave the conference fired up to make change and to make a difference,” Edwards said.

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