Four powerful political actors took center stage in a room buzzing with chatter and excitement. Though in very contrasting roles, these figureheads share one similar trait that is key to their drive and passion – they are strong, independent women.
The Women’s March San Luis Obispo (Women’s March SLO) hosted their first Practical Politics Soiree Jan. 11. It was an event geared to create conversations inspiring women to join the sphere of politics.
“In 2017, women held less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress and they represented only 25 percent of the state legislature,” Women’s March SLO member Andrea Chmelik said.
Chmelik, originally from Slovakia, came to the U.S. 15 years ago. Having witnessed political woes throughout her childhood, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chmelik felt compelled to no longer just observe.
“I was always interested in politics especially with what was going on around me and there wasn’t much political involvement when I was a child,” Chmelik said. “In 2015, I became a citizen. The 2016 election was the first election I could participate in and I really wanted to get involved on any level especially with women’s rights or immigration.”
Chmelik found the Women’s March San Luis Obispo on Facebook and reached out to the founder, Dawn Addis.
Addis, who works in public education, created the Women’s March SLO organization in reaction to the results of the 2016 presidential election.
“I wanted to do something and I saw a few things of people marching and speaking out but it didn’t fully resonate with me,” Addis said. “I felt like they were just targeting one person and that was one of the bigger issues I had with the election cycle – all the hatred, negativity and demeaning focus.”
According to their mission statement, Women’s March SLO is an inclusive organization of those who support women, LGBTQ individuals, non-conforming individuals, feminists, people of color, people of all documentation statuses and people of all abilities, as well as others in support of unity and inclusivity. The organization is the beginning of a movement for all people to voice their hopes and dreams for the future and to take action.
Since the creation of the organization, Addis and Chmelik have seen abundant changes. In the month of January, San Luis Obispo County recognized the impact the march had on local government. The cities of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach declared January the month of the Women’s March SLO.
“This is such an important moment in history. I don’t think there has ever been a more important time to be involved,” San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon said.
Harmon, alongside Caren Ray, Arroyo Grande City Council member; Erica Reyes, Vice-Chair of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Party; and Ellen Sheffer, a member of San Luis Coastal Unified School District Board of Trustees, spoke to audiences at Thursday evening’s event on the importance of a woman’s role in political movements.
“In terms of qualifications, the best qualification you can have is just caring. You really have to care about that particular issue, your community, your family, whatever it is. You really have to have that level of caring and commitment to withstand the slings and arrows that you will be subjected to,” Harmon said. “You can be the best public speaker in the world, have all the connections, all the money, but if you don’t have the courage to stick by and stand up and advocate for your values, then what is the point?”
The women shared their experiences, recounting triumphs and hurdles each had to endure to reach the positions they hold today.
“We have been told over and over again that the best thing we can do is sit down, be quiet and look pretty. So you need to be willing to stand up, have a voice and get a little bit ugly and take up space,” Harmon said.
Women’s March SLO will be hosting various events throughout the month of January, inclusive to all that are interested. The organization will unite Saturday to honor the 2017 march that took place after the election period. Check out their Facebook page for tickets and more information about the event.