Built by Women, for Women
Women's community center provides resources, meeting space
A safe, dedicated gathering space is essential to all communities, but particularly for those historically marginalized. Surprisingly, Austin was missing a one-stop-shop center for women to organize, host informational events, and receive resource support, until a group of locals stepped in and formed the Women's Community Center of Central Texas. "Austin is generally perceived to be a progressive city, but a lot more must be done to ensure that all women and girls can thrive here," said Rocío Villalobos, an integral team member.
Carrie Tilton-Jones, executive director of WCC, had been mulling the idea of a women's center for about a decade. While in grad school for gender studies at UT's LBJ School, her thesis research led her to the story of the Austin Women's Center, which operated from the early Seventies through the Nineties until changes in federal and state policies and unsuccessful fundraising closed its doors. Offering evidence of the enormous impact of women's community organizing, Tilton-Jones noted that the Austin Center for Battered Women and the Austin Rape Crisis Center both grew out of the original Austin Women's Center before merging to form SafePlace. It was also AWC staff that petitioned City Council for the zoning variation that allowed the first shelter in Texas.
"Orange Summer" – a Tilton-Jones term of endearment for the abortion-rights activism that took place in summer 2013 at the Texas Capitol – reignited local interest in "women's issues" on a large scale, and became the catalyst that brought the dream to life. Tilton-Jones lauded the "incredible resources" of BookWoman, which has in its way filled the gap in the decades since AWC closed. Still, the need for a specific place to organize post-Lege session was significant and increasing, and Tilton-Jones continued efforts by reaching out to colleagues working on meet-ups and connections made during the heat of battle. Then, "I came home really excited and said, 'I think it's time to start the center.' My partner looked at me and asked, 'What's stopping you?' which is a great feminist question. The next day I downloaded the paperwork from the secretary of state."
Social media outreach began in March 2013, but it wasn't until October 2014 that WCC officially opened its doors to the public for services. The center, located Downtown, focuses efforts on Central Texas' women and girls, be they cis- or transgender. "Women are socialized to put themselves last, to not speak up, to think more about other people than themselves, and there are not many spaces in the world that are just about women and girls. One of the most important things we do is to just be that space where you walk in the door and you know this place is about you," explains Tilton-Jones.
In addition to a constantly growing online database of resources around town, and an accompanying tangible resource rack with brochures, the center provides for a wide range of needs. Maybe it's Internet access to apply for child care assistance or veteran counseling or meal services. Maybe it's use of the center's shower and laundry facilities, or homeless shelter information. Maybe it's career skills or social events like clothing swaps and women's history trivia nights. Maybe it's a safe, private room in which a call to the domestic violence hotline can be made. Though the WCC does not do direct political advocacy work or lobbying, their space can also serve as a potential meeting ground. Whatever the situation or need, WCC listens to the story of each person who walks in or contacts them, and strives to improve their methods to getting people set upon the paths they seek. "We learn things we need to know for ourselves to get better and wiser and kinder as feminists, and for the organization to get more responsive and helpful and supportive to the women and girls who come in," says Tilton-Jones. "We try to work on an empowerment model, and a solidarity not charity model."
"We really want there to be a richness about the center," adds Julie Gillis, associate director of WCC, on their efforts to support women in the arts and foster an inclusive, diverse environment. They have an art space and a photo installation; there is an upcoming zine project and regular yoga events. Media Coordinator Andrea Zarate arranges screenings of films directed or produced by women, or with women- or family-centric subjects. The space also serves as a meeting place for groups like Mariposa Pathway and Mamas of Color Rising, and building on this year's theme "Your Body: An Owner's Manual," WCC frequently hosts presentations by organizations such as SafePlace and People's Community Clinic about topics like pregnancy and health care. And of course, the Center's main event is the annual Women's Empowerment Conference (WE Con), which is free and includes child care and food in an attempt to reduce barriers.
Building community anchors is the WCC's mission. "If the work we do is not community-driven or based on community needs, it becomes irrelevant and disconnected from what people's experiences are on the ground," explains Villalobos. Sue Gabriel, for example, sought WCC's help creating a YouTube video for a speech she wrote after the deaths of Michael Brown and Larry Jackson Jr. "I am not a computer-savvy person, but I do know how to type on the computer and such. I was able to express myself to more than just a few people and get out what's been inside of me for the longest time," Gabriel said. She's gone on to speak at a UT event, and organize a retreat for women dealing with incarceration. Says Gillis, "Community is about human beings working and living and playing and wrestling with difficulty together. I have long thought community duty is just a piece of life, just how we should be in the world."
"It's really important to us to live up to the community in our name," reiterates Tilton-Jones. "It's not up to us to tell [the women] what they should do or want. It's up to us to work with them, to help them get the tools they need to build the lives they want, and for us as a staff to learn while we do that. We try to be open about the fact that, for all of us, gender justice and feminism are a continuing journey, not a set of ideas. It's a living thing."
Outside of event hours, the Women's Community Center is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-8pm, and also by appointment. See the WCC website for upcoming calendar events and workshops: www.womenctx.org.