by Shannon Fisher
UniteWomen.org Florida State co-Directors, Jan Buckley Lella and Diane Wilson are having immense success fighting for women’s rights in their state. Even as many in Florida and around the country mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin and the sociological questions that accompany the trial and verdict surrounding his death, we must continue to pay attention to the fight for human rights happening in every state in the union. Jan and Diane are on the front lines of this fight every day in the Sunshine State.
The fact that UniteWomen.org Florida is flourishing can be credited in no small part to Jan and Diane’s tireless efforts. Not only do we want to honor them, thank them and shamefully embarrass them (they are both somewhat “camera shy”) by putting them in this first Member Spotlight, we want to share with our leaders and volunteers in other states the things Jan and Diane do to keep the ball rolling and the women’s rights movement going. The spotlight will shine on their leadership, legislative outreach, community involvement and effective activism methods.
The first element of their recipe for success is collaborative teamwork.
These two women work together so seamlessly that they are sometimes referred to as “The Bobbsey Twins.”
Jan describes their partnership, “It really is incredible; we think so much alike that we often finish each others’ sentences. Diane is a walking book of knowledge concerning how Tallahassee and the Florida Legislature work.”
Their knowledge and talents complement one another quite well, and they use that to their advantage by assuming responsibilities that are in their own wheelhouse. “We both have our strengths,” explains Diane. “I defer to Jan and her areas of expertise, and she defers to me on mine.”
Open communication has been the stronghold of their thriving partnership. Jan and Diane say there have only been four or five days in the past year during which they have not spoken, either online or by phone.
The second component in their success is meaningful and frequent engagement with the members.
Florida has a very active UniteWomen.org membership that closely follows current events of all political topics, as opposed to focusing solely on women’s reproductive rights and equality issues. Sometimes dozens of articles are posted on the Florida page daily (by both membership and leaders) about a wide variety of legislation in both Florida and Washington D.C.
“I believe it is Jan’s skill at posting the right mixture of articles each morning that makes our members check in so regularly,” says Diane. “Our members have said more than once that they learn so much from coming to our page that they click on our page first, as opposed to the news sites, to find out what’s happening in the world.”
With diverse wall posts addressing both local and national news, their goal is not solely to educate; it is to engage the members in active discussions. “Many times, we ask our members, ‘Your thoughts?’ to inspire discussion,” adds Jan. “We’ve been very pleased by the thought-provoking things that our members say.”
Offering members a “safe” place to use as a sounding board about women’s issues is the third ingredient in Florida’s winning recipe.
“I believe our success is based largely on our active participation in the group, but we have to give our members a lot of credit,” says Jan. “They are motivated, trusting, honest, progressive and willing to express themselves clearly even when they know others in the group may not agree. They know they can trust that what is said there, stays there. We do mix in a fair share of comic relief when needed. We also have a little routine established to give a warm welcome to new members.”
Diane adds, “As we discuss articles regularly, everyone gets to know the other members. We have had truly heart wrenching stories come out at times. Our members have shared things with us they probably rarely share with others. They know our page is a safe haven for discussion. We truly are a ‘family,’ and our members respect each other and one another’s opinions.”
The fourth factor is maintaining high-profile, active civic engagement.
The UniteWomen.org Florida team has created several campaigns that have made a large impact on Florida legislators. Members of UW Florida have met with legislators in Tallahassee to discuss proposed legislation in
the War on Women, arranged to speak in committee hearings on the topics of women’s rights and marriage equality and attended cultural and political events as a group to promote the organization and raise visibility. UW often “tables” at festivals such as the Gay Pride Festival or International Women’s Day, and having UniteWomen.org’s name mentioned on the floors of the Florida House and Senate continue to add momentum to the effectiveness of our activism in Florida.
In addition to in-person activism, Jan and Diane have organized many online campaigns for Florida citizens to call, email and tweet their representatives. They create an online “event” with all of the details and invite members to participate. During these events, they remind members to be sure to mention that they are members of UniteWomen.org FL in order to have our organization’s name repeated to the legislators with each Tweet, email or call that was made by a member.
“Our members were amazing. The UniteWomen.org FL name became known on the House and Senate floors in Tallahassee.” Diane gleams. “We got very creative during legislative session and had ‘events’ going on nearly daily to call/email regarding one bill or another. Our members took to that type of event with great energy. We also post any local events that will be occurring and encourage members in that area of the state to attend.” Diane even had a Twitter battle with a Florida Representative, which was covered in the newspapers.
This leadership team is well situated to continue to educate voters, recruit more activists and fight an ongoing public battle.
The fifth element is collaboration with other organizations.
Approaching other organizations that were hosting events, and asking to co-sponsor the events, has allowed UW Florida to be an active participant in activism opportunities they might otherwise have missed. “If it fit well with our philosophy of equality/fairness for all, or the OBR, I had no problem asking the organizers if we
could be listed as a co-sponsor. Events do better when more organizations are involved so they were only too happy to accept our offer,” Diane explains.
UniteWomen.org Florida has cosponsored a march at the Republican National Convention, an “Awake the State” rally, One Billion Rising and the International Women’s Day conference. Each of these events were a cooperative effort with several groups, and joining forces meant more publicity, press, resources and woman power.
The sixth and final factor is passion and dedication.
Jan and Diane decided to join the women’s rights movement for similar reasons. Diane, who had privately been a long-time advocate for pro-choice organizations, says, “I was beginning to think the controversy over abortion was dying back a bit – and then suddenly, in 2011, the attacks seemed to escalate dramatically. I just decided it was time to take a stand and see if I could help.”
Newer to activism than Diane but equally as passionate, Jan states “When I started learning about the rights of women being challenged, I started worrying about my twin granddaughters and their future. The [UniteWomen.org] Facebook group seemed to offer me a tool to learn a lot more about women’s rights, as well as become active in fighting for my grandkids’ future. I read, watched and listened for a couple of days, and then I started chatting. The rest is kind of history.”
History indeed! Jan and Diane met during the planning of the 4/28/12 events, the day UW (then called Unite Against the War on Women) held 55 women’s rights events simultaneously around the country. Because Florida is such a large state, multiple marches were planned that day to allow people from all over the state to be able to attend a local event to show their support for the resurgence of the women’s rights movement.
Diane stepped up to oversee the Tallahassee march. Meanwhile, Jan co-managed the march in Orlando. Through coordinating these events, the two women developed a good rapport. When the original Florida State Director moved to a national position, Jan and Diane knew they could fill the void – but only if they did it as a team. They said to one another, “I’ll do it if you do it!” And they did!
But the work has not been without sacrifice and extreme dedication. Diane says, “Both Jan and I are literally tethered to our computers or phones for most of the day. It is definitely a group effort (a labor of love) to keep UniteWomen.org – Florida a group where people want to come to learn and talk politics and more.”
“We’re fortunate to have the time, availability and flexibility to always have Facebook open,” adds Jan. “Frankly, we watch the page like a hawk. And that has worked in our favor.”
It is clear that most of the credit for this successful, active UniteWomen.org Florida chapter goes to these two women. It is also clear that it takes time, dedication, teamwork and ingenuity to make an organization like this thrive. Jan and Diane are tirelessly fighting for women’s rights and actively engaging the citizens of The Sunshine State in the governmental process to protect women’s rights. Thanks, Jan and Diane! We salute you.
And we will emulate you, too. After all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I imagine many of these methods will be popping up in states around the country soon.
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