On March 8, the Providence City Council hosted an event featuring local women-owned businesses, poetry and a panel discussion on how the pandemic affected the mental health of women and teen girls.
In an interview with The Herald, the Council’s Deputy Chief of Staff Marylee Dixon said she has been planning this event alongside Ward 11 Councilor Mary Kay Harris, Ward 2 Councilor Helen Anthony and Ward 14 Councilor Shelley Peterson since late December.
According to Dixon, this event is a chance for people to come together. “Individually, women have strength. … Working together and relying on each other, we can do even more,” Dixon said, adding that she hopes attendees “walk away feeling more complete than they did when they entered the building.”
This year’s International Women’s Day campaign theme was to “embrace equity” according to the IWD organization. In a speech at the event, Anthony said that the theme is “a call to recognize that each person has different circumstances and to allocate the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.”
“A focus on gender equity needs to be in every society’s DNA,” she added.
At the event, Harris presented the 2023 Anaija Strong: She-Ro Within Award to Eileen Hayes, president and CEO of Amos House, a South Providence provider which serves those experiencing homelessness, unemployment and poverty.
Dixon said that this award recognizes a woman who has done important work in the Providence community. This award is given annually in honor of Anaija Griffin, a young woman who passed away in 2020 after a battle with cancer. “She inspires me every day,” Dixon said. “She was something else, and (we) adored her.”
According to Dixon, City Council members wanted to honor Hayes for getting Amos House involved as a provider to the Cranston Street Armory – a recently opened temporary emergency shelter.
“They have over 200 people that stayed at the shelter every night … they did not lose a single person,” Dixon said. “She stepped up when nobody else would.”
This year’s event also featured a panel discussion about the pandemic’s mental health impacts on women. Panelists included: life coach Shawndell Burney-Speaks; former Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune MA ’19; Jill Van Leesten, program director for Justice Assistance; Lifespan nurse practitioner Michaela Maynard; and middle school student Gianna Peterson.
“There’s been a lot of inequity in access to mental and behavioral health,” LaFortune said, adding that the pandemic exacerbated health barriers for women of color, single mothers and women who are part of other marginalized communities.
“When we think about embracing equity around this whole theme, we also need to think about how we ensure that people have access to mental and behavioral health resources and support structures,” LaFortune added.
In an interview with The Herald, Van Leesten said that discussing mental health at this year’s panel was important for her. “It's good to be with yourself, know who you are and be comfortable in your skin. … Then, you can be out there with others and help others,” she said. “I have to put my health first because I'm not going to be able to be 100% for” the people I want to help.
For Dixon, International Women’s Day is important because it celebrates women around the world and brings to light the achievements and progress made by the feminist movement so far.
“International Women's Day gives us a moment … to really think about the women who have made significant contributions to our communities,” LaFortune said in an interview with The Herald. “But, it’s also (a chance) to think about the issues that directly impact women … and what can we do as a community to address those issues, to create a more equitable, inclusive community.”