A “trailblazer” is a pathfinder — someone who forges the way for others. Forget the images of a Daniel Boone type figure; these days, a trailblazer might be a woman standing next to you at the bookstore, sipping a latte at a corner café, designing a Web page, or conducting a meeting in a corporate office. Women who have heeded an “inner voice” and have chosen to create a new path, putting strengths and talents into play to bring about changes that benefit a wider community. Here is a look at four such women… trailblazers of the Pacific Northwest.
Lisa Cohen is the Director and Archivist of the Pacific Northwest Lesbian Archives (www.pnwlesbianarchives.org), and her voice bubbles with enthusiasm when she talks about the project she has begun to chronicle the history of lesbians in our region. “I know this is my life’s work,” she explains. “The idea started about 12 years ago when I was attending the Womyn’s Music Festival in Michigan. I decided to collect and preserve our community’s history, as is being done in other cities. Lesbians are an important social group, and we deserve to have our stories told, our history celebrated.”
The PNLA provides a safe place for documents, business records and personal memorabilia, much of which is donated by individuals, small businesses and social organizations. Cohen says that the project welcomes donations of audiovisual material, periodicals, pamphlets, clothing, art, protest signs, journals and written works — anything pertaining to the lesbian experience in the Pacific Northwest. “In that way, we differ from other lesbian archives,” Cohen says. “I wanted to collect, display and make available to the public items that are relevant to our experience in our region. The PNLA can’t document the whole world, but we can put the word out and do the work for our community. Future generations are going to want to know your story. Let me help tell it.”
Cohen encourages any lesbian organization or club to consider allowing the archives to house their material. “People are astounded that we exist; they become really excited to think that there is now a place for their documents and records,” she states. “As a social group, we want to maintain ownership of our stories — and that’s why my vision includes a separate location for our information rather than its inclusion in another organization.”
In operation for more than a year, Cohen’s vision now includes a dedicated board of directors and a five-year plan for a “state-of-the-art” building which will house not only documents and records, but also provide space for research and meetings. Women who identify as lesbian traditionally don’t have children, Cohen says, and so the question, ‘Who’s going to tell my story?’ becomes significant as women age. “I’m getting lots of material from women between the ages of 50–70,” she says. “They want to be remembered and, more importantly, they want the history of the vibrant and interesting Pacific Northwest lesbian community to be protected and honored. I want future generations of lesbians to know that we treasure and celebrate our endeavors, our gatherings, our love for each other and our stories.”
Born in 1929 in Cook County, Illinois, Davis is a vibrant, engaging woman who continues to live life large — her interests are varied, and she insists on remaining viable in what she calls the “ever-changing world of learning.” After years of working “short-term and stopgap” jobs, she graduated from Seattle University in 1951 and obtained her master’s at the Boston College of Social Work in 1953. She was one of two black women in the program; throughout her career in social work, she remained a distinct minority and dedicated her talents to supporting an underserved population. Her more than 30-year career in social services included positions as a practicum instructor at the University of Washington School of Social Work, coordinator of a multidisciplinary education series on arthritis, and researcher and teacher in prenatal and OB/GYN-related fields at Children’s Hospital in Seattle.
Widowed in 1971, Davis raised six children — something she considers her greatest success. Along the way, she was the first black woman to be appointed a manager for Avon products in the Pacific Northwest, served on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council for Western Washington, was a trainer in the National Office of Black Catholics, served on the AARP Executive Board for Women and Money Management, and was an involved member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. “To remain relevant in my community, to contribute, to continue to teach — to be actively engaged with people — that’s my lifetime goal,” Davis explains. Though “retired,” she currently teaches computer classes and a “Writing Your Life Story” course at Senior Net Puget Sound in Bellevue.
“One of the most important contributions I can make to my children and my community is to gather and collect the stories of my experiences as a black woman,” Davis explains. To that end, she has compiled and self-published several collections of anecdotes, poems and sayings that she believes will help future generations understand what black women endured, overcame and celebrated as they forged new paths in the Pacific Northwest.
“My mother responded to a reporter’s question as to why she’d brought me to the conference — she replied, ‘to experience sisterhood,’” sighs Dietrich. “I was only 11, and although the leaders and activists at the conference were absorbed in their work, I got a little bored. Still, I shared something with my mom that week — and it’s supported me as I struggle to stand for feminist ideals.”
She got her first taste of that struggle as a young teacher in San Jose, Calif. “I was the diversity ethics coordinator at our very large school and coordinated several training sessions with the American Association of University Women and the National Council for Christians and Jews,” Dietrich explains. “There was nothing theoretical about the work we did — it was hard, emotional, intense and important. As a white woman, I really had to push some barriers and deal with an overt fear of diversity by many of my associates.”
Since relocating to the Pacific Northwest over eight years ago, she continues her dedication to challenging social injustice. As an active participant in several social justice organizations, Dietrich believes that change occurs most successfully one-on-one, and that close, individual interactions bring about the most successful breakthroughs. “It’s when people come together to talk — to grapple with understanding a different viewpoint — that I most often experience a shift,” she says. “That’s the value of holding these ideas up to scrutiny; we begin to challenge biases.”
As a wife and mother, Dietrich finds her feminist ideals on the front line every day. In a mixed-faith family, she searches for ways to honor and uphold various traditions. Resurrecting a tradition that had languished for over 10 years, Dietrich and another mother host “International Night” at Audubon Elementary School to celebrate the burgeoning diversity of their Redmond community. A member of Sisters on the Eastside, a service group committed to “social action without social distance,” she welcomes the chance to meet with women of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Shared community is one of the core themes of her recently
completed novel, Copper Hill. In it, she examines the lives of
several characters as they attempt to create a socially equal environment
and suffer the consequences. “I hope my novel supports readers as
they look for ways to recognize the value of living out the hopes and
theories of social justice,” explains Dietrich. “In that way,
they can understand and honor the work done by feminists and social activists
from the 20th century.”
If Joyce Olson understands anything, it’s community and how important connections that work can be. As CEO of Community Transit for over 13 years, Olson guides the Snohomish County transit system as it seeks to increase ridership 50 percent by 2012. That’s an aggressive goal considering that when Olson joined CT in 1994, the agency was in the midst of an FBI investigation and undergoing significant change. “It’s true that when I came out to interview for the job, it was a mess,” laughs Olson. “But I thought, what’s the harm? After I met the staff and toured the agency, I realized there was nothing wrong with the organization; the buses got out on time, they were clean, the passengers were happy and loyal. It just lacked leadership and that can be fixed. So, I took the challenge and came on board.” Olson is quick to point out that the agency had grown too rapidly and simply lacked a vision for that growth. “They were good people — just needed some focus and a clear vision,” she adds.
Today, CT is considered one of the most forward thinking transit providers in the region, and Olson’s leadership style and vision are touted as significant reasons for the turnaround. Community leaders applaud her commitment to their citizens and appreciate her sometimes bold decisions, all of which are meant to move passengers with ease and speed. “Mobility is always a factor to our society,” explains Olson. “I care about transit. I believe it to be an answer to many of the questions we have in society today. Greenhouse gases, climate change, traffic congestion, the ability to move goods and services, better options for the disabled and disenfranchised populations — all these issues can be addressed with a good transit system.”
Olson sees that “people are beginning to get it.” Ridership is up, and 13 years ago, transit companies were often an afterthought when cities convened to develop traffic plans. Not today. “Now the county comes to me,” Olson exclaims. “We are at the table, offering suggestions that can move more people, at a lesser cost to the environment. That makes me happy!” That happiness is apparent when you talk to Olson about the success stories at Community Transit — and the plans for the future. Bus rapid transit (BRT) is an innovative idea that marries the efficiency of light-rail with conventional bus service; the Puget Pass allows riders to use one pass for transit in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, and transit signal priority helps move buses through extended green lights and keep them on schedule. “I keep looking for things that get people excited,” Olson adds. “BRT is a big asset; so is our trial double-decker bus. People love it.”
The biggest misconception Olson sees concerning transit ridership is that buses aren’t convenient and that you can’t always get to where you need to go. “We’re a society of people raised to rely on the automobile,” she offers. “If we can demonstrate that our buses are successful options, people will ride them.” Olson didn’t grow up thinking she’d run a bus company. “I just fell into it,” she chuckles. “But I love what I do. I believe that transit is the answer to many of our greatest concerns. I’m planning for the future and I see the results driving down our roads every day!”
Planning for the future; remembering and honoring the past. Protecting our sense of community and celebrating who we are. These four women — Lisa, Delores, Emily and Joyce — join countless others around the Pacific Northwest who are striving to make our shared world a little better…one path at a time.
©2008 Caliope Publishing Company
©Seattle Woman Magazine | All Rights Reserved | 206-784-5556