In August 2017, I had just been laid off my job at a tech company in Burlington, Vermont. I was restless and bored. But I also had been wanting to finally start my own business and pursue some of the dreams I had ignored for so long. When the 21st Vermont Women’s Economic Development conference sponsored by Senator Leahy’s office came up (and actually only one of my facebook friends posted it), I immediately wanted to attend. I wanted to learn about what was going on in Vermont to address the economic opportunities and development for women. I also wanted to network with other people or groups who are working on health, social equality, and social justice issues in the state. This conference seemed like a perfect start.
This event is where I learned about Change the Story VT (in fact they ran the entire afternoon session). The event was inspiring but left me with a few questions about the group I wasn’t able to get answered during the whirlwind of conference activities, I decided to reach out to Tiffany Bluemle (pronounced “Bloom-lee”), the executive director of Change the Story VT to learn more.
Tiffany, who told me she will typically go by Tiff, was more than willing to talk with me about Change the Story VT’s upcoming plans. First I asked her to provide some background about the initiative. Bush, Bottema, Midavaine, and Carter suggest that problem identification and opportunity identification are key pieces of social enterprise (2017, p.127) So I was curious, as a researcher, if a social innovation type of project, such as the one represented here, would share any of the starting characteristics of other social entrepreneurial-like endeavors defined in the literature.
Change the Story VT is a multi-year initiative started in 2016 working as a catalyst for changing the system affecting women’s economic well-being in Vermont. They are funded through a major grant from The Vermont Women’s Fund, the Serena Foundation and through the contributions of several individual donors. The initiative is partnered with The Vermont Women’s Fund, Vermont Works for Women and with the Vermont Commission on Women. All three groups have a shared common interest in the economic independence and security of women in Vermont. These relationships serve as a set of social contracts based on shared interest. The groups’ alignment can serve as precursors to consolidated change, in this case, a formal show of shared recognition of an issue. Tiffany describes the need to create system change.
Tiffany previously worked at Vermont Works for Women, whose focus is on changing women’s lives, such as through employment opportunities or life skills education. In talking with her, she described that program as effective at changing the lives of women engaged with their programs. However, it has not operated with the top priority of changing a system that creates unequal outcomes for women, and so that need prompted the basis for this initiative coming together.
So similar to social entrepreneurship, an identified problem generates an initiative that looks to exploit the gaps represented by unequal experiences, and need for education and changed social outcomes. However, as an initiative, Change the Story VT gains a level of formality through its relationships with its network. It purposefully describes itself as a multi-year initiative, neither permanent nor necessarily long-living. This is likely a characteristic of both dependence and the “in the wings” strategies exemplified by its activities (which I will discuss more in the next few sections).
Disseminating reports and developing stories
One of the first order of business of the initiative was to commission a number of reports on the state of economic inequality of women in the state. In 2016 the group hired Burlington-based research firm Research Partners’ Laura Lind-Blum & Pat Heffernan to compile data for a status report titled “Women’s Business Ownership and the Vermont Economy”. They also hired Vermont-based consulting firm Flint Springs Associates’ Joy Livingston & Vicki Hart to compile data for a status report on “Where Vermont Women Work..and Why it Matters” and “Women, Work, and Wages in Vermont.”
The result of these reports showed clearly on disparities affecting women’s pocketbooks, either through their business engagement or through their employment. Then in 2017, a new status report came out called “Vermont Women and Leadership.” Statistics from this report have been cited recently in multiple media reports, bringing a certain level of public awareness to the differences in public or private leadership for women. Even more concerning was the dearth of women represented in higher visibility or higher paid positions.
What happened in the remainder of 2017, came from both a desire to focus on the economic issues represented in the earlier reports as well as to reach new audiences. These renewed focuses were clear in the story-tellers spotlighted at the conference. Not only were there two young women representing leadership in their community to provide their narratives, but there were also representatives on childcare, poverty and the male perspective. People don’t want always want to look at and try to decode data, Tiffany says. This is why the approach through the telling of stories has been so crucial to reaching a broader audience.
The strategy for knowledge production illustrated by Change the Story VT is overall as a resource for its partners and the community. Due in part to the Change the Story VT initiative, Vermont non-profits, and community organizers are posed and ready with reports for legislative initiatives. It is unclear whether, due to its temporal nature, if Change the Story VT’s commitments change with stakeholder needs, initiative partner priorities. It is evident that Tiffany demonstrates leadership skills showcasing the ability to weave together a mixture of work products designed to connect to new markets (stories) as well as creating material to support and sustain the initiative partners (reports). This type of strategy pursuing concurrent growth patterns involving simultaneous investment pursuing sustainability and development is described in social innovation literature (Costanzo, 2017, pp. 101-123). Another iteration of the dyad of sustainable activities and development seems to be a likely recurrence as Change the Story VT considers 2018.
Another cool thing about the initiative is the spillover effects that they have seen which encourage different ways of dealing with barriers and provides insight into strategies that work to overcome barriers (you’ll see this theme recurs in the discussion about the business peer network later). Following-up with Tiffany via email provided me more insight into the chain-reaction she has seen following the publication of reports and events with the following examples:
- Middlebury College students read one of their reports and investigated the gender ratios in various academic programs and the wage gap between its male and female graduates.
- Parents and teachers tell them that they have shared the reports with their children to expand their ideas about the work they might pursue.
- Data has affirmed the experience of many women and prompted many of them to share their stories with Change the Story VT and in their circles.
The spillover effects are difficult to measure for many reasons, and in some cases, Change the Story VT is not even aware of discussions because they are happening without involvement or the knowledge of the initiative. But Tiffany describes this effect as exciting. Despite being difficult to measure, the initiative has demonstrated that the narratives are reaching those with change or ethical orientations to the issues and providing an avenue for those with activist self-identifies to see new opportunities or to make changes within their current organizations.
Avoiding the mistakes of the past
Like a true story-teller, casting a character who faces a crisis and then must transform, Tiffany describes the women’s movement in terms of its mistakes. She describes what happened in the past with the women’s movement: it excluded groups from participating if it seemed they would possibly compromising the movement. Gains, then often went not to all equally, but to those who were represented. bell hooks describes the exclusion of working-class women, and especially black women from the women’s liberation movement in her essay “Rethinking the Nature of Work” (hooks, 1984, pp. 96-107). Tiffany and I also talked about the #Metoo movement as an illustration of the prominence of gender issues in the recent news. I wanted to know if she thought that on a serious discussion about sexual harassment has been long overdue since only now that women are coming forth and accusing prominent men are these issues becoming more important to the general public. What Tiffany stressed to me was the need to be vigilant and careful not to repeat the exclusion of groups or factions of women. The issues to address are those that affect us all.
Tiffany’s leadership demonstrates a commitment using various sociological lens when discussing gender-issues such as salary negotiation and sexual harassment. Approaches to diversity should always include to an extent, other sociological lenses. An openness to ideas for the future, such as Tiffany’s openness as a leader to hearing stories from women and to their input for Change the Story VT’s 2018 agenda, continued work with the business peer network which I discuss in the next section to reach stakeholders in the community. And continued investment in developing narratives to demonstrate the personal experience, and reach broad audiences, clearly relate to others and engage a diversity of voices. The next section discusses the business peer network developed by Change the Story VT, another place where it is important to have a dialog around diversity through the various lens to recognize its benefits in the workplace.
So far, Change the Story VT has generated valuable reports & narratives, organized and facilitated events, as well as taking the position as an embedded partner for women through philanthropic, non-profit and business networks all interested in examining the work and economic issues in Vermont. As important as it is to study how organizations start, is the current context they work within and attempts toward social and institutional consolidation. Change the Story VT has been careful to avoid defining themselves as an organization that grows in the traditional sense. They are instead a multi-year initiative (with no defined end date, but also explicitly endings), But as they gain more publicity through involvement in conferences such as the one I went to they gain a sustainable presence. It is the second year in which they have made efforts to work with businesses (see more below) and participation is expanding. It will be interesting to continue to see Change the Story VT evolve and perhaps become an important voice in government affairs in the next few years.
Business Community engagement
Another approach to knowledge production is through the sharing of experience, tools, and knowledge in a year-long cohort program called the Business Peer Network. The challenge is to engage with businesses to talk about gender in new ways. For example, discussions about the different approaches to risk by those with diverse backgrounds, links the financial-orientation of businesses to equality issues. The conversations with businesses and employers have started with the current partners including companies such as Vt Energy Investment Corp, SunCommon and Seventh Generation (a larger list appears on the website). There were 12 partners in the first year and now there are 20. They meet once a month to discuss workplace issues through a gender lens.
This approach engages people to look reflectively at working within existing structural realities. Businesses have reported having revamped job descriptions and websites to attract more women applicants after exposure to the reports published by Change the Story VT (evidence of the spillover effects mentioned earlier). The network also builds social relationships because it serves to engage and educate those that may feel interested in the issue but not sure how to get involved, for example, men. It also empowers employers through inclusion as they work to implement and understand ways to make the workplace family friendly, for example.
Vermont is, in some ways, well-poised for equal-pay certification being a requirement like it has begun in Iceland. In addition to the status reports, the stories, a network of stakeholders with business interest can serve as a source of valuable testimony in government debate. Equal pay programs or (more recently debated) raising the minimum wage are issues that affect women. Change the Story VT’s website points to the Vermont Commission on Women’s equal pay compacts and their experience working with businesses may provide useful evidence and experience in event of opportunities for growth in response to legal requirements.
Not forgetting poverty.
While at the women’s conference, I got to hear Prudence Pease speak about poverty and its impact on women, through her personal story. She described the huge difference in completing basic tasks such as grocery shopping. Something which may take a middle-class person who can afford a car and easily move their children around may take a disadvantaged mother many hours longer to complete. Tiffany described similar observations she made while working on issues around recidivism in the state. As part of that work, it was necessary to understand the challenges of women. For example, a woman released from prison has a number of responsibilities required by law. To complete those requirements, such as going across town to do a urine screen and going to another bus stop to get to programming that only occurs during the day, required time and resources. Often, the probationer was also required to hold down a job. Talking about poverty, Tiffany says, is difficult because it is such a difficult issue to get your arms around. Change the Story VT has not stopped recognizing the need to deal with those at the margins, those, for example, looking to meet basic needs such clothes for children and healthcare. Without solving some of the more basic economic needs of women in the state, we would be ignoring those in greatest need.
Website information for reader’s further research
The “More questions we can ask” section at the end of each previously-mentioned reports contain a list of phenomenal questions for individuals who are voters, leaders, teachers, parents, decision-makers and anyone being active or intrapreneurial within their spheres. They are exactly the type that you can ask yourself as a professional to test your reasoning, or to use in a discussion group, or to facilitate training. (Those community and group facilitators in my readership, pay attention here!)
Here are some of my favorites:
- When exploring opportunities for work, education or training with women: Do we support them in considering business ownership as a viable option?
- When investing state dollars in contracted services or products: Do we intentionally invite women-owned businesses to bid on state contracts?
- When crafting major state policy decisions, priorities, and program evaluations that relate to business development: Are we sufficiently focusing on reducing barriers that particularly affect female entrepreneurs, such as access to child care, after-school programming, and options for elder care? (Change the Story VT, 2016, “Women’s Business Ownership and the Vermont Economy”)
- As employers: Who do we retain? Who do we lose? Do we know why individuals leave?
- As employers: How diverse are the candidates who appear on the shortlists for internal promotions?
- As policymakers: What are the long-term implications of continuing to pay low wages to so many Vermont workers, particularly those in female-dominated fields? (Change the Story VT, 2016, “Where Vermont Women Work…and Why It Matters”)
- In the public sector: What are the unspoken “rules” about how to pursue higher office? How do we encourage women to better position themselves to reach those offices? (Change the Story VT, 2017, “Vermont Women and Leadership”)
I like how these questions ask us how we allow or take part in constructing the systems that offer economic gain. When these systems are historically male-created, there are high chances that they do not offer friendly avenues to women. Can we challenge ourselves to think empathetically about the needs of both genders? I would love to even start questioning the term “barriers” and try to see the value in the experiences of mothers or women. I also love the focus on sustainability and long-term needs of stakeholders represented by the question about continuing to pay low wages to so many Vermont workers. The questions also serve as a way to understand how broadly and deeply gender issues appear in society (and in Vermont).
Articles linking to great resources from the Change the Story VT website
There are a number of articles referenced on the website that point to freely available articles from places like the Harvard Kennedy Women and Public Policy Program’s Gender Action Portal. There were a few articles that interested me:
I definitely would continue to check back here to find resources on gender’s connection to economic development and security in the future.
- Bush, S., Bottema, M., Midavaine, J. & Carter, E. (2017). Sustainable entrepreneurship in marine protected areas. From K. Nicolopoulou, M. Karatas-Ozkan, F. Janssen & J. Jermier (Eds.) Sustainable entrepreneurship and social innovation. New York, New York: Routledge. pp. 124-139.
- Change the Story VT. (2017). Vermont Women and Leadership. Retrieved from http://changethestoryvt.org/2017-status-report-vermont-women-and-leadership/
- Change the Story VT. (2016). Where Vermont Women Work…and Why It Matters. Retrieved from http://changethestoryvt.org/where-vt-women-work-and-why-it-matters/
- Change the Story VT. (2016). Women’s Business Ownership and the Vermont Economy. Retrieved from http://changethestoryvt.org/2016-status-report-womens-business-ownership-and-the-vt-economy/
- Change the Story VT. (2016). Women, Work, and Wages in Vermont. Retrieved from http://changethestoryvt.org/women-work-and-wages-in-vt/
- Costanzo, L. (2017). The application of the ‘ambidexterity’ theoretical perspective to sustainable entrepreneurship: Balancing the sustainability-development equilibrium over time. From K. Nicolopoulou, M. Karatas-Ozkan, F. Janssen & J. Jermier (Eds.) Sustainable entrepreneurship and social innovation. New York, New York: Routledge. pp. 101-123.
- Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
- hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory: from margin to center. New York, New York: Routledge.
- Smucker, B. (1991). The nonprofit lobbying guide: advocating your cause – and getting results. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Limited.
I want to extend a special thank you to Tiffany Bluemle for taking her time to speak with me and making it possible to write this article.
I was able to frankly talk to Tiffany about women my age and my experiences. For instance, I told her that the perceptions I had of the real world turned out to be very different than I thought. As barriers came up for me, they shaped my direction significantly and that impacted the results and outcomes I experienced. For example, one of the questions I had for Tiffany was whether there is too much focus on STEM fields for women and not enough on the civic and public realm, where many of these positions live.
Tiffany graduated college in 1983 and had seen women such as Sallie Ride, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Geraldine Ferraro. (Did I mention that one of Tiffany’s earliest civic activities was campaigning for W. Mondale in 1984?). The other mistake of the 80s feminist movement was seeing some of the women breaking barriers and thinking that we had accomplished so much when for every woman that did accomplish a great feat, many were struggling.
Tiffany felt an urge to do the same thing my aunt did when I brought up this topic with her: apologize. I felt very touched by the empathy I received in this moment. I do think there is certainly agreement that the outcomes we have today are better than they were then and there is a lot more opportunity, even when they are lacking a comprehensive equality that is expected by young ambitious women. However, it is important for us, young ambition women, to remember that those gaps are today’s opportunity to do more.
- When I first learned about Change the Story, I had just finished reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. I wondered how data gathering itself could have been done using an alternative methodology from hiring research firms. Of instead of solely contracting to gather data and generate reports, a community-based, dialog-based effort to gather information and stories locally, would also serve to provide valuable skills and participation to stakeholders (Freire, 1970).
- The 2017 status report was generated by Change the Story team using publically available data, surveys, telephone interviews, email correspondence as well as research conducted by Common Good Vermont and compiled reports by Emerge VT and The Vermont Higher Education Council.
- It is important to note here that per The nonprofit lobbying guide, research costs do not need to be treated as costs of lobbying if published results were later used in lobbying (Smucker, 1991, p.74). (And accordingly the materials cannot refer to a view on specific legislation, nor funded within the last 6 months, nor prevented from substantial distribution, and another cooperating organization is not using them for lobbying purposes.). Due to the dissemination of these reports, “spread them far and wide,” the lack of linkage to specific legislation, it is clear that these serve as valuable assets to the organization upon the pursuit of any legislative change.
- Consider listening to an excellent segment on NPR’s CodeSwitch about Rape on the Nightshift, which was also made into a Frontline documentary, about sexual assault allegations brought forth by undocumented workers and janitors in the early 2000s.