Posted September 19, 2012 03:06 pm - Updated September 19, 2012 03:17 pm

South to Unalaska - The Women's Conference

 As I wrote in my earlier blog, I was invited to speak at a women’s conference on September 8, 2012, in Unalaska. Billie Jo Gehring, who was born and raised in Juneau, called me from her home in Unalaska and said the conference was about empowerment so they wanted the keynote speech to be around the theme of women's empowerment.

 After protesting that there were no doubt empowered women on the island, I was convinced by Billie Jo that she wanted me to be the one to speak to the women of her island community.

 Writing a speech about empowerment is a challenge. Once you get beyond providing a definition, which would be to enable (in a good way), you start to think of the opposite case. An illiterate person is hobbled, but is enabled as soon she learns how to read. A baby is limited to how fast she can crawl until she learns to walk, then to jump and run. A citizen is not a full citizen until she gets the right to vote.

 In the end, I decided to write about the times in my life when I called the shots instead of being, not exactly the victim, but more at the mercy of other people or events than I wanted to be. So, I wrote about my childhood as the daughter of a Marine, where I was moved from place to place from birth to junior high school. Our family settled down in one place when I was 14. Then, when I was 21, I married Doug right after his graduation from Coast Guard bootcamp. We moved from pillar to post until, at age 40, I finally said, "Enough. I want to go back to Juneau.”

 Once I hit on the theme of decisions I made at critical junctures, and some smaller crossroads that changed the trajectory of my life, the words flowed onto the paper. I tucked it into my manila folder marked UNALASKA and got on the jet for the flight to Anchorage. The Anchorage airport looked a little deserted, but there were still some late season tourists and hunters waiting to catch their flights home. I found the PennAir desk at the other end of the airport from Alaska Airlines. The folks waiting there carried shopping bags and duffels, waiting for the long journey to Unalaska Island in the Aleutians.

 One attractive young blonde woman stood out amidst the jeans, fleece vests, and sweatshirts. She was wearing one of those stretchy miniskirts, tights, high-heeled boots, a very cool jacket, and what used to be called a Carnaby hat in the 1960’s. She looked just like the young women we had seen in London last July. Her cell phone was pressed to her ear up until the time the flight attendant insisted that “all electronic devices need to be turned off and stowed.”

 When everyone was settled in, she gave us all little packets that were not the little bags of salty stuff like on Alaska Airlines, but earplugs. The flight was noisy and long. I had a window seat and saw the mountains of the Aleutians appear on the horizon. The runway in Dutch Harbor is a short one, not long enough for Alaska Airlines jets, and it ends at the water’s edge so you get one of those skidding kind of landings where the plane shimmies. You can almost smell the rubber burning.

 I was met at the airport by Eileen Scott, the Director of the Iliuliuk Family and Health Service clinic. She knew who I was because I was the only one on the plane she didn’t know. The clinic was the primary sponsor of the conference, and this 2012 event was their third one. The money raised will support a mobile mammography unit. My hotel, the Grand Aleutian Unisea Inn, known simply by the locals as “The Grand”, was on the Dutch Harbor side of the island. Unisea Seafoods has a huge processing plant and some new-looking dormitories, which they own, near the hotel. On the other side is the Alaska Ship Supply store. A steady stream of men, and a few women, walked across the entry way to the hotel as they went from the Alaska Ship Supply store to the Unisea complex.

 As I described in my previous blog, I was treated to a fascinating three hour tour of the island's World War II history on Friday. Bright and early Saturday morning, I was picked up by Erin, a vivacious young woman who works at the clinic. She drove me to the high school in the clinic van. Eileen and Billie Jo and other volunteers had been busy since very early decorating and setting things up for the 8 a.m. registration. Colorful pink goody bags with the iconic pink ribbon logo for breast cancer detection contained the program and some fun giveaways from local businesses and the clinic.

 Along the walls were long cafeteria tables covered with pink and white plastic tablecloths and auction items from local businesses and artists for the raffle. Pink and white streamers and balloons decorated the gym. A special table had handcrafted items from local vendors for sale. The homemade chocolates in exquisite boxes would have fit right in at any big city confectionary shop. 

 I found the podium tethered close to the wall of the gym where the mic could be plugged into one of the few electric outlets. I tried out the mic, put my speech on the shelf inside, and then found a seat at the nearest table. Women of all ages began finding their way to places around the tables. Several had small babies. Billie Jo introduced the members of the planning committee, who got a big round of applause. Everyone seemed to know everyone. Eileen and Billie Jo were very pleased that this was the largest turnout in three years. They gave us all a rundown of the schedule and encouraged everyone to bid on the auction items.

 There are less than 5,000 people in Unalaska and, according to the 2010 census, there are 218 men for every 100 women. That makes sense because it is primarily a fishing port, and there are plenty of single crew members and processing plant workers. But that doesn’t mean that men dominate in that remote community.

 The women of Unalaska are powerful women. It didn't take more than a day to see that those women didn't need me to give them pointers on empowerment. When I said that to one of the women, she said the men all left the village during World War II, and the women took over governing the town. "We just never gave it back!" she said laughing, but I think she is right.

 The seminars started promptly at 9:00, and they followed the empowerment theme. The first two were reproductive health planning and financial health. I walked down the hall to Room 154 to the Financial Health one with banker Belinda Sunderland. Belinda, who knew everyone there by first name, asked us to “take out your wallets and pull all the credit cards out and line them up.” She proceeded to spell out the perils of credit card debt, interest rates, compound interest, and how to use credit wisely in crystal clear language.

 The women had great questions, and one sheepishly admitted that, come winter, late night online shopping was her downfall. There was a lot of appreciative laughter and nods of agreement. Some volunteered that they had Amazon cards that they used for a lot of purchases. Like all Alaskans, getting miles on Alaska Airlines for every dollar charged was also a big consideration. Belinda talked about how to get over the temptation to buy simply out of boredom, and she illustrated on the white board which credit cards to keep and which ones to cut up and toss out. Compound interest, credit card come-ons with special offers, etc., were all up there on that whiteboard. I have no doubt that Belinda changed some women’s lives that morning.

 My two choices after that were “Extended Growing Seasons (Greenhouse) and Growing Foods, and "Make money go farther here on Unalaska - money saving tips, how to save at Safeway". I chose the latter since I live in a pretty expensive place myself. While it sounds kind of dry, this one created a dynamic exchange among the women. They use Facebook to share tips, swap things, and let each other know when there's a sale at Safeway. There's a consignment shop similar to Juneau's Alaskan Dames, and everyone expressed their appreciation to the women who started it. The mothers seemed to be especially savvy at finding bargains and ways to feed their families nutritious food. I was touched by how sincere they were about providing healthy meals for their families under pretty tough circumstances. Fish caught locally provides much of the protein, as it has for millennia.

 After the money lessons came "Envisioning Your Future" with Michelle Cochran, who had recently been to Deepak Chopra's training center, or the other choice on “Aromatherapy”. I chose the visionary one. Michelle, who is a board member of the Illiuliuk clinic, explained the power of Vision Boards and meditation. The latter has always been hard for me, but she was so practical and had such good advice, that I think even I can do it now. We ended with some long deep breaths, which lowered my heart rate and calmed my mind just in time for my presentation.

 I got back to the cafeteria/gym just a few minutes before my introduction by Eileen. The women were settling in for lunch, sharing what they had learned, and showing their recent purchases to friends. Eileen gave a brief introduction. I took a few more deep breaths and walked over to my place behind the podium.

 The chatter and rustling stopped a few minutes after I started to talk. I noted that I had been to Dutch Harbor in the 1990’s and had Stephanie Madsen as a guide. “Ah, ok, she knows Stephanie and we know Stephanie.” Unalaska “street cred”.

 My speech went well, but the best praise came immediately after I said, “Thank you.” A young girl came up to the podium as I was gathering up my papers, and said, “I’m 16 years old and you just changed my life.” That is something I won’t ever forget. You just never know when you give a speech if it made a difference.

 The speech was filmed and recorded for local television and the radio station, and I was asked by Genevieve, the radio technician/dj, if I’d come across the street later for an interview. I said sure and then went to find my last class, which was Painting 101 with Amanda Smoll in the school art room. Amanda handed out Japanese-style pictures of cherry blossom branches across a full moon. We were given globs of purple, lavender, red, black and white paint on a paper plate, a brush, and a small container of water. She asked us to do our best to recreate the picture.

 Meanwhile, I couldn’t take my eyes off the ceiling. Each one of the ceiling’s acoustic tiles was a piece of three-dimensional art done by a student. One that really “grabbed me” was of two Plaster of Paris life-size arms reaching down from the ceiling.

 I was sitting next to a 17 year old who created an amazing variation on the moon and cherry blossoms theme. She didn’t talk much, but she did say that she loved art and wanted to be an artist. My awkward rendition of that beautiful scene has been recycled.

 We all gathered back in the gym for the closing remarks and the raffle drawing. Nobody wanted to leave until those numbers were read off. As each winner was announced, there was applause. After the prizes were all given away, and the tables and chairs stacked and stored where they belonged, I went across the street for an hour-long radio interview at KUCB with Alexandra Gutierrez. She was particularly interested in my work on equal pay for women as a delegate to Vision 2020/Drexel University and with the Juneau League of Women Voters. Fifty-five minutes of that conversation would end up on the shelf, but the piece I wanted to get across was about equal pay and my YouTube video “Be Cool. Negotiate.” that demonstrates negotiating pay. Who knows? Maybe Alexandra asked for a raise after I left.

 That evening at the hotel, I joined Billie Jo, her husband Roger, and some of their friends in The Cape Cheerful Room (aka “The Cape”), for a nightcap. The sun was setting and I never did see the faces of the three people at the western end of the table. All I could see was their silhouettes. After quick introductions, I didn’t get a chance to talk to those folks since the bar was full of chatter and laughter, but Billie Jo, Roger, two men at our end of the table talked about life in Dutch Harbor, how they got there, why they stay, and a great tale about how Roger got his dog.

 The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and left my speech, scribbled edits and all, at the front desk for Marissa. She was my server in the Margaret Bay Café early Friday morning, and she knew right away I wasn’t a local. As she set my oatmeal and English Muffin down in front of me, she asked me why I was in Unalaska. I told her about the women’s conference and my speech. She was intrigued, but she had to work and would miss it, so I told her I’d give it to her before I left the island. So, Marissa has 8 pages of double-spaced heavily edited thoughts on women’s empowerment. Who knows? Maybe she read it and asked for a raise.

 As a thank you gift, I was given two exquisite “coffee table” books. One is “Sealife of the Aleutians” by a team of writers and photographers, and the other is “The Aleutian Islands of Alaska, Living on the Edge” by Kenneth F. Wilson and Jeff Richardson. I pride myself on traveling light, but I was happy to put these two books in the bottom of my little carry-on. There are women featured in the Aleutian Islands book who were at the women’s conference, and it has helped me write a more informed blog.

 The PennAir plane arrived on time.  We all walked out on the windy runway, ducked our heads a bit as we neared those propellers, and boarded the plane. I shoved my bag under the seat in front of me and buckled up for the ride to Anchorage. As the plane took off, I craned my neck to see what I could of the rest of the island before the clouds swallowed up the view.


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