Where Were You on Tuesday, June 14, 2016?

I have lived in Washington DC for almost 15 years now, and have been very fortunate to see, experience and learn from some of the best. This past Tuesday – June 14, 2016 – could top the list for me. I was part of the YWCA delegation – along with Tamara Smith (our amazing CEO!) at the first-ever State of Women White House Summit. We experienced a full day (when I say full… I mean almost 14 hours) with some of the greatest leaders and voices our country has to offer – all talking about issues that matter most to women.

I like to think I keep pretty good company – professionally and personally – but at the Summit, I was sharing a room with Vice President Joe Biden… Valerie Jarrett, Mariska Hargitay (Captain Benson for you L&O SVU fans), Connie Britton (I just loved Tammy Taylor… and Rayna JameIMG_0008s), Cecile Richards, Lilly Ledbetter, Patricia Arquette, Laurie Fabiano (President of the Tory Burch Foundation – Tory could not be there since her two sons were graduating from high school – and as she remarked by video – ‘if any crowd would understand that… it’s this one”), Warren Buffett, Kerry Washington (YES! Olivia Pope!), Nancy Pelosi (who I did not realize has been in the House for 30 years, as of 2017), Sophia Bush, Billie Jean-King, Shonda Rhimes, and Amy Poehler.  OH – and… PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA AND OPRAH! 

How ridiculously amazing is that line up? And – that’s only half… there were new names and faces I had not scene or heard before – and they were amazingly impressive.  Take Mikaela Ulmer for example. She’s 11 years old, and the CEO of “Me & The Bees Lemonade.” Yes – an 11 year old CEO – and, did I mention she introduced the President? (Of the United States). Mikaela was stung by a bee when she was younger (IMG_0010yes, younger than 11) and hated bees…. until she started to learn more about them – which lead her to wanting to save them! So, she started a lemonade stand, and used the honeybee to help her – she’s selling her product in stores all over the country now.  Amazing. Just Amazing. I also met Carla Walker-Miller – she’s  native of Detroit, and was part of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program – a program funded in larger part by Warren Buffett, helping women small business owners access the capital and resources they need to be successful. Carla had an energy idea – she knew there had to be better ways to save it – so she started her company to help others become more energy efficient in the office.  She employs hundreds of Detroit residents, and after 3 years, has just won a $48 million dollar contract to make most of the buildings in downtown Detroit more energy-friendly by installing LED lighting.  It’s just amazing what we can do as women – in particular – when supported, and these two were so inspiring.

One of my favorite things about large events like this – did I mention there were 5,000 of us at the DC Convention Center – is to take down the quotes and anecdotes that only we get to hear in person – here are a few of my favorites:IMG_0012

“Violence is a crime – pure and simple.” ~ Joe Biden

“If women were paid the full dollar we deserve, we would not have the poverty we do in this country.” ~ Patricia Arquette

“We know women can lead, so let’s put women in leadership positions.” ~Laurie Fabiano

“Discrimination is for losers!” ~ Barack Obama

“Our country is not just about the Benjamin’s – it’s the Tubman’s too!” ~ Barack Obama

“You knew your value.” ~ Oprah Winfrey (to Michelle Obama)

“Get to understand who you are, and like yourself.. because I like me!” ~ Michelle Obama

There was a synergy in the room all day that is hard to describe in words; it was a feeling of empowerment – of inspiration – of real promise. There was a collective feeling of pride – that we as women have so much to offer – and so many are trailblazing the path so that others can follow. But there is more work to be done – that is clear. I am walking away knowing that we must not stop now – that we need all our girls to think like Malia and Sasha Obama – to KNOW they can do whatever they want in life – to live each day not even thinking about barriers to their success.  We all have a role to play in this – men and women – and I look forward to using my time and talent to help in making a difference.  Because we know… WHEN WOMEN SUCCEED… AMERICA SUCCEEDS!

~ Shana Heilbron, Chief Development & Communications Officer, YWCA NCA


For the Success of Every Student

YWCA National Capital Area is proud to stand alongside YWCA USA and local chapters across the country as we call on the full funding of the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

  ESSA, which initially was signed into law in December of 2015, is the national education law that ‘replaces’ No Child Left Behind. The changes ESSA bring reflect priorities set by President Obama’s administration – most notably, setting forth college- and career- ready standards.

  As funding for various pieces of ESSA is debated, we echo YWCA USA’s call for full funding of the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants found in the massive legislation. This grant program will provide resources for schools to provide critical supports: such as comprehensive mental health services, violence prevention and training that helps educators better serve students experiencing trauma. With girls of color facing disproportionate school suspensions & expulsions, it is critical that we ensure educators are equipped to serve these students so their positive educational outcomes are not derailed. Investing in the futures’ of girls of color means providing adequate support for the challenges they face.

  YWCA National Capital Area signed onto the official YWCA USA letter to the Senate and House appropriations committees urging full funding of the grant program. If you want to sign onto the letter it’s not too late – just be sure to sign before close of business on Thursday, May 5.

  We’ll be sure to provide updates as the implementation of ESSA continues.

Important Victory Toward #DCEquality

On Friday, March 18th, the DC Superior Court ruled that local lawmakers–not Members of Congress–are entitled to control local funds. Many are lauding this as a step towards DC Equality.

How did this wind up in the courts in the first place? Back in 2013, District of Columbia residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Budget Autonomy Act, better known as Referendum 8. Questions about its’ legality have tied it up in the courts since.

With the Superior Court ruling, DC has budgetary control over the funds it raises, just like any other city. Even though Congress would still have to approve around 10 percent of the District’s budget, this is a big step in the right direction.

For more reaction, check out this letter from the Executive Director of DC Vote, Kimberly Perry.


No More: Recognizing and Preventing Domestic Violence

On February 27th, Wendy Howard lost a sister. Cherry Murphy and Jimmy Richardson lost a daughter, and 11 year old Tyriq Hamilton lost his mother. According to reports by the Prince William County Police Department, Crystal Hamilton called 911 after getting into a dispute with her husband, Ronald Hamilton. Ronald shot his wife before police made it to the home. Ronald also shot at all three of the responding officers when they arrived at the scene, including Officer Ashley Guindon. It was her first day in the field. Sadly, her wounds were fatal. Two women remembered for their dedication to helping others (Crystal worked as a counselor to military veterans), lost in the horrible backlash of domestic violence.

As she remembers her sister’s life, Wendy Howard hopes that Crystal’s story will spark a greater awareness of domestic violence.   “I see this as being an opportunity… a platform for other women being battered who are experiencing either mental abuse, physical, verbal emotional to come forward,” she told reporters.

Wendy is right. We should see every report of domestic abuse as a reminder that we need to fight harder to make sure that victims everywhere get the help they need and deserve.

The numbers are chilling:

  • One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
  • According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, every nine seconds in the US, a woman is assaulted or beaten.
  • In the District of Columbia alone, the Metropolitan Police Department reports that they receive an average of one call every 17 minutes regarding domestic violence.
  • Prince George’s County reports that domestic related homicides have tripled over the past five years. Already in 2016 they’ve seen eight domestic homicides—accounting for nearly half of all homicides in the county this year.

Crystal’s story highlights some of the warning signs of an abusive relationship.  Leading up to the tragic incident on February 27th,  Crystal’s mother had been banned from visiting the family’s home.  In matters of domestic violence, isolation from loved ones, as well as controlling who the victim is able to see and spend time with is a huge red flag.  On the day Crystal was shot, she and Ronald were arguing over Crystal’s decision to spend time with her friends.  Jealousy of time spent outside of the relationship is another red flag.  The presence of weapons is also a major factor—reports say Ronald kept guns in the home.  According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. 

Of course, there are many more warning signs, but these are just a few examples that Crystal’s story readily brought to mind.  March 6-12 is No More Week 2016, a national grassroots activation aimed at making domestic violence and sexual assault awareness and prevention a priority year-round.  For this week, let’s honor the life of Crystal Hamilton, as well as the sacrifice of Officer Ashley Guindon by learning more about the warning signs of domestic abuse and how to help victims.  For more information, please visit nomore.org.


A Merging of Media and Politics: Democracy in Action at the SC Democratic Debate

Recently, YWCA NCA Board Chair Karen Williamson had the opportunity to attend a Presidential Debate in South Carolina. She shared the experience with YW intern, Chieko Quigley. Chieko is a senior at George Washington University, studying International Affairs. She hails from Newport, NJ.

Election fever is sweeping the nation, and it’s pretty impossible to escape.  I suppose every four years Americans say that this presidential race in particular will be especially important or especially unique, but I think few would disagree that this 2016 race will be one for the history books.  With Secretary Clinton beating Senator Sanders by only a razor-thin margin in the Iowa Caucus, it is safe to say that we are in for a long and exciting election season on all sides.  Candidates are fighting for the future of the Democratic Party, and it is hard to tell which way the tides are turning.

In the midst of all this political fervor, the most important thing one can do is simply stay informed.  With so much at stake, it’s not only fascinating, but incredibly necessary to tune in to as many debates as possible and actually hear the candidatesKWDemDeb stand up to questioning regarding their policies and promises.   The South Carolina Democratic Debate, held on January 17th, was the last official chance for the candidates to make their voices heard before voters went off to the polls in Iowa, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with YWCA NCA Board Chair Karen Williamson about her experience attending the debate.

Having worked in the White House in the past, as well as being a former classmate of Hillary Clinton, Ms. Williamson is no stranger to the democratic process.  However, even with such an impressive political background, Ms. Williamson assured me that she was still thrilled at the chance to attend a live presidential debate.

When I asked how her experience attending the debate in person differed from the experience those of us at home watching the event on television have, she explained that it was fascinating to see the merging of both media and politics up on the stage.  “It was a bit of a media debate, as much as a political event,” she told me.  “Everything was for television,” she continued, “To be honest we didn’t even hear half the stuff,” she said with a laugh.  She recalled that anytime the audience laughed or reacted loudly to what was being said on stage, she was unable to hear the candidates.  She chuckled to herself, assuring me that I probably heard more of the debate and got more content by staying at home.

Because the sound system was set up to favor a television audience rather than the live audience, Ms. Williamson told me that she was actually asked ahead of the debate to remain neutral and quiet during the proceedings.  A couple of days before the 17th,  she received a participation memo telling her that she was not allowed to applaud unless permitted by the moderators, take photographs, or wear anything in support of one particular candidate.  This actually surprised me quite a bit, because as I’m sure anyone who has ever watched a presidential debate on television has realized, you do hear quite a bit of cheering and audience reaction.  She laughed a bit when I mentioned this to her, and responded that the audience did indeed ignore the rules quite often, and nobody shushed them when they got loud.

Although the candidates may have been easier to understand if you were watching the debate on television, of course there are many things that a televised broadcast simply can’t compete with.  Most notably, she informed me that after the proceedings, she was able to go down to the stage and talk to the candidates. “I knew Hillary so I got to exchange some words with her,” she told me, “Those things are special. Being part of the process is important.”


My next question was if she had noticed anything going on off-camera that we might have missed at home.  She recalled that the coverage of Martin O’Malley was actually quite interesting to behold, mainly because his air-time was so limited.  “It was so noticeable during the debate how many times O’Malley wanted to jump in or was trying to insert himself into the conversation, and most of the times he really was not included,” she told me with perhaps a touch of sympathy in her voice. “At one point towards the end they asked him if he wanted to say something, and the audience gave a pretty strong reaction. You felt badly because you knew he was not being included.”  It is true that, watching on television, it was easy to forget that there was a third candidate on stage on the 17th, and O’Malley’s failed attempts at gaining the floor were almost completely omitted from televised broadcasts.

I followed up on this theme of omitted content by asking if there were any issues that Ms. Williamson as a voter had been hoping to see discussed during the debate that were left out.  She told me that because of the location of this particular debate (directly across the street from the Mother Emanuel Church shooting), as well as the fact that the debate was partially sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, she had been expecting the debate to focus much more on minorities, the underserved, and racial justice issues. “I had expected the debate to hit it [these issues] quite hard, and I don’t think it did,” she informed me.  Hopefully these are all issues that will come to light in future debates.

We ended the interview with Ms. Williamson urging me to attend a political event in-person myself if the opportunity ever presents itself.  I hope to one day be able to heed her advice, and I am immensely looking forward to the coming debates.  No matter your beliefs or political party, election season is incredibly exciting, and I feel lucky to be a part of it in some small way.







Statement on the Passage of the Body-Worn Camera Program Legislation in DC

The YWCA National Capital Area thanks Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and the DC Council for their leadership in passing Bill 21-0351, the “Body-Worn Camera Program Amendment Act of 2015″. This important legislation creates one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive body-worn camera programs.

“Providing this resource to the Metropolitan Police Department is another tool in building police accountability, as well as community trust,” shared YWCA NCA’s Chief Executive Officer, Tamara Smith. “The residents of the District deserve transparency and this action will support that. In particular, we applaud the measures included to ensure the protection of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The prevention of further violation is paramount and measures to ensure the proper handling of footage in these cases is critical.”

The YWCA believes that this action will contribute to continued scrutiny of issues of misconduct, including abuse and racial profiling. The need for stronger efforts to connect our communities with clear methods to hold officers accountable and protect all citizens are key. Public trust is at an all-time low right now, and the District of Columbia’s legislative leadership on this matter will enhance responsible policing and create a stronger feeling of community trust.

Thoughts on “The Hunting Ground”

Nicollette VanDenPlas reflects on the documentary “The Hunting Ground” following its recent airing on CNN.

Sexual assault on university and college campuses.

It is a prevalent problem, one that legislators and school officials have claimed to have solved in their respective states, on their respective campuses. According to a The Washington Post-Kaiser Poll (2015), 20% of young women who attended college during the past four years were sexually assaulted. Considering the scope of those affected, it seems odd that these claims of impunity and proper procedure by universities and law enforcement are taken at face value and passed up for further exploration – echoing how cases of campus sexual assault are portrayed in the media. The proper questions are never posed and the general public blindly assumes that the higher authorities at these schools, and that law enforcement, has the priorities and the procedures they claim to.

The Hunting Ground makes a stunning case in favor of women, of survivors and of their rights.

Having premiered on television on November 22nd, courtesy of CNN, The Hunting Ground tells the stories of two women – Kamilah Willingham, and that of Erica Kinsman.

These stories expose the inherent flaws of the established system – from both the university and the law enforcement avenues. Kinsman, at student at Florida State University, recounts how Tallahassee officers failed to adhere to the protocol for investigating sexual assault – going as far as to take two weeks to contact Erica’s accused assailant, who was only ever identified in the first place about a month after the assault because the survivor recognized him.

There was virtually no investigation, neither the officers nor the school officials notified completed interviews following proper timelines – the Tallahassee police department closed the case after 66 days without ever having interviewed the accused, without ever bothering to process DNA, and without speaking with a potential witness about apparent video evidence of the assault. Florida State, for its part, met with the accused… an entire year after Kinsman had reported her assault.

Kamilah and a friend (known as ‘AB’ to keep her anonymity), were drugged and assaulted by a male peer they considered their friend. While at first, Harvard’s independent Fact Finder found their attacker’s version of the events incredible, and, while at first, the Harvard Law Administrative Board sanctioned dismissal against the assailant, the required appeal showed events very similar in process to those experienced by Kinsman, and by university and college-aged women across the United States. For example, the hearing was initiated without Kamilah being informed and the Hearing Officer failed to interview her but interviewed the assailant – decisions made in direct violation of Title IX, which all schools who receive federal funding are required to uphold.

The reality of 2015 is that campus assault is happening – and happening frequently. Schools all over the country have been indicted for failing to uphold Title IX, but with no real consequence. Law enforcement fails to follow proper procedure and it is overlooked. The Hunting Ground seeks to amplify the plea of students nationally – for universities and colleges to take their concerns, to take their lives, as seriously as they take their own reputations. It provides an in-depth look at the ins and outs of reporting sexual assault, and, subsequently, provides the answer to the age old question: “Why didn’t she just go to the authorities?”

It is simple: the authorities do not always have the best interests of the survivor at heart. Sometimes, as the film explores, the people who are supposed to be charged with caring for these young men and women do exactly the opposite, all for their and their institution’s reputation.