5 questions with AVOW on 5 years of bridging gaps in Fort Wayne's civic spaces that hold women back

You might have seen their panels in Downtown Fort Wayne, where masked attendees set up lawn chairs and listen to bipartisan speakers on key issues, like gun control and gerrymandering. You might have read their articles in the Journal Gazette, uplifting female editorial writers to share their knowledge and insights. Or you might have heard about their annual Campaign Institute, empowering women with the training and encouragement to run for office in Fort Wayne and beyond.

For the past five years, AVOW (Advancing the Voices of Women) has been encouraging women to get more involved in their communities and bridging gaps to help them become thought leaders in the civic space.

In honor of their anniversary this month, we sit down with Faith Van Gilder, a founding member of the group, to learn more about AVOW's work and their hopes for Fort Wayne's future.
1. Give us a quick overview of AVOW. How did it start five years ago, and how has it evolved since then?

FVG: AVOW is a nonpartisan 501(c)4 organization whose three signature programs are:
·  Civil Conversations – public discussions with a panel of experts presenting both sides of a controversial issue, followed by participants sitting at tables to try to find common ground.
·  Women Writers – op-eds written by a diverse array of local women that appear in the Perspectives section of the Sunday Journal Gazette.
·  Campaign Institute – an intensive three-day “boot camp”-style training for women seeking elected or appointed office, featuring world-class faculty and real-world assignments.

In 2020, we also launched a fourth program:
·  Profiles in Public Service – a database of local women of diverse skills and backgrounds who are vetted and put forth as candidates for appointed boards and commissions.

Our organization was founded in February 2017 by four Fort Wayne women – Rachel Tobin-Smith, Marilyn Moran-Townsend, Patti Hays, and Faith Van Gilder. Like many other Americans, they were distressed by the incivility and crassness of the 2016 presidential election. In late 2016, Marilyn had reached out to like-minded associates about ways to foster more civility in public discourse. Then in January 2017, Rachel, Patti and Faith attended the Women’s March on Washington and were inspired by the energy of that event to encourage women to take a more active role in public life, including running for elected office. After the march, the four got connected and their shared vision led to the creation of AVOW.

Over the last five years, we have attracted more women to our programs, including some from outside Fort Wayne and Allen County. We have improved our social media presence, where we advertise events and seek to educate and inform.
2. What accomplishments are you most proud of so far, as a team?
FVG: Thanks to a partnership with the Journal Gazette, there has been an op-ed written by a local woman, recruited by AVOW, that has run every Sunday in the Perspectives section – totaling more than 250 to date. 
Since our founding, we have hosted at least six Civil Conversations a year. Some have attracted standing-room-only crowds, with most receiving media coverage and almost all recorded by WBOI for later broadcast. During the pandemic, some were held via Zoom, allowing speakers from around the state to easily participate.
We have held four successful Campaign Institutes, with numerous graduates going on to run for local and state elected offices, or volunteer on campaigns.
Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, we recruited 12 women (four Democrats, four Republicans, and four Independents) to participate in a program called “A House Divided.” The group gathered monthly to discuss a different timely topic as they forged relationships with each other. Excerpts were aired on WANE-15 and moderated by anchor Alyssa Ivanson.  

The AVOW co-founders were chosen by the Journal Gazette as the 2018 Citizens of the Year. And in May 2019, we were asked to deliver the commencement address at Indiana Tech.
3. Which talks or essays stand out to you as the most critical conversation-starters so far?
FVG: When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited a Fort Wayne Rotary meeting in June 2018, the immigration issue had reached a boiling point, with the country divided over the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the Mexican border to deter them from crossing. AVOW quickly organized a press conference the same day that featured an immigration lawyer and other speakers, who addressed how domestic and gang violence affect families.
4. What are your plans for the future?
FVG: We have an engaged board of directors, including three new board members elected in February. Their diverse voices are constantly bringing fresh ideas to the table. We are planning topics for in-person Civil Conversations for 2022, as well as looking forward to the fifth Campaign Institute in August.
We hope that as women see their peers speaking out at public forums, writing op-eds, advocating for issues that affect them, getting involved in politics and running for office, they too will be inspired to take action in ways that are personally meaningful to them.
5. In what ways do you feel the climate/culture of Fort Wayne has shifted in the past five years (if at all)?
FVG: Fort Wayne prides itself on being welcoming and accepting of all people and cultures. We see that openness growing as the population and economy diversify. We are proud that more women are assuming important roles in government, academia, business, industry, and nonprofits. Change may not be happening as quickly as some women might wish, but we celebrate each step in our march toward equality!

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.