Seattle Nonprofit Leaders Reflect on Women’s History Month

Each year, we celebrate Women’s History Month in March in the United States to honor the
contributions of women to events in history and modern society. What started as a day-long event has
turned into a month-long celebration to ensure that women’s important role in history is properly
recognized in schools, colleges, and media.

We’re fortunate to have so many women leaders in Washington state that help strengthen communities
and empower women and girls. To celebrate Women’s History Month this year, our Community
Engagement team asked two local nonprofit leaders to reflect on their career journeys and the women
who inspire them.

Maria Chavez-Wilcox

CEO, YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish

How does your organization work to lift up women?

We have a comprehensive approach to lifting women from surviving to thriving by addressing their short and long term needs in a spirit of collaboration and respect. This includes proven core programs and services that maximize results in housing /shelter, abuse counseling, safety, health access, education/training opportunities and mentoring/coaching skills. Our goal is that the women and girls we serve will become independent and be able to move forward with achieving their hopes with a financially and emotionally secure future. We serve over 7,000 people a year and are the largest organization in support of BIPOC women in our community and the second largest YWCA nationally.

Have there been any unique hurdles you’ve faced as a woman in your career?

As a woman of color who immigrated to this country with a single mother, I have faced many challenging financial and emotional hurdles. Being a woman in highly visible executive leadership positions for many organizations throughout my career I have strived to work twice as hard to be recognized for my achievements and having my voice and opinions heard and valued. I am grateful for the support that has been given to me to be able to lead successfully and proudly through proven results over my career and strive to attain the same for others.

What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally?

A time to recognize the many women that have shaped and continue to shape our society to be a just and equitable place for all women though perseverance and selfless leadership.

Is there a woman (or two!) who inspires you?

My greatest inspiration has always been my mother. A woman of color herself who gave up everything to bring her ‘little girl’ to the United States to be given an opportunity to be successful and have a better life. Her selfless total belief in me and support for my aspirations has been profound and proven to me what one person can truly achieve by believing in the possible. I strive every day to make her proud of her ‘little girl’ for my achievements and the woman I’ve become in guiding others. Let’s not ever forget that “a diamond started as dark piece of coal that persevered!”

Alaina Capoeman (Xoputsée)

Program Manager, Native Action Network

How does your organization work to lift up women?

The work of the American Indian Women’s Service League (AIWSL) inspired the founders of Native Action Network (NAN), Iris Friday (Tlingit) and Claudia Kauffman (Nez Perce), to lift up womxn and continue the work they started. The IWSL saw indigenous people in Seattle needed community and help accessing resources. So, they created it. They helped new Seattleites find what they needed and formed relationships that built an urban community of tribal members feel a sense of belonging. NAN instills in each participant of our programs their inherit strength, wisdom, and power. They are given tools to help them reach their full potential and are encouraged and supported to take a seat at any table that interests them. We don’t wait to be asked, we claim what we need for our community to be healthy and
heard. NAN does this through our Legacy of Leadership 10-month program, Advocacy Training four session program, the Ambassador year-long program, the annual Women’s Forum and Young Women’s Academy. We recognize the work and leadership of indigenous women through our Enduring Spirit Awards annually.

Have there been any unique hurdles you’ve faced as a woman in your career?

I have been very fortunate in my career choices. I haven’t been told I couldn’t do something and wasn’t held back by a specific person or organization. My background is in social work, specifically Indian Child Welfare. A major hurdle in pursuing that career was securing funding for higher education. I found a way to raise my children and work full time while earning my BA taking 16 credits a semester. Taking out education loans is stressful in many ways. It adds pressure to do well in school, the weight of the future financial burden, and mistrust of institutions were all a constant pressure. I have always questioned why tribal member students need to resort to loans when our tribes ceded land to ensure housing, healthcare, and an education for the citizens of the tribe.

I am currently a student at Gonzaga University’s MBA Native American Entrepreneurship program. My cohort benefits from a partial scholarship through the University. Grants and Scholarship opportunities for graduate school are scarce and have limited funding. Many Native American students must be resourceful and really want the degree to make it happen. While there are some scholarships specifically for women, I haven’t been awarded one yet. This problem is like so many others in Indian Country. We are made to compete or fight over a small resource.

What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally?

I look forward to Women’s History Month and take the opportunity to learn about women from all walks of life and how they have contributed to society. I especially enjoy when light shines on women that have been overlooked. It is exciting to read about and listen to stories of women that have shaped our past and built the way for our future. The intelligence and audacity of staaksi cépec (strong women) is thrilling. NAN produces a bi-weekly newsletter, during Women’s History Month we share stories about the women that have inspired us and are doing the work for Native American issues.

Is there a woman (or two!) who inspires you?

My matriarchs inspire me. My grandmother Florence (Minugh) Wells grew up on the plains in Montana, she was discouraged from knowing and practicing her culture to blend into the growing American society. She was secretly proud to be from the A’aninin (White Clay People), she loves horses and to read. She has supported me exploring all sides of my family and culture. She values education, although she wasn’t allowed to finish high school. My grandmother has an amazing work ethic, is a natural conservationist and one of the brightest people I’ve met. My mother taught me how to sew and made me dance regalia. She has always been my biggest fan, even when she was standing on shore petrified with fear watching me take a canoe over huge swells. My mother taught me to persevere if you want something. She went to law school when I was in middle school and as an attorney fought for tribal sovereignty issues.

I’m part of a sisterhood of Native Action Network’s alumna. We all have such different experiences and walks of life, we come together to support each other and learn from each other. These 70+ women inspire me with their accomplishments and their goals.

Photo credit: Scott Macklin

Bonus question: We heard you were a canoe puller. Can you tell us how you earned that role?

I was raised by my mother LynDee Wells (Gros Ventre, a Montana tribe) and adopted dad Marvin Stevens Jr. (Sac & Fox and Kickapoo of Oklahoma) and didn’t grow up in my Salish culture. When I was 17 years old, I moved closer to my tribe the Quinault Nation. A tribal elder and culture leader Reggie Ward Sr. showed up at my family house. He told me to be at dance and drum practice that Friday after school. I showed up, because you listen to your elders and I was curious. I loved to dance at Pow Wows and wanted to learn Quinault Style of dance. I became part of our dance group which participated at tribal events and was invited to events around the country. I was Miss Quinault in 1996-1997, which built my confidence in public speaking and representing my tribe.

I heard there was a resurgence of our canoe culture by a couple men in my tribe. I showed up to a practice and fought for a seat in the canoe. I fell in love. The waters of my ancestral territory are beautiful. Spending time with my canoe brothers and sisters was life changing. Eventually I challenged the captain for the seat of pace, one of the two seats at the front of the canoe that is responsible for keeping the rhythm of the canoe and watch for any dangerous things in the water, like logs, rocks, etc. Essentially, you do not stop pulling the entire day. I set pace for several years during practices and during the annual Tribal Journey. We travelled to Canada and to the Puget Sound from our village of Taholah. Some days we would pull 50+ nautical miles.

One year, the canoe family met to plan that year’s trip, all our Skippers were not able to travel on the journey for various reasons. Everyone was sure we wouldn’t hit the water that year. The elder Phillip Martin aka Haynisoos (Thundering Elk) that brought back our canoe culture, announced that I would be the captain that year. I was shocked and excited. No woman had led a canoe family as skipper and captain at that time. I trained with my crew and learned how to navigate the waters safely from long time fishermen.

We travelled in May-ee (New Beginnings) an old growth cedar 13-person canoe to Chemainus, British Columbia. It was a 2.5-week trip, stopping at host tribes and state parks along the way. It was amazing, I am still so proud of my crew. As a skipper you need to sing to your crew to show them the pace you want, if they all pull at the same time, the same type of stroke then the canoe really dances across the water. Sometimes you need them to go fast to avoid things in the water or to get through a tricky bit of water movement. Other times you know you have several more hours left to go so they can take an energy conserving pace. We have songs for all types of water and comradery. As a dancer I was out of my comfort zone. My family has beautiful singers and I felt like I sounded like a strangled seagull. But you do what your crew needs. Today I am comfortable singing our songs to welcome people, to help thank the cooks and guests at feasts and to open meetings to honor the indigenous lands we meet on. I am proud to stand up and sing and not have to wait for the men to begin doing the work for the day!

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