Five women of the Twin Ports were honored by the YWCA for their leadership and significant contributions to the community on Oct. 20 at the 13th Annual Women of Distinction Luncheon.
YWCA Board President Kelly Blindauer opened the ceremony in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Harborside Ballroom by welcoming the crowd of about 300.
“We are here to honor these strong women for the excellent work that they do in our communities,” Blindauer said.
The mission of the Duluth YWCA is eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. Each year the YWCA honors women in the Duluth community who have made significant contributions related to this mission. Three Women of Distinction awards are giving to women who “overcome adversity, exhibit excellence in leadership, achieve extraordinary accomplishments, and are community role models, unsung heroes and generous community contributors,” according to the nomination application.
Sharon Witherspoon, longtime community activist and retiree from UMD’s student services office, gave the keynote address.
The 2016 Women of Distinction are Beth Bartlett, Kathy Hermes and Renee Van Nett.
Dr. Beth Bartlett is a professor in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at UMD and one of the founders of the Women’s Studies program. Last year she was the keynote speaker at the luncheon.
“If you were here last year, you might remember that I described one of the characteristics of these women of distinction as ‘plucky,'” Bartlett said. “Meaning courageous, bold, daring, fearless, intrepid, spirited, dauntless, vivacious, determined and meddlesome. I’m honored to be among these plucky women. And I think we should rename it the ‘Plucky Women Award.'”
Kathy Hermes is a Program Coordinator employed by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. One of her primary responsibilities is to facilitate “Together for Youth,” a social support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and allied youth.
“We have young people who cross our threshold seeing some snacks, a little companionship and deeper support services … I have gratitude to LSS for continuing to support our youth in this manner. We’re just approaching the threshold of over 900 LGBT youth served,” Hermes said.
Hermes’ talk didn’t focus only on the successes, but also the struggles that remain.
“The heat’s still on, young people. Even in 2016, the heat is still on. Despite astounding political and social advances in the recent years, with such great progress comes the constant backlash,” Hermes said. “This is where we as caring adults need to pay attention and help in every way we can.”
Renee Van Nett is an employment liaison with Community Action Duluth’s Bridge to Employment Program. She also operates a foster home specific to Native children and serves on several leadership positions on community and nonprofit boards. She spoke briefly about teaching women’s roles in Ojibwe culture to her daughters and foster daughters.
“It’s my duty to teach them what they need to know about being a woman,” Van Nett said. “Everything I do is for and because of them, so they can grow up strong. And they are way further along than I was at the age of 10.”
Van Nett shared a story about one of her girls being afraid to let her cat roam around outside on her own. Van Nett assured the child the cat would be fine.
“And she said ‘Why? Because she’s strong and independent and she’s a woman?’ and I went, yes! Wow. That’s not how I was at that age,” Van Nett said.
Most years, only one Emerging Leader, an award specified to women or girls under 35 years of age, is given. But this year, according to YWCA Board President Kelly Blindauer, “We received so many wonderful applications, so we couldn’t pick just one.”
The emerging leader award recipients are Ashley Compton and Princess Awa-ada Kisob.
Ashley Compton is a housing case manager at Life House who is passionate about community organizing, racial and gender equity and American Indian Issues. She shared information and stories from her recent journey to the Standing Rock pipeline protests in North Dakota.
“It was a beautiful thing to witness all these people communing with each other and standing up for what’s right. We aren’t just standing up for our own land rights, but for all of nature,” Compton said.
Princess Awa-ada Kisob is a program director at Neighborhood Youth Services for Woodland Hills and serves as a women’s advocate at Safe Haven. She spoke about her initial isolation when she arrived in the Twin Ports.
“It was a culture shock. You could literally go a week without seeing another person of color,” Kisob said. “And that is why I work so hard to build a strong support system for any of my youth who could identify with that.”
Kathy Hermes is a program coordinator employed by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. One of her primary responsibilities is to facilitate Together for Youth, a social support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and allied youth. A former high school Life Science teacher, Kathy also serves runaway and homeless youth as the Duluth Area Outreach Educator for National Safe Place and as a HIV-testing outreach worker.
Renee Van Nett
Renee Van Nett is a tireless advocate for community change. Currently employed at Community Action Duluth as an employment liaison with the Bridge to Employment Program, she also operates a foster home specific to Native children. Renee serves in leadership positions on several community and nonprofit boards including the Damiano Center, Lincoln Park’s Children and Family Collaborative, the Cross Cultural Alliance of Duluth, the Citizen Review Board and more.
Beth Bartlett is a professor in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth and one of the founders of the Women’s Studies program. Prior to 1999, Beth was a professor in UMD’s Department of Political Science, worked with the Duluth Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), was part of the Greater Minnesota Women’s Alliance and worked on the development of Project SOAR. In addition to numerous volunteer positions in Duluth’s nonprofit community, she has written several articles and five books, most recently, “Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior.”
Ashley Compton is a housing case manager at Life House. She earned her undergraduate degree in American Indian Studies from UMD and is passionate about community organizing, racial and gender equity and American Indian issues. Before coming to Life House in 2015, Ashley worked for AICHO as a women’s advocate at the Dabinoo‘Igan shelter and as the program manager of Oshki transitional housing. She also volunteers as a Board member with All Nations and the Heading Home Governance Board for St. Louis County.
Princess Awa-ada Kisob
Princess Awa-ada Kisob earned her degree in International Relations from UMD. She currently works as a Program Director at Neighborhood Youth Services for Woodland Hills. Through her work, Princess provides oversight for a community-based youth serving agency that focuses on providing a safe environment for K-12 youth when school is not in session. She is also a women’s advocate at Safe Haven.
Written byfor the Duluth Budgeteer.