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Texas Women Ask: What Does It Mean to Be Empowered?

Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News

The ink had barely dried on Gov. Rick Perry's signature on House Bill 2, a controversial law restricting abortions in Texas, when 200 women filed into the Austin Community College Eastview campus to attend the Women’s Health, Motivation & Empowerment Conference

A free, daylong event presented by the Positive Women’s Coalition and sponsored by Austin Community College, it featured workshops focused on women’s career development, relationships and health.

"I’m hoping that we will either light a match or continue to add flame to the fire for women who are looking for opportunities, looking for positive enforcement to continue to grow themselves," said conference organizer Loretta Edelen.

According to Edelen, women in Texas are especially in need of empowerment, as evidenced by high rates of women in poverty (20 percent) and repeat teenage pregnancies (22 percent).

“We need to really be trying to figure out how we can change that,” Edelen said. “[Women] serve as role-models for their own children … If they are doing things to put themselves on the right track in terms of empowerment, then others are hopefully going to see that and replicate that.”

Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole received a standing ovation from conference attendees as she took to the podium for her introductory speech on Saturday morning. She discussed the personal challenges she faced in her run to become the first African-American woman elected to city council.

Credit Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News
Mayor Pro Tem Cole spoke about her background as a fifth generation Texan. “My grandmother was a housekeeper, my mother was a housekeeper … and I’ve seen the progress of women, just in my lifetime, and I know that that needs to continue to happen.”

“I faced challenges finding mentors and actually being able to relate to what they would advise me to do,” Cole said. “I faced challenges in speaking up, and speaking up loudly about what I thought was important or what needed to happen especially for the minority community.”

But Cole said that she was optimistic about women’s empowerment in Texas – especially after the broad demonstration of civic engagement at the Capitol.

“Anytime women organize, bring energy, wait for hours and hours to express their opinion – actually have a forceful opinion – that is all about empowerment,” said Cole.

For close to a decade, the Women’s Empowerment conference has grown. It’s now doubled in size, attendance-wise, over its first conference in 2004. Rhonda Douglas attended the first conference as an ACC student. Nine years later, with a bachelor’s degree in social work from St. Edward’s University, she led one of the workshops.

Credit Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News
Rhonda Douglas has grown from a conference attendee to a speaker.

“This conference fills me with a lot of motivation and inspiration to look back to see what I have accomplished – and what I can do to help others and to continue to move forward with my own endeavors,” Douglas said.

Austin is not the only city hosting conferences to empower women in Texas. San Antonio College has an annual two-day women’s conference that focuses on educational outreach. Similarly, in Houston, the nonprofit Women’s Empowerment Conference holds a yearly event for the “betterment of women both professionally and personally,” according to their website.

Edelen said that the Positive Women’s Coalition plans to hold another women’s empowerment conference at ACC next year, with hopes for growing attendance at future events. Meanwhile, Cole predicted that women in Texas are on the verge of something big.

“We’re working hard, we’re doing the right things, we’re becoming prepared,” Cole said. “It’s time for that to pay off.”

Credit Reshma Kirpalani for KUT News
Cardette Carroll stands on a chair as she leads a workshop, “Removing the Negative: If it Ain’t Good Let it Go.” Among other topics, she discussed how to manage debt and let go of abusive relationships.

Reshma Kirpalani works as a freelancer at KUT News.
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