Women's History Month: Caitlin Ackerman
Why I will never NOT celebrate Women’s History Month.
By: Caitlin Ackerman
This March the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative is exhibiting the contributions and stories of women and groups of women in history who have shaped our country to where it is today. Following in its light this is my “Because of Her” story.
We celebrate Women’s History Month to commemorate the contributions of notable and ordinary women. We seek to increase the consciousness on the impact women have had on the world and raise awareness on issues women continue to fight for daily. In full candidacy, I have not always actively celebrated this month, nor given women credit when due. And if you asked me five years ago if I considered myself a feminist – I would have said “absolutely not.” But today, as I reflect on how and why my outlook has changed – I recognize and proudly attribute my growth to the powerful, intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious women that I have had the opportunity to learn from across my young adult life. While I sit in a beautiful, woman-owned coffee shop, in the place where Women’s History Month officially started (Northern California), with the freedom to write about anything I want to – I choose to commemorate the contributions of these notable women and how without them, I’m not sure where I’d be.
When I was going through the college tour process discerning what school I would attend and play basketball for, I successfully narrowed it down to two schools. The first school was a beautiful campus along the water in Maine, Division III, winning basketball team with a male head coach. I ran practice with the team feeling confident and ready. Afterwards, in the coach’s office, I was smitten as he told me how much of an asset I was, how I would lead the team, and the season would be built around me. I thought for sure, this was the school for me. The second school was in Worcester, Massachusetts - only 50 minutes from my house and Division II which really means Division I in format (just a smaller school). I remember doing an overnight visit and playing pick-up with the team –with two vocal female head coaches and a full roster of experienced players, it was a little bit of culture shock. They were honest with me from the jump, “we want you, but freshman don’t start, and only the best see the floor.” I thought for sure, I was going to school number one, until I got offered a scholarship and my parents made the final decision. My first day of pre-season, I recall walking back to my dorm hoping I would get hurt, believing I would not be able to survive let alone actually get minutes. But each day got easier because I had a group of 13 girls living through the same reality, checking in and cheering me on, but also relying on me because my best contributed to the teams best. I had two coaches pushing me to be the best player, student, and person I could be. I might not lead, but my role was still necessary. There was no room for failure, but endless opportunity for growth. I went on to start six games as a Freshman, run at guard times as a sophomore (I was a post player), and start and consistently contribute to every game junior and senior year. I earned the title of captain of my team and president of the Student Athlete Committee for the NCAA NE-10 Conference. If it wasn’t for the candidacy of my coaches, camaraderie of my team, and the wins and losses in between – I wouldn’t understand resilience and perseverance. Being a student-athlete lead by strong female influences taught me the soft skills of leadership, communication, honesty, and hard work.
As I closed out my collegiate career, my plan was to complete an AmeriCorps year in Chicago, IL working in a residential treatment facility for young boys and girls. This was an opportunity for me to move to a new city and gain professional experience. When I found out that I would be living in a community of 15 people, I was hoping for some cool guys to live with, as that is who I tended to vibe better with. My year happened to be a low recruiting year in the male department, and I was placed in a community with 1 man and 13 women – and reflecting back I would not be who I am right now if it had been any other way. In short, I thought I knew what I was doing – how to connect with and advocate for youth, how to apply concepts learned in school, how to make an impact; but each day I found myself frustrated always needing to be learning something new. I was experiencing academic concepts in real time, observing the realities of the youth I was working with – and I was pushed way beyond my small-town comfort zone. In 2015 when Sandra Bland was pulled from a car against her will, beaten on the side of the road, and later killed in jail – my reaction of “Why didn’t she just listen to police officer,” was the biggest lesson I would learn this year. My community and I had hours of conversation discussing white privilege, socioeconomic status, police violence in communities of color, and beyond. My ignorance was enough to turn people away from me… but instead my community leaned in to many educational moments that helped me expand my perspective, respectfully communicate and question what I did not understand, and most importantly, better connect with and advocate for the real needs of my youth. I learned how to counter systemic injustice, equality vs equity, the economic evolution and gentrification of Chicago, how to have challenging conversations, how to educate others on these topics, and how to embrace discomfort and take pride in the constant state of learning. If I did not move to Chicago and live with 13 women, honestly – who knows where I would be. One year with these amazing women turned on a switch that catapulted me into a lifelong journey of listening and learning, a passion for servant leadership and purpose to life up the voice of others. Though my AmeriCorps came to a close, my connection and gratitude for the experience, the lessons and each individual contributor to that year – is endless.
After my year of service, I stayed in Chicago for another year working in social work and education. It was when I accompanied a friend to a graduate school fair, where I learned of a New York based 2-year program, that would take my passion for learning and service to the next level. This program required students to live and work abroad for 50% of it and offered an opportunity to earn a concurrent MBA. I immediately applied. This entire experience was a learning journey which is an entire other blog but for this specific piece – this is where I learned about International Women’s Day, the value of women’s history month, and where I learned without of a doubt, I am a feminist. I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand working for the Migrant Action Program on their Child Protection Policy when my classmate and I were invited to the 2018 WeGet Women’s Exchange Conference. Two days of women, primarily from Thailand and Myanmar, coming together to share their experience as migrants and collaborate on solutions for policy change. We listened to various stories of hardship and overcoming. We marched in a protest, chanting in Thai for equal rights. All types of women and allies showed up to this public event as it represented a safe space for women, LGTBQAI, children, foreigners, and locals to come together for one reason. Equality. It’s not until you’re plucked from what you know and plopped in a new place – that your whole perspective evolves. Throughout the protest and public event, the people in attendance danced to this song known as “Break the Chain” in the One Billion Rising Movement. This song was on repeat and the excitement to dance only grew with each replay. I did not fully understand the power behind it until it read the lyrics and this quote from Eve Ensler, founder of One Billion Rising Movement.
“Dance is dangerous, joyous, sexual, holy, disruptive, contagious, it breaks the rules.
It can happen anywhere, anytime, with anyone and everyone, and it’s free.
Dancing insists we take up space, we go there together in community.
Dance joins us and pushes us to go further and that is why it’s at the center of ONE BILLION RISING.
With infectious music and lyrics from Tena Clark, amazing vocals by a talented group of V-Girls,
and Debbie Allen’s bold choreography, Break The Chain is the anthem that will call up one billion to rise.”
The opportunity to be a part of something greater than myself, to march on behalf of all women’s issues, and dance with women around the world at the same time - one of the most powerful experiences of my life because it wasn’t about me – it was about us. Recognizing us, our challenges, our power, our voice.
Today, I continue to work for something greater than myself – and again find myself in a situation led by strong women making an impact. One may observe, for someone so resistant, I simply gravitate to its bold energy. I work for a female owned wellness company on a core team of women who each day inspire me. We work to make health and wellness more accessible to people where they spend the most amount of time – at work. In a time where work trumps all – my team fights to ensure their wellbeing is provided for and to remind the world that without it, all this innovation and productivity gains no traction. My team works endlessly to improve the lives of others, but I wonder if they recognize that simultaneously, they are also improving mine.
It may be difficult to read through this and understand how these experiences are interwoven. But each experience, each chapter, each woman – is interwoven in me shaping who I am today and the path I am on. From my mother, to my best friends in New Hampshire, my collegiate basketball coaches/team, my Chi-town community, my graduate school cohort, women I have met in Cameroon, Thailand, Italy, and Belgium, to my new Bay Area family – you are the reason we celebrate Women’s History Month.
When I reflect back to a time where I would not identify as a feminist – I laugh at how naïve I could be. I believe in equal rights and equitable opportunity for all people. I am proud to be a woman and to make the world a better place for women. I am a feminist because of the amazing women who have made me the woman I am today. So, this month – we celebrate you: your voice, your strength, your ability, your hardship, your contribution. We celebrate you and we thank you!