“Great leaders embolden the rest of us to rise to our highest potentialities, to be active, insistent and resolute in affirming our own sense of things.” - Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
The word “empowerment” is one of the most used words in my line of work. I fell in love with the word decades ago. For millions of us working in social justice, it was THE word that drove us to combat an onslaught of efforts to silence the vote, the voter, and any dissent. But I’ve come to recognize the term empower is also based on the assumption that individuals don’t already hold inherent power of their own. It lends itself to the white-savior complex, requiring those who already have power to bestow it on those who do not. Rather than continue to enable this harmful approach through celebration of the word empower, I’ve chosen to turn toward and embrace the word embolden.
To embolden means to instill boldness, courage, and resolution enough to overcome apprehension or misgiving. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. said, “Great leaders embolden the rest of us to rise to our highest potentialities, to be active, insistent and resolute in affirming our own sense of things.” As 2024 marks my 20th year as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health (WAWH), I’m resolved to strategically pivot from individual policy to community power.
For two decades I have fought unwaveringly to advance evidence-based, proactive, and positive policies in Wisconsin that would improve women’s health and wellbeing. Yet meaningful progress has been persistently impeded by the absence of fair maps and fair elections in our state. Even if I spent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in the State Capitol flanked with an incredible army of advocates, powerful policies such as paid leave, Medicaid expansion, abortion rights, and birth justice would never be realized in the current environment. Even with fairer maps in sight, we strategically need to focus our efforts upstream work to cultivate conditions in which people are in the policy making “kitchen” rather than on the “menu”.
With this reality, the time has come to redirect our time, energy, and resources to help embolden people with courage, curiosity, community, and connection to foster inherent power and center the voices and lived experiences of those who have been systematically marginalized to the sidelines of democracy.
This is why, as of January 1, 2024, the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health has evolved into Embolden WI. This humble and critical transition will strategically shift our focus from reacting to bad policies to proactively building a new “home” for innovative advocacy programs and initiatives that advance health equity and civic health in our state.
You may already be familiar with two innovative advocacy programs we have already developed and established – PATCH: Providers & Teens Communicating for Health and ECCHO: Engaging Communities to Change Health Outcomes. These two powerful initiatives center the voices of those chronically missing from health improvement and health policy discussions and put those closest to the problem in the driver’s seat of community-driven change.
Our years of experience in non-profit advocacy work remind us that many other impactful initiatives like PATCH and ECCHO would be possible if they were not impeded by the numerous barriers to becoming official 501(c)3 nonprofits. The nonprofit industrial complex and its litany of requirements persistently thwarts fresh new ideas, bold thinking, and community driven transformation. Embolden WI will offer an administrative backbone, consulting services, and tax-exempt opportunities to other health equity and civic health initiatives in our state and beyond. We will embolden upstream change.
For those experiencing mixed feelings about this announcement, I see you and hear you. This decision and transition have been difficult. It may seem like the worst time to move away from direct women’s health policy work in our State Capitol. However, we must acknowledge that our state’s democracy is broken—but not beyond repair. The remedy begins with a shared imperative to create a new environment where healthy, community-driven policies, practices, and programs can come to fruition and flourish.
As we continue to lift the amazing efforts of advocacy groups in our state, Embolden WI will play a new role to bolster communities to elevate their voices, eagerly engage in advocacy, and build a resilience and persistence to create permanent change. We aren’t leaving the table. We’re ensuring every policy making table includes supported and sustained seats for community members who have been chronically missing from these critical conversations.
As we proudly pivot, evolve, and transform our advocacy work, I hope you’ll appreciate the potential for an even greater return on your investment by donating to support Embolden WI.