Chatham female leaders wrap up Women’s History Month by reflecting on issues impacting women

Posted 4/7/21

The Chatham County Library commemorated National Women’s History Month — celebrated in March to highlight the contributions of women in history and society — with a Zoom roundtable discussion …

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Chatham female leaders wrap up Women’s History Month by reflecting on issues impacting women

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The Chatham County Library commemorated National Women’s History Month — celebrated in March to highlight the contributions of women in history and society — with a Zoom roundtable discussion regarding issues affecting Chatham women.

Hosted the afternoon of March 27, the event featured several local female leaders: Chatham Commissioners Karen Howard and Diana Hales, Executive Director of the Hispanic Liaison Ilana Dubester and Cindy Perry, former mayor of Pittsboro.

“I’ve lived in Chatham now for over 30 years,” Moderator Vaughn Upshaw said at the start of the panel, “and in my time here I’ve seen women at the forefront of the changes that have really made a difference and made this the kind of place that many of us like to call home.”

Upshaw, of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, started the panel by referencing a report by a UNC Public Policy from a few year’s ago outlining the status of women in Chatham, which guided the discussion.

The first topic of conversation was affordable housing and the lack of it in Chatham.

“I’m going to start by talking about what we all know is happening: we are growing, and rapidly,” Vaughn said, referencing the 20% growth Chatham has experienced in the last decade.

Commissioner Hales brought up the number of new housing developments in Chatham — particularly in the east — noting that much of it is unaffordable to long-term residents. Already, she said, Chatham has a deficit of 3,000 units of affordable housing.

The Liaison’s Dubester echoed this, emphasizing the economic inequity between the western and eastern sides of Chatham. She shouted out Chatham Habitat for Humanity for its efforts to increase housing affordability. Siler City, she said, in the east, has a large immigrant community, and new and often unaffordable housing developments often leave this group behind in development efforts. On top of pre-existing inequity, Dubester said the pandemic only emphasized these issues.

For example, Mountaire — one of the largest employers in Chatham — did a “lousy job” protecting its workers from COVID-19, Dubester said, leading to a large outbreak in Siler City and for many Hispanic and immigrant residents. This is just one of many examples showing the need to address inequity “head on and early on,” she said.

Cindy Perry, former mayor of Pittsboro and co-chairperson of Second Bloom, spoke about Second Bloom’s efforts to support victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. While these issues are not confined by gender or socioeconomic status, Perry said they impact low-income women at higher rates.

During the pandemic, Commissioner Howard emphasized that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women, who often bear the brunt of increased childcare or schooling responsibilities and caring for ill family members, in addition to often having less work flexibility to work remotely.

She also referenced the lack of consistent broadband access — an issue plaguing rural areas of Chatham and other surrounding rural counties — and how this has been a challenge for women seeking to maintain connection, work remotely or help children learn.

“We have to treat this like a utility,” Howard said. “Until that happens we will continue to have pockets of Chatham that are suffering from lack of access.”

The county has invested in towers — primarily for Emergency Services, but which can co-host broadband internet services. “It’s beginning to chip away” at the broadband problem in Chatham, she said, though it won’t fix it for everyone, and won’t make it more affordable. Dubester said she’d like to see Chatham “lead the way” in subsidizing broadband access for residents.

“I agree,” Howard said. “We need to pivot to doing bold, brave things that make a difference for individuals.”

Howard also spoke about increasing “meaningful employment” for women — referencing her own experience in pivoting from a career as a lawyer to meet her lifestyle needs, particularly as a parent.

“If you make a difference for women in our community, you will make a difference for everyone,” she said.

The panel concluded its discussion before taking questions by lauding the work done by many women throughout Chatham. Hales highlighted the number of women commissioners in the past: Mary Hayes Holmes, Margaret Pollard, Uva Holland and Betty Wilson to name a few.

“Karen and I are serving because of their service,” Hales said. “They chartered the path.”

Howard heralded her fellow panelists,  along with Board of Education member Del Turner, saying she was hearing their names and about their work before beginning to serve in her current role as her commissioner. Even before they had official titles or roles, Howard said they were dedicated leaders “making headway” in the community.

Dubester named several whom she characterized as “up and coming leaders” in Chatham — Policy Analyst Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, Community Partners Analyst Hilary Pollan and Management Analyst Courtney Cooper-Lewter, who led the county’s census efforts. She applauded the News + Record’s Victoria Johnson, lead reporter for La Voz de Chatham project, for her coverage of the Chatham Latinx community. There has been more coverage of the Hispanic community during Johnson’s tenure, Dubester said, than in the previous 26 years of the Hispanic Liaison.

The panelists each praised several other women in Chatham, both those in official leadership and official positions, and those without credit or titles.

And while there’s still much work to be done — addressing broadband, affordable housing, healthcare, living wages and more — the panelists stressed that women were leading the way in many different fronts.

“The women get things done,” Hales said.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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