Annahid Dashtgard looked on with both pity and amusement in her eyes as I gathered all my things to move to the back of the room and out of the way of a man with the title “The Captain” written across his kitchen staff uniform. I struggled to balance a laptop, iPad, cell phone and notebook in my hands while also trying to look like a professional journalist.

Dashtgard had no such struggle. She had long ago taken control of her situation by employing a rolling briefcase with most of her life packed inside of it. She said it might look funny or even make some people uncomfortable watching her roll it around, but it made her life easier and more productive.

The message she was trying to get across with the example of the roller would soon come into focus.

The Captain, a serious man with clearly little time to spare, needed her to move so he and his staff could re-set the dining room tables in the banquet hall at Monona Terrace on Tuesday, where the YWCA was holding its annual Moxie Conference. The brown-skinned woman and the black journalist would be ushered to the back of the room in this plush establishment for a conversation on race, gender and empowerment.

Dashtgard looked exhausted as she nibbled infrequently at her breakfast. Moments earlier she had finished a rousing speech in front of the YWCA Moxie Conference where she had challenged the audience to stop waiting for the world to change for women and start being women who change the world. Things like being hired despite being a person of color, or not being sexually harassed in the workplace as a woman are external victories minorities have won. But they haven’t made the elephant in the room leave. The elephant of bias. 

“The first wave of the civil rights movement, the first wave of the women’s rights movement were all about shifting external structures to get people in the door,“ Dashtgard tells Madison365. “There’s still external barriers but people are starting to say, like, ‘we gotta look at ourselves now.’ In order to update external systems we have to look at our own hardwiring, at the systems we’ve absorbed. Because in a lot of workplaces right now the policies, the laws, the processes are not set up to discriminate against any one group. They’re supposed to privilege all groups equally and yet that’s not happening in reality.”

Annahid Dashtgard was the morning keynote speaker for the 2017 YWCA Moxie Conference.
Annahid Dashtgard was the morning keynote speaker for the 2017 YWCA Moxie Conference.

Dashtgard says the next frontier in building a society more inclusive of women, people of color, transgender people, is all about recognizing that people absorb messages about themselves based on being members of those groups, even if they don’t even realize it’s happening. It’s those messages, she says, that lead people to perpetuate bias in the workplace or school or even at home in families.

“Ideally we should be doing this with children,” she said when talking about when these messages start being internalized. “You know, like, what shows are they watching? What books are they reading? Making sure they see as many diverse, non-white characters as they see white ones. And when they bring up subjects around noticing racial differences, rather than saying we’re all the same, really trying to engage them. Having the conversation that we’re all different. As opposed to what I feel like a lot of people are doing, is this ‘I don’t see color. I’m colorblind’. It drives me (expletive) nuts because the elephant of bias always sees color. Always sees color, always categorizes people on the basis of color. I’m going to act out my anti-black bias if I don’t recognize I bloody have it.”

Yet, the biases remain and play out particularly, it seems, in the workplace. It is still a male-dominated workplace when it comes to who is in charge and who is able to climb the ladder. Cultural biases exist even if your local human resources people say otherwise. Dashtgard says it’s time to adopt a new mindset at work.

“There are different best practices and things organizations can do to kind of minimize bias playing out in terms of who gets hired, who gets promoted,” she said. “For example, in terms of hiring, taking names off resumes or having multi-person hiring panels or having a clear scoring grid for skills you wanna see happen.”

Dashtgard looked at all the rules and all the Human Resources and all the right people doing right things, and couldn’t help but notice those same people elected a sexist and misogynistic white man to be President of the United States.

So obviously, it isn’t all the external stuff that counts. Everyone, in this case women, need to be the change they want to see in the world.

Sagashus Levingston did try to become the change she wanted to see in the world. But everything still fell apart. Everything still went wrong.

She choked up with tears before her afternoon keynote speech even started. Just having to remember the journey that brought her to being the keynote speaker at an event on the Monona Terrace was enough to put her on edge.

It was a journey full of lows that led to a happy moment or two. This being one of those happy moments. She listed all of the things she is in life. A mother. A fighter. A public speaker. But she said she was a black woman first.

“Today, I will speak to you in stories,” Levingston said. “I will speak to you in stories because telling stories makes me happy and I’m happy being here with all of you. But I can’t ask something of you without asking it of myself, and that is vulnerability.”

Levingston knows all about trying to make a change from the inside out. She also knows you can make all the changes and fight the good fight and still end up broken and hurting.

So it was that she spoke to the audience in stories. But these were not superhero tales of how she became this invincible, do-it-all comic book hero people love to depict themselves as at conferences such as these.

Moxie Conference afternoon keynote speaker Sagashus Levingston (Photo by Hedi Rudd)
Moxie Conference afternoon keynote speaker Sagashus Levingston
(Photo by Hedi Rudd)

She was depressed eating cookie dough and binge watching shows such as Supernatural. She was checked out. She had shut down. She was a shell of a woman at home. Eventually, a Facebook friend had been able to reach her and convince her to become more than this shell.

Levingston, inspired by television producer Shonda Rhimes, began her “year of yes.” She started saying yes to everything. Speaking engagements, public gatherings, anything. It was her way of experiencing life without knowing what was going to happen next.

“For many of these things I had no idea what I was getting into,” Levingston said. “I questioned whether I was qualified to do it. More times than not, I was afraid of failure, afraid of disappointing others. Afraid that I’d offend. But none of that mattered. It was my year of yes and so regardless of all those things, the fears, the answer was always going to be simply yes.”

Levingston’s saying yes and going on a national speaking tour, making appearances on television and radio, had unanticipated downsides. Yes, she was making a difference for women everywhere and showing the way to so many women who had been down and out like she had been.

But her family life suffered. Out of all the messages girls and women receive in society, perhaps none are as profound as this: She was expected to be a mother first and everything else second. Being a strong woman taking control of her own destiny and helping others do the same began to be an either/or choice at home. Either she could do her dream speech at a convention in Montreal, or she could be there for her daughter who was having serious surgery.

She talked about how accomplishing a lot made her responsible to a lot. People started asking her for help instead of offering to help her. They started taking on her strength instead of offering her theirs. And most of all saying yes to all the times her children needed her was more challenging than anything else.

Just as Annahid Dashtgard had been saying, the true battle is in the mindset and expectations of what women’s roles should be. Dashtgard wanted to inspire disempowered girls to take control and create opportunities for themselves and others. Levingston was faced with seeming too empowered and having everyone lean on her.

Both keynote speakers delivered messages that seemed to jar the audience but made the hosts of the event proud.

Vanessa McDowell
Vanessa McDowell

The Moxie Conference was being led by the YWCA, who enjoyed a good turnout of women who use their services.

“I think it’s great,” said Vanessa McDowell, the interim CEO of the YWCA in Madison, about the turnout. “I know we’re competing with a couple of things today so the fact that people committed to coming and staying the full day, I’m excited about that.”

McDowell is the first woman of color to be CEO of the YWCA here in Madison. She urges women to come out for conferences like this.

“Something that I’m personally working towards is to create more opportunities for the women that we serve at the YWCA to see these things,” she said. “This conference is [about] professional development which is a whole other side of things that we definitely want to get our women involved with because that’s part of empowering women.”