Women in a range of professions shared their challenges and achievements during Saturday’s fourth annual Edmonds International Women’s Day. Held this year at the Edmonds Waterfront Center, the event was hosted by Alicia Crank of Crank’d Up Consulting and Megan Wolfe of Girls on the Run, with the 2022 theme “Break the Bias.”
First celebrated in 1911 in Europe, International Women’s Day was officially adopted by the United Nations in 1975. It recognizes the accomplishments of women across society and raises awareness of continued inequality of women.
Saturday’s event — which drew 100 people in person and another 100 who watched virtually — featured two panels. The first included women judges in Snohomish County — Anna Alexander, Linda Coburn and Whitney Rivera. A fourth participant on the schedule, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Cassandra Lopez-Shaw, died March 4 from cancer, and a moment of silence was observed to honor her. Crank spoke highly of Lopez-Shaw, calling her both a friend and mentor. Fellow Superior Court Judge Alexander said that Lopez-Shaw inspired not only her, but many other people.
One of the topics the judges discussed was how the courts are providing innovative accommodations to help women in a variety of judicial circumstances.
“In the new courthouse in Everett there is now a nursing room,” Alexander said. “In a recent jury trial, I had not one, but two, nursing mothers on my jury.” Those accommodations were due to “having women in charge,” Alexander said. “Having women in places where we know that whoever is coming in front of us, that we know what her struggle might be, or what she might need is important.”
Linda Coburn, a former Edmonds Municipal Court judge who now serves on the Washington State Court of Appeals, also talked about the difficulty that women with children may have trying to serve on a jury.
“I’ve seen judges admonish women who show up in the courtroom with their kids,” Coburn said. “Because from their perspective, this is not an appropriate place for kids as we talk about some very serious issues there. And that’s true, but if they (women) are in a situation where they don’t have any choice, pat her on the back – she came to court.” Coburn said she knows of judges who — instead of criticizing the moms — have crayons and coloring books available for children who come to court.
Edmonds Municipal Court Judge Whitney Rivera pointed out that women disproportionately carry the burden of child care, and if they don’t have someone to care for their kids, they will be excused from serving on a jury.
“Studies show that juries with women are more thoughtful and more accurate in terms of their ability to remember evidence and discuss the issues – so it’s not just impacting the jurors who are excluded, but it’s also impacting the defendant, who doesn’t have as much of a diverse jury as she or he should,” Rivera said.
The second panel introduced by Crank was women leaders in the Edmonds Police Department: Chief of Police Michelle Bennett, Detective of Financial Crimes Julie Govantes and Community Engagement Officer Tabatha Shoemake.
“What I love about all three of you is that you are engaging people,” Crank said to the panelists. “When we talk about bias, it can take so many avenues, especially in law enforcement. And I’m speaking as a Black woman who grew up in Detroit knowing police officers and was one of the few people who was not anti-police growing up. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a woman in blue, or a Black woman or Black person in blue.”
She then invited the panel to speak on what it’s like to be a female or Black officer.
“Our officers are more diverse than our community by far,” Shoemake said. “And the officers that are there are wonderful, and have our backs.”
But there are still opportunities for better understanding. Recently, Shoemake said a colleague asked about her pending move to a new office in the Safeway Marketplace shopping center on Highway 99, referring to it as “going to the ghetto.” Shoemake said her first inclination was to walk away but she realized that if she did, she would be allowing that person to keep referring to parts of Edmonds in a negative light.
Instead, she replied, “The fact that you’re saying that to me, a Black woman, like I’m being shipped off to the ghetto. Do you understand how that can be a little offensive? And calling it the ghetto?” Shoemake said the colleague apologized and acknowledged they didn’t think before speaking.
“I’m just letting you know what the world is like today,” Shoemake responded. “We need to move forward. We need move forward.”
Govantes said that before joining the Edmonds Police Department, “I had no idea about the Edmonds PD, I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, I had never been to the West Coast. I’d always been an east coaster. I remember Googling the Edmonds PD department photo and seeing one Black female, and I smiled. I smiled because I knew that I wasn’t going to be the first one.” Govantes said that when she goes out on recruiting events, she believes that when people see her, a Black female, they are more willing to believe that they can also be police officers.
Chief Bennett talked about her early days facing bias as a woman police officer in 1989. In 1990, she was hired by the King County Sheriff’s Office but women in law enforcement was still very new, and Bennett dealt with comments like, “You should be home, barefoot and pregnant, and you’re a female, you can’t handle yourself.” She admits those were difficult times.
In 2016, she was interviewed by a Washington newspaper and the article’s headline, when published, read, “The First of Her Kind.”
“What am I? An alien?” Bennett joked. “Nowadays, I don’t think of being female,” she continued. “I’m a law enforcement officer. There are certainly cultural shifts that we still are making. In our department we’re about 35% non-white male, which is the highest in the state.”
But even with that, Bennett said, “There’s still things we need to overcome. Women are 50% of the population be we’re not represented like that; the average is about 10% female in our department, so we have some work to do.”
Bennett gave credit to Govantes’ extensive efforts recruiting for the department, and also to Acting Assistant Police Chief Josh McClure for his work hiring phenomenal individuals.
Keynote speakers for Saturday’s event were Tracy Taylor, traffic anchor at KIRO 7, and Dr. Melissa Sassi, Ph.D. of IBM Z.
Taylor talked about her career progression, and the issues that still persist for women in radio and media.
“Even now in this day and age, it’s interesting how you would think women in radio should be a no-brainer,” Taylor said. “We work just as hard as our male counterparts but there are still women getting shut down from achieving their dreams in radio and media.”
Taylor also enjoys helping women interested in having a career in radio learn the ins and outs of broadcasting.
“I work with a non-profit called Women in Radio, which I love so dearly,” she said. “It’s a group of women in the business who have been shut down time and time again. I mentor those women who are coming up in the business. I sit down with some of these younger women and listen to their airchecks and help them to develop their voice so they can feel more confident behind the microphone.”
Melissa Sassi, whose three children were victims of parental kidnapping to the northwest African nation of Tunisia, is founder and CEO of MentorNations, a youth- led digital movement that has taught thousands of young people how to code in 12 countries.
Her worst nightmare of having her children abducted became her “superpower,” she said. “My life had no meaning to it. I wasn’t able to get my kids back and the police told me it was a civil matter.”
After many unsuccessful attempts through lawyers and traveling to Tunisia, Sassi learned through a digital conversation with her daughter that she was learning Microsoft in a classroom of 30 kids with one computer. Sassi said she then realized that although she couldn’t do certain things as mother because of distance, she could get devices into her daughter’s classroom. So she acquired 30 computers for daughter’s classroom in Tunisia and 400 computers for 20 other schools – all provided by Microsoft and HP.
“I may not have been able to be the mother I wanted to be, I could have been, or should have been,”Sassi said, “but I worked at Microsoft and thought I should be able to get some computers for those classrooms, so that’s what I set out to do.”
The good news is that six months ago, Sassi’s oldest daughter, now age 20, joined her and is taking the necessary steps to live in the U.S.
Edmonds International Women’s Day sponsors included Cline Jewelers, Crank’d Up Consulting,DME CPA Group, Michelle M. Osborne, J.D. & Associates, Girls on the Run of Snohomish County, Reefcombers Studios, Here and There, Rogue Boutique, Morgan & Moss, Workhorse HQ, National Organization for Women – Seattle Chapter, KDMC, KIRO 7, EPIC Group Writers, At Work! and Harvey Homes.
— Story and photos by Misha Carter