On International Women's Day, panel discusses how to move forward

Norwich — Kris Wraight warned her audience that she could feel her face turning red, and they shouldn't worry about her having a medical emergency. She was just passionate about the subject.

Wraight has been a violence prevention educator with Safe Futures, a nonprofit supporting victims of domestic violence, for 10 years.

She spoke of the importance of discussing emotions, creating safer spaces for men and boys, and talking about politics.

Scarlet seeping into her skin, she said, "If you don't talk politics, your silence is colluding with a system that continues to allow sexism and racism."

Wraight was one of six panelists at a forum the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut held at the Norwich Inn on Thursday, International Women's Day. Paul Choiniere, editorial page editor at The Day, served as the moderator.

Anne Rash, a member of the Community Foundation's board of trustees, closed the discussion by telling a personal basketball story from the 1950s. At that time, women were allowed to dribble only twice, and they could play on only half the court.

"What?" state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, another panelist, asked incredulously. "How did you get anywhere?"

"We still have a lot of women in eastern Connecticut who can only play on half the court, and they can only bounce the ball twice," Rash said.

Flexer had commented earlier that the share of women in the Connecticut General Assembly is lower now than when she entered the legislature nine years ago, and that only six of the 187 legislators are women of color.

Flexer expressed optimism at eliminating the statute of limitations on sexual assault crimes, and on passing legislation that would enshrine the women's health care benefits of the Affordable Care Act, regardless of what happens at the federal level.

Also speaking about health care on the panel was Lynn Malerba, named the first female chief of the Mohegan Tribe after a career in nursing. She talked about health issues facing Native Americans, such as overcrowded living, food deserts and the fact that 20 percent of all Superfund sites are on Indian land.

Speaking to her issues with the American health care system, Malerba noted that those with cancer are 2.5 times more likely to file for bankruptcy, and that women over 85 spend $3,000 more out of pocket than men of the same age, due to gaps in coverage.

Karla Fortunato, president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, discussed gender differences in her sector. She noted that while women are overwhelmingly running small- and medium-sized foundations, they're underrepresented at larger ones.

She pointed out that many prominent modern social movements have been started by women, such as Black Lives Matter, the Women's March and the #MeToo/Time's Up movement.

Another panelist was Starsheemar Byrum, who directs the Unity Wing — which includes the Pride Center, Women's Center and Intercultural Center — at Eastern Connecticut State University. She also is coordinator for the Sexual Assault & Interpersonal Violence Response team.

Byrum encouraged people not to feel like they need to advocate for just one issue, saying, "There's really no benefit to focus on one specific issue of gender-based violence, but recognizing how they all intersect."

The final speaker was Jim Horan, CEO of Connecticut Association of Human Services. He cited some advances for women in the area: More women than men are enrolled in community colleges in eastern Connecticut, and the regional teen birth rate is declining.

Horan advocated for instituting universal prekindergarten, implementing paid family leave, bolstering funding for workforce development and adding affordable housing.

The panel on Thursday came a month after the Community Foundation released a report on the status of women and girls in eastern Connecticut. The panelists were chosen to speak on inequities in four realms detailed in the report: economic security, education, health and well-being, and leadership.

e.moser@theday.com

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