“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Inspired by movements like that of Femme Fatale DC, a “By womyn, for womyn” collective supporting women-owned creative entrepreneurs through retail pop-ups in Washington D.C., and in search of connections and opportunities exclusive to women – Ileah Green teamed up with co-founding members Alison Foley-Rothrock, Jessica Rios, Sunny Balliette, and Stephanie Gregg to form the Lakeland Women’s Collective – a space for women to be free. Free from harassment, free from discrimination, free to create, free to start a business, free to be women.
Ileah Green grew up in Lakeland and moved away for college, settling in Washington D.C. in the ten years before moving home. In D.C., Green took notice of women-only spaces popping up around the city like that of Femme Fatale DC. “It was about empowering women to be themselves and to celebrate their uniqueness, and also to grow female relationships,” said Green. When she relocated to Lakeland, Green sought out opportunities to support women in freelancing, creative, artistic, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Her first thought was to check out the women’s business center. The only trouble was finding one. Six months of asking just about everyone she knew where she could find one, it became clear that it simply didn’t exist in Lakeland.
Where was the place exclusively investing in women entrepreneurs? Where was the money for women-owned businesses? Where could women come together to connect and share in their badassery?
“I started the Women’s Collective out of looking for connections – around business, around being a mom, around being a woman,” said Green.
The Beginning of LWC
Green met Sunny Balliette at a LKLD Creative Makers meeting. The two shared their frustrations with and vision for the state of women in Lakeland. The two began meeting to brainstorm ways to create opportunities for women locally.
In efforts to bring together interesting, powerful women in the community, they began holding women’s meetings or “focus groups” as Green called them. She looked at these focus groups as a way to gauge whether other women felt similarly about the plights of women in Lakeland and lack of opportunity for them here. She wasn’t alone.
Balliette, a creative entrepreneur herself, started the VOLUME Art Collective and began organizing classes at ART/ifact. These classes caught the attention of artist, Jessica Rios. The two connected and Balliette invited Rios to the women’s group meeting.
Green met attorney and founder of the Red Tent Initiative, Alison Foley-Rothrock in the summer of 2018 after someone suggested she reach out to the anti-domestic violence organization if she was looking for an impactful way to support women. After meeting Foley-Rothrock, Green started working with her as an advisory board member for Red Tent and as an assistant at Foley-Rothrock’s law firm.
Their first event as a collective, a joint effort with the Red Tent Initiative, was a presentation of data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research called “The Status of Women.” The response to the event was exceedingly positive and the founding members began to think about, “how do we make Lakeland and Polk County a safer and more equitable, more even playing field for women and people of color,” said Green.
The growth has continued, as have the events. The second was a Women’s March Meetup at the Poor Porker, and they’ve continued hosting events for activism, art, entrepreneurship, and female-empowerment.
The LWC wanted to get the message across loud and clear to women that they are important, deserve to be treated with respect, and have a job that pays well and doesn’t expose them to harassment. “You have options, but it’s easy to feel like there are no options if you’re in a community that is stifling,” said Green. “I think in a lot of ways, Lakeland can be stifling to women and people of color.”
The collective wanted to seek out a co-working environment that was a safe space in which women, femme-identifying, and non-binary artists, makers, and entrepreneurs could exist and work free of harassment and discrimination.
After a few potential locations fell through, the group found the Lemon Street space just outside of downtown that would become the Lakeland Women’s Collective. The co-working space is home to brilliant and creative women from lawyers, nail artists, writers, artists and more.
Lakeland Women’s Collective is an inclusive, pro-equality, pro-equity, non-denominational, non-partisan, pro-woman, and pro-human rights space. “We want social, economic, and political equality for everybody,” said Jessica Rios. “Glass ceilings are a real thing – and we want to shatter those. […] Anything that is holding women back, we want to get rid of.”
Rios said, “Somehow women end up here and we heal each other.” In addition to the healing she has received and given to her sisters at the LWC, Rios finds it inspirational to be surrounded by women doing what they want to do. “Women are coming here and making their dreams come true,” she said.
“I love that we can come here and engage in a powerful way and become powerful in business without participating in the toxic masculinity and environments that we find in other workspaces,” said Foley-Rothrock. “We’ve created our own space for each other, for ourselves. This is a safe space where we can be ourselves, but also be doing powerful things and making decisions and making impacts around us – without compromise.”
Without compromise is right. Everything they’ve done as a collective has been engineered to give women opportunities without compromising other areas of their life – like motherhood. The LWC’s position is that motherhood and business are not mutually exclusive. A woman can be both an attentive, caring mother and powerful, successful entrepreneur. They even provide a kid’s room at their co-working space. Members are welcome and encouraged to bring their children.
Foley-Rothrock said, “That’s one of those systemic things that seems to still be ingrained here in Lakeland and in more conservative communities around the country – that you have to choose either being a mother or being a business owner and a powerful business person.”
“How do you make the transition between being a stay at home mother and wanting to work on becoming an entrepreneur? The gap from one to the other where you’re making enough money to leave your child in childcare or make other arrangements is a pretty big leap,” said Foley-Rothrock. “That not being recognized and not acknowledged is part of the whole patriarchal system where it’s clear that men, and people who have wealth, and people who have traditional family structures are still very much in charge of making those decisions.”
Green said that her goal for the LWC is to ensure that women understand resources are available to them and that, “there are very smart women in this town, who want women to be successful.”
“That’s my goal, is to remove as many barriers as possible to women supporting themselves, making names for themselves, having their own businesses, being artists, having their own creative business,” said Green.
Some of the many resources the collective provides to women through education. Women like Sylvia Blackmon-Roberts, president and CEO of a management consulting firm out of Lakeland and Financial Professional, Tari Kezele, invest their time with LWC to help women become more informed in matters of business and finance.
“I want women to be as armed in terms of information as possible,” said Green. She encourages women in the community to feel empowered to do anything, saying, “Come here, let’s talk about it. We can brainstorm ways to get you moving and if you need connections to people to figure out how to get it going, we’ll find them. And if we don’t know them, we’ll ask somebody who may.”
Green said she believes that some in positions of wealth and power in the city have an ingrained idea of scarcity. “They believe that there is not enough. There’s not enough to go around, you can only have one important place, you can only put your money in one place, you can only invest in one organization. Only one, only one, only one. That’s bullshit,” she said. “There is enough. There is enough money, there is enough investment, there is enough opportunity.”
Foley-Rothrock agreed with Green, adding, “It creates the ‘us versus them’ and we’re refusing to buy into the idea that in order to lift myself up, in order to get ahead, I have to step on somebody else. No, we can work together, and we can make it happen for ourselves and each other.”
The Christian community has a strong presence in Lakeland. The women expressed that they are not at all anti-church and respect the religious beliefs or lack thereof of other people but don’t think women should have to subscribe to a certain church or religion to receive resources like affordable housing and childcare. Foley-Rothrock expressed the importance of building connections and community beyond those traditional power structures, saying, “Resources like affordable childcare and housing – all of those are also concentrated in the Christian community. Ninety percent of the resources for low-income individuals and homeless individuals and survivors are all attached to religious services – ninety percent,” she said.
The community has reacted in a big way to the LWC. Rios expressed that from the overwhelming response of a 350 people turnout to “Pink Moon,” their all-female artist showcase at ART/ifact, to petition signings, and the grand opening of their space – many have shown support or at least taken notice of their movement. She smiled, held up her Rosie the Riveter mug and said, “We can do it!”
In addition to arming women with information, the collective believes it is important to level the playing field.
“We are pro-equality and we are pro-equity,” said Green. She explained it through a graphic she’d recently seen. In the graphic, three people of differing heights stand at a fence, unable to see over it. Equality, she explained, is giving them all the same size box to stand on – though they still won’t all be able to see. “Equity is when you give them the appropriate-size box so they can all see over the fence,” said Green.
A large part of making Lakeland a more equitable community is an increased minimum wage say the LWC founding members. “We think that minimum wage should be a living wage,” said Green. At the barebones minimum, they believe it should be $15 an hour, but Green says she would like to see it closer to $20. The collective urges people to call the person who represents them on the city commission about the importance of raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. Foley-Rothrock suggested constituents vet candidates running for office about their stance on minimum wage and vote accordingly.
An act of empowerment is also, simply listening to one another. “There are a lot of women here who have experienced trauma in their lives and they need someone who will listen to them, who is not going to have a response,” said Green. “Just listen, tell them that they’re awesome and that you’re sad for them that they’re struggling, but that you want the best for them and that you want to help as much as you can, and then shut up and listen.”
Women can empower themselves and each other by spending time together, being resources for each other, and brainstorming together said, Jessica Rios. “We’re all doing such different things, and everyone has something different to offer.”
Support Women Supporting Women
All women, femme-identifying, and non-binary folks across the county and beyond are welcome to join the Lakeland Women’s Collective. The LWC board members said many of their events are open to everyone and that they are appreciative of their male allies. Check out their website for a full list of paid membership options. “One of the major perks, other than the space, of being a paid member of the Women’s Collective is that we have partnered with a bunch of women-owned businesses locally that offer our members discounts,” said Green.
Find events like dance parties, art shows, workshops, candidate forums, and a monthly happy hour at Revival, as well as other classes and resources on their website where you can also donate to their registry.
For its founders and members, the Lakeland Women’s Collective has become a space to feel safe, supported, and empowered. Do you hear that, Polk County? That’s the sound of glass shattering.
Lakeland Women’s Collective
818 E Lemon St, Lakeland (By appointment only)