Just two weeks after the most divisive presidential election in American history, many people are concerned that their interests and welfare will be ignored, or worse, targeted, by the incoming administration. The Women’s Initiative, which has provided mental health services to underserved populations for almost 10 years, wants people to know that they are here and ready to help. And, at a perfect moment in history to think about how we respond to challenging circumstances, the organization’s Challenge Into Change writing contest is open until December 15.
Therapist and community programs director Eboni Bugg says, “If anything, the election has taught us we can be neighbors and not know each others’ stories. Challenge Into Change is an opportunity to recognize the common threads that unite us as well as the differences that challenge us to figure out ways to bridge the gaps between us.”
Elizabeth Irvin, who has been the executive director of The Women’s Initiative since 2013, says, she’s “served over 3,000 women so far in 2016. Challenge Into Change is a way to heal through storytelling and share hope that people can overcome challenging life circumstances.” While not everyone who submits to the contest is a client of The Women’s Initiative, Irvin says, “All of the people writing about women who overcome obstacles are writing about healing through adversity, which is a fundamental belief of The Women’s Initiative. In light of our current world when some people are feeling less secure and less hopeful, this offers the opportunity to come together and heal together.”
This writing contest holds several distinctions especially resonant at this moment in time. Entries do not have to be in English and can be either poetry or prose. Judges will focus on the story being told, rather than on grammar and spelling. All entries will be published in a book, as they have been every year since 2012, and each writer will receive a copy.
Bugg says, “We don’t measure one person’s experience against another.” It’s not about who has experienced the most trauma or who has endured the longest, she explains. “That’s one of the reasons that all stories get published,” she says.
They are in the process of finalizing the judges panel, which is made up of members of the community who represent their client population, individuals associated with The Women’s Initiative and experts in the field of writing. As Bugg explains, judges are instructed to read for “emotional resonance, a movement from challenge to change and whether the story might be a beacon to other people.” Amanda Korman, communications and outreach coordinator, says, “By writing your story you are giving as much light and hope and inspiration to others as you are getting by putting your own words on that page. We’re always giving and receiving at the same time. That is so much what this agency is about.”
Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on March 22 as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book. “It’s our most anticipated event of the year,” Bugg says. And the fact that it is public allows them “to celebrate out in the open what is really transformative in the office. …It’s an opportunity to celebrate participants, legitimize the contest and provide a larger public forum. It sends the message that issues related to storytelling and therapy and mental health are not to be relegated to far corners. They give voices to many things considered taboo.”
Some of these subjects include sexual assault, domestic violence, divorce, illness, the experience of being a refugee or immigrant and the loss of a loved one. And while Bugg says The Women’s Initiative would like to reach as many people as possible, “If we only had one volume of Challenge Into Change, or only one person submitted, it would be worth it to us. We’re providing a platform and safe place for people to share their innermost secrets, something that we hold sacred.”
Korman says there is a Maya Angelou quote they touch on again and again: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Bugg adds, “That is the rallying cry of Challenge Into Change.”
Martha Trujillo, who entered the contest in 2011, says that writing her story made her “happy that I was able to communicate something that changed my life.” She wrote about immigrating from Mexico and learning to navigate the health system with English as her second language when her daughter became sick. “It was important for me to tell everyone you can do things if you want,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much you know. Be proactive and find resources.” For those afraid to enter the contest, she says to ask yourself, “What was important to you, how did it help define who you are and what you want in life?”
And for those experiencing anxiety over the potential loss of much-needed services, Korman and Irvin emphasize that The Women’s Initiative is standing strong, and they credit stability to local donors. Irvin says, “We’re here and we’re committed to serving women now and in the future. We are only able to do that because of local support from individual people who recognize the importance of the services provided, such as safety, healing and access to mental health treatment.”