We're excited to let you know that Paradigm Shift NYC recently featured an interview with TWM Founder Kristina Leonardi on their blog where she talked to writer Kristen Verge about women’s empowerment, creating a nonprofit and the experience of being a career/life coach. Below is Part One of that interview, click here for the entire piece on Paradigm Shift and Part Two on CHICKS ROCK!+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
I really wanted to use all of my talents, skills, abilities, and passions in one place and combine my interest in intercultural understanding, women’s empowerment, and personal growth. But I couldn’t find it out there, so I created it. All the programs contain one or more components of those aspects…TWM was a way to share my knowledge of different cultures and express myself in a variety of ways, which has inspired and educated other women in the process. This is what I try to explain in my speaking and coaching–if everyone just shared who they are, other folks will automatically benefit!
Can you tell us about some of the earliest programs that TWM offered?
Initially, The Women’s Mosaic was about having ethnic dinners with guest speakers and highlighting a women’s issue in that particular culture. The goal was to have women learn in an informal, but structured way. Instead of having to go to a lecture in some big auditorium, we were having an intimate authentic experience in a relaxed environment, with food being one of the main attractions – something that everyone can automatically connect and relate to!
How has The Women’s Mosaic® evolved since its inception?
TWM grew from small ethnic dinners to include more comprehensive panel discussions, film screenings and workshops. For instance, we hosted a discussion with women from all branches of the military in “My Life as a Female Soldier in Iraq.” Other examples of panels were “Girls, Gods & Goddesses: Women’s Relationship to Religion & Spirituality,” “Politics Schmolitics” (where it was very hard to find a Republican woman in NYC!), and “Health & Nutrition: Perspectives from Around the World,” all of which brought together diverse voices to educate attendees about the topic from a variety of viewpoints and experiences. It’s always about bringing a human face and stories to a variety of issues so that we can all learn from, connect to and be inspired by one another. You can see a list of all past events on our website. We’ve been in transition the past two years and are evolving yet again, so stay tuned for what’s next…
What was your favorite TWM program?
In 2002, just a year after 9/11, we did a program called “My Life as a Muslim Woman.” We had nine ethnically diverse, mostly American, Muslim women represented. They were phenomenal. You have to remember the ignorance of your average American at that time—most knew very little or nothing about Islam except for the most extreme fundamentalist version of it, so the intent was to dispel the prejudice and myths that existed (and unfortunately, still do in many respects). Even just walking into that room, a lot of people arrived thinking they were going to see all of these submissive, weak women covered from head to toe— but only three of the nine women were covered—in varying degrees—and they could not have been more accomplished and articulate about their identity and understanding of their faith. They absolutely shattered so many stereotypes and misconceptions that were particularly pervasive at that time.
The most surprising thing, though, was that we had about fifty people there—half the attendees were non-Muslim, and the other half were Muslim. Because there is so much diversity within the religion itself, they had never really come together like this. It was fascinating and significant to help unite that community at such a pivotal time. To me, I think that was the far greater benefit: that the Muslim women got to talk to and connect with each other and share their individual and collective experiences. In my life, it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.
What is the role of The Women’s Mosaic® in the feminist movement?
The funny thing is that I never considered myself a feminist per se—this organization was completely born out of my own desire to be who I am and empower myself, to educate women about different cultures and balance out all the testosterone that had run amok in the world. We’re at a tipping point now that acknowledges the fact that the empowerment of women and girls leads to a better life for everyone, but twelve years ago, no one was talking about that so directly. At the time we started most women’s organizations were profession-specific and issue-specific; there was nothing out there that was just for women to continue to develop themselves on a personal level. The women that we appealed to are the majority, regular working woman who is still looking to learn and grow and be exposed to unique ideas and people. The Women’s Mosaic provided a very palatable way for women to continue to expand their horizons and interact with women they might not have the chance to otherwise.
Have you encountered any negativity or difficulties along the way?
Well, not really negativity but more that it has been a challenge sustaining and funding the organization through foundations, partly because we’re offering something so intangible. How do you quantify changing someone’s perception about Muslim women? We didn’t easily fit into any traditional funding category because, for instance, we weren’t serving women with survival needs—yet these ‘average’ women are the ones who could actually have the best chance to make change in their lives and the lives of those around them. A lot of the women who went to events got involved in the issues we talk about…but to quantify and measure inspiration, motivation, dispelling of prejudice, identity and personal growth… it’s something invaluable that wasn’t as recognized in that sense. The good news is that there are other sources to tap into, and in recent years new funders are starting to support more transformational programs like ours.
How did you find out about and become involved with Paradigm Shift NYC?
I met Lisa [the Co-Founder of Paradigm Shift NYC] at a presentation about website design and she introduced me to Meredith. I dig Meredith. I’m really impressed with what she does with her programming and outreach. She’s really collaborative, which is great.
Click here for the entire interview on Paradigm Shift's blog.