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The Birth of EcoWomen

The Beginning Of Something New

Written By EcoWomen Founders Leda Huta & Alicia Wittink

We met at Pizzeria Paradiso at Dupont Circle for lunch. That is where we decided to give it a shot. We would create a network of women who work in the conservation movement in Washington, D.C. Looking beyond that seemed too ambitious.

What did we want from these meetings of women who work in conservation?

Well, we knew from our own experiences that it could take years to build up a network. We wanted to see how we could fast-forward that for women. We knew that one of the best parts of a conference, is the “after-hours” sessions in the bar, where real connections are made. How could we recreate that? We knew that women faced different challenges than men and that women who came before us had unbelievable stories to tell. How could we impart the knowledge of veterans of the conservation movement?

We thought the best way to move forward would be a monthly happy hour with an amazing woman guest-speaker at each one. They’d share their inspirational stories. We could all soak it in and meet each other. One prime distinction was that we wanted to hear about both the professional experience, and also the personal. It’s different for women balancing work, families, children, and glass ceilings.

We talked to the DC activist and restaurateur, Andy Shallal and arranged to have our first event at one of his restaurants. We invited Alisa Gravitz the Executive Director of Co-op America, now called Green America to be our speaker. We were interested in her not only because she was a leader of a conservation organization, but also, because she had implemented family-friendly policies in her organization—like the four-day workweek. She said, “Yes!”

We sent out emails to our female friends in the conservation movement who lived in Washington, D.C. And we asked them to forward the email on to other women.

It all seemed risky at the time. How many people could we really reach? What if nobody showed up?

We didn’t know what to expect. What if we failed!

We had heard the stories of other such groups that hadn’t made it. We were warned that we might fail. But we didn’t have much to lose—perhaps a small ding to our pride. That certainly seemed worth the risk.

We were relieved to see 20-30 women at our first meeting. Alisa was a great speaker and had big visions about where this group could go. She said we could have chapters and an annual national conference. We would be unstoppable! That seemed a bit of a stretch for us after our first event, but nonetheless, it planted many seeds that many women have worked to fertilize over the years.

In the first few meetings, women were a little shy, a little hesitant about asking questions. But then, something magical happened. Women started asking questions—lots of questions. And they never looked back. Even though every month there is a different mix of people, somehow the feeling of EcoWomen meetings being a safe space became a permanent part of each meeting.

So…we didn’t fail. Our smartest decision, perhaps, was that we didn’t make EcoWomen personality-driven. It wouldn’t be identified as “ours.” It belonged to all the women who work in the movement.

Sitting at Pizzeria Paradiso, neither one of us would have ever imagined that the DC EcoWomen list would reach more than 3,000 women or that chapters would sprout up all over the country. We would never have thought that we’d have speakers who had experienced conservation, women, and democracy movements.

Our speakers have been amazing. We had one of the first female national park rangers—who remembered working in heels and a skirt in the national parks. We had one of the first grassroots leaders of the toxics movement born of the Love Canal debacle. We had the Environment Minister of the Iraqi Transitional Government. And we had women who went on to hold incredibly powerful positions—becoming a Member of Congress, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and more. One of the best things though, is when we have our own EcoWomen, return as speakers… about full circle!

It has been heartening to watch EcoWomen grow over the past ten years. We can’t wait to see what happens next…

One Of The First EcoHours, With Nora Pouillon


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