At the seventh annual East Bay Women’s Conference, Gloria Steinem and Alice Waters made 560 attendees forget about an early morning earthquake, an all-too familiar scramble for parking and all barriers to empowerment.
“I had to pay $15 for valet parking, but this is worth it!” one determined woman exclaimed, as she took her seat in the San Ramon Marriott’s packed ballroom. The event was presented by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau and Chevron.
Event Emcee Jan Wahl delighted the crowd throughout the day with her spirited—and once, tearful—enthusiasm.
After a rousing introduction by The Meher School Children’s Chorus and Ann Tardy’s (LifeMoxie) make-a-difference, dent-the-planet, help-other-people-matter message gleaned from a cross-country bike trek, author and feminist activist Steinem appeared on the stage like delicious, dignified and demanding icing on a proverbial cake.
“I’m hoping that today, because we have been given this gift—a gathering that will never happen again in the same way—that perhaps each of us might leave here with some new idea, new feeling of support, or some new, outrageous or subversive organizing tactic,” she said, causing applause and laughter.
Stating that the fight for civil, gay and women’s rights had resulted in people coming together to share core values, she suggested hanging on to the childhood response, “It’s not fair!”
“If we can preserve that, we will be in the middle of a social movement,” she claimed.
Voicing expectedly powerful opinions about reproductive freedom, Steinem insisted that whether or not to have children is the decision that unifies everything else. Violence, she believes, against people of both genders, has everything to do with one group dominating another.
“You can exactly predict the violence in a culture by the violence in a home, or the families of that culture,” she said, linking racism, which restricts and exploits women and men, to environmental, social, economic and class concerns.
Questions from the audience addressed portrayals of women in film, television and the print media. Steinem first advocated listening as a solution: to people in other countries, to young women and girls, and to men who refuse to support organizations and efforts that jeopardize women’s rights. Later, she called anger an “energy cell” and said, “I don’t want them [present and future generations] to be grateful — I want them to be mad and go on!”
Walnut Creek Council member Cindy Silva, speaking moments before the conclusion of breakout sessions on resiliency, social media and mentoring, said having two top-tier speakers meant the conference sold out six weeks ago.
“We boldly said, ‘Let’s get Gloria Steinem,’” she boasted, adding a rhetorical, “Then, having Waters too—?
The Chez Panisse proprietor and creator of The Edible Schoolyard appeared awed as she took her place behind the podium.
“I’m really honored to be here because Gloria Steinem was here. It’s an amazing thing to be on the stage where she just was,” she gasped.
With that, she blazed an impassioned trail with a biographical slide show and her description of an edible education curriculum she said would rebuild the public school system.
“It’s a multifaceted set of lessons centered around growing, cooking and eating food. School gardens and cafeterias are only a part of it. It’s a more holistic thing encompassing values. It’s not just a new age kind of Home Ec!” she exclaimed.
Deeply influenced by encountering food and a way of eating she called “present” during travel in Europe, Waters remembered “swimming in these ideas way before I started cooking.”
The beauty of everyday simplicity and taste have guided her thinking. Teaching in a Montessori school has anchored her belief in active learning and practical life lessons. Collaborative partnerships between farmers and schools, she proposed, could become the engine that support a recovering economy.
“It’s really not anything new,” she admitted, “the ideas we are using have been around since the beginning of civilization.”
The larger vision, arguably the most ambitious of the day, was Waters’ desire to have edible education programs feed every school child a free, wholesome breakfast and lunch.
Answering an audience objection that “free” would mean higher taxes, Waters said, “We either pay up front, or we pay out back, through higher health care costs and polluted waterways.”
Inviting all 560 people at the conference to come visit the Berkeley school where her Edible Schoolyard program is operating (“Come on different days, please!” she joked), she said Californians should talk to their governor and push for change.
“We’re on the cliff and I hope we can build a chain of pearls here,” she said.
Due to this year’s early and complete sell-out, conference organizers suggest people send their contact information to the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce to receive advance notice of next year's East Bay Women's Conference, Monday, March 4, 2013. Contact: Chamber@walnut-creek.com.