Interview: Diane Cornman-Levy on WURD Radio
On September 20, 2022, WOMEN’S WAY Chief Disruptor, Diane Cornman-Levy, sat down with Kala J., co-host of CrossWURDz program on WURD Radio, to discuss the WOMEN’S WAY Inaugural Gender Wealth Summit as well as a preview of what’s to come for the Change the Narrative Fellowship Program. This interview has been slightly edited. Listen to the original interview here.
KALA J., CO-HOST, CROSSWURDZ: Welcome back to CrossWURDz everybody. I’m Kala J. alongside my co-host, Miss Danaé, and I’m super excited to have the Chief Disruptor, Miss Diane Cornman-Levy, here with us right here on CrossWURDz. Good evening. How are you doing today?
DIANE CORNMAN-LEVY, CHIEF DISRUPTOR, WOMEN’S WAY: I’m doing great. Thank you so much, Kala. How are you?
KALA: I’m doing good. I’m doing real good. Before we dive deep into our conversation, I like to do wellness checks with people because we’re living in a time where wealth is health. So on a scale from 1 to 10, how are you feeling?
DIANE: I am probably at about a 10. And I’m grateful for that. I’m not always there, but today I’m feeling very well and hopeful.
KALA: Well that’s good. I’m happy that you’re at a 10. I love to hear when people say they are at a 10. It makes me feel good and makes my numbers go up, especially if I’m not at a 10 like they are, so I appreciate you sharing that light with us today.
I introduced her as the Chief Disruptor and she said that’s what that title was. Before we even talk about WOMEN’S WAY, I want you to share a little bit about what that job title means and what that looks like.
DIANE: Well, I was previously called the Executive Director and then people were like, “No, you should be CEO.” First of all, I don’t really want to be a title from corporate America. That actually creates many of the problems that we are addressing. WOMEN’S WAY is all about gender and racial justice, and if we really care about equity and justice, we have to disrupt systems. We have to disrupt the way we think about things. We have to disrupt and change narratives. So I thought, you know, that’s my job. I need to disrupt it in myself, and I need to challenge other to disrupt things that are grounded in systems of oppression and exploitation. That’s why I changed my title this year to Chief Disruptor.
KALA: Listen, I’m here for the Chief Disruptor. Maybe you’ll start a trend in corporate America, because I think that’s amazing. I really do. For people that are just meeting you and for the first time hearing about your amazing organization, WOMEN’S WAY, share with us just a little bit about what you all do and who you are.
DIANE: WOMEN’S WAY actually started in the late 70s to address the inequities that many women were facing. A lot [of their work] was around reproductive justice, which is interesting that we’re circling back today to that issue. [WOMEN’S WAY] was founded by a group of women led, women serving organizations that said, “We can have more power if we come together.” They wanted to have a collective voice to build collective power and more influence. We’ve been around, unfortunately, for 45 years now, trying to create a region where all women and all those who identify as women can really thrive and live with joy.
We address four critical areas around that. We address gender based violence and hope to really decrease that; reproductive health and justice; economic security and justice; and leadership development of women and girls. And we do that in many different ways. We provide grants to organizations that are addressing those issues that are working to impact the lives of women and girls, and, I’ll talk more about this later, but we do a lot of convening and bringing people together who are committed to gender equity and justice. We’re a gender justice organization and we work with over 100 partners, from all walks of life, to create real, long lasting change.
KALA: That’s simply amazing. I know that it’s kind of bad, but not bad at the same time, that you all have been around for 40+ years. But the work that you’re doing, it has come so far from like reproductive justice work, even though you know, like you said, we’re circling back to it. I still think it’s amazing that there are organizations like yours, WOMEN’S WAY, where people can congregate and figure out what will be the best for them and rally together so change can be had. I think you all are just changemakers.
DIANE: We try. And we’ve got to do it together because that’s how you build real power, right? It’s building solidarity across all women and men alike. We all need allies to do this work, so we work on that.
KALA: Yeah, for sure. Like you said earlier, you all just had an amazing Summit. Share with us a little bit about the past week.
DIANE: We just held our first Gender Wealth Summit. This falls under something called the Gender Wealth Institute that we launched in 2021, whose purpose is to really close the gender wealth gap, particularly at the intersection of gender and race in the Greater Philadelphia region by advancing research and practical solutions that build wealth for women who are economically insecure.
We’re very passionate about using wealth, because it’s not enough, as we know. There are many women that have jobs and are economically insecure, but we want to build wealth, and also redefine wealth. Wealth is not just having assets like financial assets, which is really important, but wealth is also living with joy…having choices, making sure you live in safe environments for yourself and your children, [the option to] pass down wealth to the next generation, and living, like you said, with freedom and dignity. And so [when we talk about] wealth, beyond the capitalistic form, which is just assets minus debt…we’re talking about living lives with joy and purpose.
So we had our first Gender Wealth Summit on Friday, which we’re very excited about. The goals were to really create honest and bold conversations between people from diverse experiences, diverse lives, and who are all committed to really reducing the gender wealth gap in our region. We wanted to generate an understanding of the drivers of the gender wealth gap, and action steps people can take to close the gap. We also wanted to celebrate women and really build meaningful connections between the summit participants. I want to be clear that when we talk about the drivers in the gender wealth gap, what we want to get at are the root drivers, the root cause of the gender wealth gap in our region.
The summit brought all these folks together. What was really important was we centered the lives of those most impacted by these injustices, and those are women of color. We centered their voices and their experiences because we feel that’s critical to dismantling systems based on white supremacy. Centering the experiences of Black women was critical to the summit.
KALA: What made you all decide to do a Gender Wealth Summit, as you said, this was your first one. What was like the brain baby behind this?
DIANE: I think as we worked on these issues, that a lot of people, well, there’s a lot of things people don’t know. One, the real history of this country, particularly white folks, right? And if we don’t know the real history of how wealth was built in this country…how do we really address the root causes of wealth inequities if we don’t know how it was built to begin with? We learned a lot through listening, and through centering the voices and experiences of those most impacted by injustices at the table. They’ve been at the table talking, co-creating strategies, and we’re learning together.
I think we all said you know, more folks need to be in these conversations. More folks need to learn about how wealth and power was built in this country. What is the root cause of these inequities? And how do we begin to come together to address the root causes, and really build up a region where we all thrive, and we all feel valued, and we all feel respected? So we said, well, let’s do this. Let’s bring people together and create a space where people feel safe that they can have these open and honest conversations.
KALA: For those of us who could not be at the summit, what was one of the biggest workshops or biggest takeaways?
DIANE: Oftentimes, when we think about keynote speakers, we think of people like heads of big organizations, people with PhDs…which is great, but we wanted to center the voices of women that have experienced economic injustices to be our keynote speakers.
We have a Change the Narrative Fellowship program, where we help women with lived experiences of economic hardship tell their stories in ways that affect change, not just for themselves, but for other people. Six fellows that completed our fellowship program were our keynote speakers [at the summit]. And they shared their stories. They shared their experiences as women who have been really marginalized by systems of exploitation.
I think hearing real stories and experiences of these women had a huge impact on the participants. How often do people really listen to women that are most marginalized in our region? We had funders there, philanthropy…we had heads of businesses, for profit companies… we had people from wealth management, financial advisors, government, and they said: “You know what, we’re so segregated, which is all part of the problem.” They rarely listen to the people that are most impacted by injustices, and they said that what was the most powerful part of the day was hearing [The Change the Narrative Fellows’] stories.
KALA: That’s amazing. I can imagine how powerful that is because, like you say, when you think of a keynote speaker, you think of some really big name, but to just hear testimonies and hear stories from folks who are going through what you have to do or what you’re going through, I can only imagine how empowering and how empowered people left.
DIANE: We also had some students, high school students, there which was also great. We had this intergenerational group, and a lot of them felt inspired, “Like I have to share my story. I need to speak up, I need to find my voice and share my voice.” I think a lot of people felt inspired by hearing these women’s stories, the boldness in telling their stories, and also how it transformed them. In terms of, “You know what? I have a lot to say, I have a voice, and people need to hear it.”
So what we did was we created a space where there was no hierarchy of “I’m more important than you.” There were no titles, right? No one knew if you were a head of a company or a head of a foundation…It was just your name, what you wanted to learn, and what you wanted to teach. We wanted to create equity within the Summit itself which created a safer place for people to engage in these conversations across class, race, education… all those things. I think people also took away: “We have to continue to have these open and honest conversations.” It’s really critical.
KALA: It is very important and this is a very crucial time because it does seem like women’s rights are always at the chopping block, especially our days at the voting booth. Our time is quickly coming to an end. Did you want to say something about [voting]?
DIANE: It’s so sad because there’s no real solidarity across women. I think that’s part of the whole white supremacist system. We divide ourselves from each other. We’re talking about building real solidarity which leads to transformational change, and it only happens by bringing people together in a trusted safe environment where you can have open and honest conversations with each other.
KALA: Exactly. You mentioned having fellows and you mentioned partners. To our listeners, explain a little bit about the difference between both and how people can become a fellow or maybe they want to partner or maybe know somebody who can become a partner…share how folks can do that.
DIANE: Partners or anyone that wants to work with us on these issues — it could be a nonprofit organization, someone from a for-profit business, government, it could be an individual — you can visit our website at womensway.org. For Change the Narrative Fellows — you actually apply. It’s a seven month training program for women who have experienced economic hardship. You go through an amazing training program with other women in similar situations.
We are doing [the Change the Narrative Fellowship] again in January, but we’re doing it in partnership with the Community College of Philadelphia, so we’re going to be working with some of the students there. But we plan to do this every year and we usually do eblasts about it. So people, if they want to apply [in the future], they can. It’s only 10 women per fellowship per year. It’s an intense process. But what we’ve experienced has been transformational for the women who have participated in it.
KALA: That’s amazing. Where do they apply to become a fellow? On your website as well?
DIANE: No, we usually send out specific notices about that, but this next cycle is going to be exclusive to students at Community College of Philadelphia. They’re partnering with us and that’s going to happen from January through July of 2023. We’re hoping to be able to do [the Fellowship] twice a year, but we’ll keep you posted. If you go to our website and go to Gender Wealth Institute section, there’s a whole section on the fellowship program. Right now, it’s not open to the general public, because we’re doing it with Community College of Philadelphia, but you can always get information at womensway.org.
KALA: One last question: What is your hope for the Gender Wealth Institute? Where do you see it in the next two, three years?
DIANE: Our goal is that over five years, 50,000 women in the region will experience economic security. This will be through building the capacity of multiple partners to address the root causes of this and that’s our dream. That’s our hope. It’s only going to happen by working together in solidarity with all of our partners. I invite other people to join us if you’re interested in this. It’s a great community, a very diverse community, and one that’s really committed to making real long, lasting change.
KALA: Awesome, awesome. So one more time, let folks know how they can follow you and all the work that WOMEN’S WAY is doing.
DIANE: It’s probably easiest to go to our website: womensway.org. We have all kinds of information about our programs and our grant making programs. If you’re looking for a grant, we also prioritize organizations led by women of color.
KALA: Oh, awesome. That’s Diane Cornman-Levy from WOMEN’S WAY, the Chief Disruptor. We appreciate you taking time to join us here on CrossWURDz tonight.
DIANE: Thank you Kala, it was such a joy talking with you. I appreciate the opportunity.