I recently had an opportunity to “return home” to my birth state of South Dakota during my birthday month of January (think polar vortex). I was there for a mixture of business in Sioux Falls, and the pleasure of visiting the few close family and friends I have left in the state. Almost all of the people I grew up with moved away from Brookings, the town where I grew up and home to South Dakota State University- go Jackrabbits! I moved when I was 16 and graduated from high school in the Seattle area, so I’m not even considered an alum of my old high school. But as they say, you can take the girl out of the Plains, but you can’t take the Plains out of the girl.
Brookings was a wonderful place to grow up during the 70’s and 80’s, surrounded by my mom’s extended family, including my grandparents who lived 12 blocks away. I learned important lessons about myself and life set against the backdrop of a small college town on the windy Great Plains.
One of the things I learned is the strong influence environment has on the local culture of the people who live in the place. Eastern South Dakota has harsh winters- they are no joke- and the Native peoples who first lived on the land, and the European settlers who displaced them- learned fast the only way to survive a Great Plains winter was to cooperate and take care of each other. I was in the state to meet with a state agency about their innovative strategies for providing services to their constituents, who happen to be inmates and formerly incarcerated individuals. I asked the state manager what driving force (leadership, legislation, etc.) caused these innovations to happen, and his response was, “There wasn’t. It just seemed like the right thing to do.” It is that can-do spirit of people pulling together to care for other members of the community, regardless of differences in political views, that I remember so fondly about my childhood in South Dakota, and it’s that value that I have taken into my work in public service.
In second grade I received my first lesson in gender politics at the Hillcrest Park ice-skating rink. I lived within walking distance of my elementary school and the rink. Once I was old enough, I would bring my skates to school and after dismissal I would go to the rink to practice for an hour by myself. (At the time I was dreaming of being the first Olympic gold figure skater from my home town- ahem.) It was also where the neighborhood boys would gather after school to play pick-up hockey games.
Not many days into my first winter of “intense” training, the boys singled me out and created a new game of, “first one to high-stick the chubby girl practicing her jumps wins.” (If you are not familiar with the practice of high-sticking in hockey, please see the World Wide Web for many video clip examples.) The pack of boys would skate at me at full speed, hollering and waving their sticks. At first, I tried to flee, feeling more like an Olympic speed skater than a figure skater. I usually ended up head first in a snow bank. I understood by this time that boys chased girls, especially when they were in groups, because they were both fascinated and afraid of us, even though they did a convincing job of passing themselves off as mean bullies.
One day after shaking the snow out of my hood, I decided I was done running, and I stood up to them. I told those boys to knock it off, that I had as much of a right to use the ice as they did, and that most importantly they were wasting precious daylight chasing me around. I proposed a truce that involved designating a larger section of the rink for hockey only, and a smaller section for practicing jumps. They, in turn, suggested I join their game instead. After some intense negotiations in which I was very much outnumbered, I set aside my dreams of being a figure skater and started working on my flirtiest slap shot. It was the first time I was confronted with the reality women of my generation have swallowed to claim our place in the history of gender equality- if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Women were still a minority in most professions outside of teaching and nursing when I was a girl. In many industries, it was common to be the only woman in a non-traditional workplace. As a small business owner and consultant, it is still common for me today to be the only female business traveler on the rental car shuttle bus at the airport. We have been compelled to join the male-dominated cultures in our workplaces because of majority rule. So, when I heard the President, during his State of the Union Address, quote the statistic that women filled 68% of the new jobs created in 2018, and I saw the largest group of Congresswomen in American history stand up and cheer, the significance really struck me. Now, more so than any other time in modern history, women have an exciting opportunity to claim our place on the rink and influence workplace culture and policies so we can pursue our dreams, too. Let’s make the most of it!