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“How do we lift up the benefit that women provide in our state?” – Jen Simon

Jen Simon is the founder of the Wyoming Women’s Community Action Network and she works with women around the state to increase access to health care, representation, visibility, and the economic security of women in the Equality State.

After traveling a lot in her youth and after earning her Master’s Degree in Divinity from Vanderbilt, she then accepted a role doing national service work in Teton County.

In this episode, you’ll hear what keeps her in Wyoming after 20 years, her stern grandmother’s lasting effect on her values, and how women’s rights became her passion.

Show Notes:

  • What the Wyoming Women’s Community Action Network does
  • The most pressing issues of equality in Wyoming
  • What motivated Jen Simon to pursue national service work in Wyoming
  • The impact the Wyoming Women’s Community Action Network has had on the state
  • The role divinity plays in women’s rights

Emy diGrappa: Welcome to First but Last brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities, I am your host Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called The Equality State because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening. Today, we are talking to Jen Simon. She founded the Wyoming Women's Community Action Network. Her work is focused on improving women's economic security, access to health care and representation in The Equality State of Wyoming. Welcome, Jen.

Jen Simon: Thank you so much for having me, Emy.

Emy diGrappa: So the first question I want to ask is what is and what does the Wyoming Women's Community Action Network do? What's their mission? What's their purpose?

Jen Simon: So our mission and purpose is just as you've described, to increase access to health care, representation and just the visibility and economic security of women in The Equality State. I know that you've had lots of great conversations through this podcast with women who are talking about what The Equality State is good at and what we could be doing better. And the Wyoming Women's Action Network really just exist to try and make sure that we continue to move the needle, continue to move forward, and get people in The Equality State to understand the real benefits that women bring and some of the struggles that we have.

Emy diGrappa: And so how do you actually do that? Besides, is it legislation, is it programming? What do you do?

Jen Simon: That's a great question. So it started in part because there were a number of great bills that benefit women, professional women, women who are at home, pregnant women that were facing the last legislative session. But there wasn't necessarily anybody who is advocating actively for those bills. There are organizations in the state that do incredible work on behalf of women, but not a lot that really have the latitude to be done in the legislature.

Jen Simon: So I founded this organization and started to work with some, some really amazing women around the state to try and move the needle to make sure that the five wage gap bills that were in the legislature had some attention, made their way forward. That representative Yin's Pregnant Worker Fairness Act actually had some attention and got some traction so that we can understand what things can be done to benefit women in The Equality State.

Jen Simon: And in addition to that, I spent the summer kind of traveling around Wyoming and talking to various groups about issues, primarily the gender wage gap right now, but we have a number of issues that we're going to be focused on and then are developing a partnership with the Equality State Policy Center again to really look at legislation and policy and how do we, how do we lift up the benefit that women provide in our state?

Emy diGrappa: So tell me the, the top five issues on gender inequality. What, what are they? Is it jobs? Is it the fact that women are the nurturers and stay home and take care of kids and that they have kids? What, what are the other things?

Jen Simon: Well, so I am just picking up on the point that you just made, which is a great one. I would tell you that all other work comes out of domestic work, right? So when women are at home taking care of families, whether that's looking after kids, homeschooling, running errands, cooking, cleaning, any of those things, that's all work, and that's all unpaid care work.

Jen Simon: And I was actually reading some information yesterday that talked about the fact that there's some estimates that indicate that the GDP would grow by more than 20% because that care work is worth over $3 trillion every year, right? But we don't put a value on it and so it's really easy to overlook. And I think when we start to dig into those issues, we can see all the incredible contributions that women in Wyoming have made and continue to make, and that they have an actual value that sometimes gets overlooked.

Emy diGrappa: And I want to know how did this become your passion? Why, why is this something that you want to do as part of your life journey?

Jen Simon: Well, I appreciate that question, thank you. I think there are a couple of components. One is, I always hearkened back to my grandmother. I had a grandmother who was very clear that you should call her grandmother and never grandma. She was a little bit rigid, but she had this incredible sense of fairness and justice. And I think that that because she couldn't really cook, like she imparted fairness and justice to me as opposed to her best cookie baking recipe or any of the things that some of my girlfriend's grandmas imparted to them.

Jen Simon: You know, she in her 70s traveled all over the world in her 70s and 80s went down to Washington and marched on behalf of women's rights. I mean she really was an interesting character and I think her sense of fairness was absolutely imparted to me. So I think that that there's that piece where I feel like we need to correct injustice where it exists.

Jen Simon: And then I really feel that women's contributions to our broader culture are so powerful and so important and really frequently overlooked or underestimated. And in some cases really just devalued that the things that men do are considered to be normative. And that, you know, if you have, I was reading something else today that talked about heart attack symptoms and that women's symptoms are considered atypical, but there are only atypical compared to men's, right? We all, you and I would most likely have the same heart attack symptoms, but we probably wouldn't have the same symptoms as our husbands.

Jen Simon: So why is it that we're considered atypical and they're considered to be typical? And so starting to dig into some of those things and the fairness issues around them, I think kind of pulled both of those pieces of my life together.

Emy diGrappa: And what was your journey to women in Wyoming? Because you said that you grew up, you traveled a lot, moved a lot, and that this is the longest you've lived anywhere in your life.

Jen Simon: Yep. The more than two decades I've been in the state, definitely the longest I've ever been anywhere. You know, my family had, I think started out, my dad started out with really good intentions and so did my mom and they, they ran into some hard luck over the course of time. And I think that that, that prompted a few moves and, and it sort of set me up to, again, I think it, it feeds into the sense of fairness and justice and what that looks like. But I left and went to college in Colorado and when I left, my dad said, "Well, I doubt we'll ever see you again." (laughs) Not in a bad way, but just in the, like the mountains are calling and I must go John Muir kind of way.

Jen Simon: And, and he was right. You know, I didn't really make it back to, to where they were. And my siblings are pretty scattered, but I made my way up here and like a lot of people expected only to be here for a summer. I was going to take a job with actually Teach For America and instead I got an opportunity to do National Service work here in Teton County. And I loved the community and the opportunity to do that kind of community service work. I knew I was never going to go into the military, so doing domestic service was really important to me and it meant that I got to stay in a beautiful place.

Emy diGrappa: Well, that's interesting too because then I was also reading in your bio that you have your master's degree in, in divinity from Vanderbilt.

Jen Simon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: And, and why, why, why was that an important thing for you to do?

Jen Simon: You know, Emy, my, my kind of knee jerk answer to that is that I, I was ready for a little bit of a break because I lived in Wyoming for well over a decade at the time and was really interested in going somewhere and having sort of a sustained conversation around issues of, of justice. and I picked Vanderbilt for that reason. I mean the divinity school there is really outwardly focused. Everybody's conversations are about how will what I am learning affect my church congregation or the nonprofit I'm working for or my community or my state.

Jen Simon: And it really helped to refine and hone and deepen my sense of what kind of work I need to do in the world, which then enabled me to come back here and work for the hospital, which was really exciting because I think, I think that churches often talk about themselves as the most radically hospitable spaces, but the truth in my opinion is that hospitals really provide that, right? Hospitals meet you where you are no matter how broken you come through the door, they receive you and they, you know, they're committed to trying to fix you.

Jen Simon: And so it was a really exciting opportunity and that allowed me to, again, deepen my roots in the community and work on things like the Women's Healthcare Fund so that that we could provide access to healthcare to women in this community.

Emy diGrappa: Well, and, and I agree with you 100% that, that I would say hospitals are the places that are the most accepting of people in every, any, every kind of condition-

Jen Simon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... that they come there. You know, and, and yes, the church is a great place too, and it's, and it's a different kind of a place, but I think a hospital surrounds you physically-

Jen Simon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... emotionally, and spiritually.

Jen Simon: Absolutely. And I, in no way mean to be disparaging of churches, I just think that hospitals really occupy this unique space in our communities.

Emy diGrappa: Well, tell me about the, the program that you worked on at the hospital that was really a new program for seniors.

Jen Simon: Oh, so one of the pieces that we worked on, well, there are a couple pieces. One was the, the Art and Healing Program expanded to have a music therapist at the Living Center, which really was an incredibly powerful tool, especially for some of our residents over there who had cognitive decline or dementia. Music is one of the last things to go from, from your brain as it changes, which is extraordinary and so people who maybe are no longer verbal can actually still sing or will actually respond to music.

Jen Simon: So it was exciting to put that kind of thing into place. But I was also really fortunate to get to work on We Care For Seniors, which was a community Specific Purpose Excise Tax initiative to really highlight the benefit that that a nursing home has for our community and to raise the funds to build a new one and they've broken ground over there and there's some really incredible opportunities for our aging population. I think the other benefit that I was hoping would come out of that is that we'd really see those folks. I'd see the contributions that they've made and be clear that this is an important, vibrant part of our community.

Emy diGrappa: Well, just bringing from that because it makes me think about that was creativity and compassion at the same time that you put into that project. So what creativity and compassion that you're dreaming of for the Wyoming women's action network?

Jen Simon: I love this question, thank you. I'm gonna have to turn that over a little bit when I go home. I'll, uh, I'll, I'll probably have another answer for you tomorrow, but I think, you know, one of the things that, that I'd love to kind of explore more that I think the Wyoming Humanities Council is giving the opportunity for through your Cross-Pollination Grants is what are the intersections between women in Wyoming and religion?

Jen Simon: For example, by bringing my divinity background into it and also politics, right? We're headed into a 2020 election year. Wyoming's representation among women in the state legislature is pretty low. What are the intersections between women, how we're represented and, and the religious piece of it? Is there an opportunity to kind of explore that and talk to women around the state about, about where they see themselves in that intersection? No, no, that's a fully fomented idea yet.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs) No, but that's okay. Because I think that with you're compassionate about people and that's obviously a thread that has woven through your life-

Jen Simon: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: ... that I think that, you know, it just takes that creativity to think, "What is that piece that isn't there yet?"

Jen Simon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: That, you know, the piece of the puzzle that or the, the dot that needs to connect the other dots and, and maybe that's going to be, you know, because you just found that this when, when did you found it?

Jen Simon: January.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah, so it's pretty new.

Jen Simon: Yeah, and, yeah. And we were not quite ready for prime time, but the truth of the matter was it was like, "Okay, well they're talking about these issues so we need to be ready to go as soon as they are." The website went up and we went live and started to pump out fact sheets and talk to legislators and talk to advocates around the state and build a coalition and some exciting things are coming from it too. I think that there's more awareness. You know, yesterday's Casper Star-Tribune had a cover story above the fold as journalists like to say, talking about women lagging behind or the Wyoming lags behind in terms of women in the State House and, you know, we want to figure out how to help make that different.

Emy diGrappa: Right. What are we going to do about that?

Jen Simon: Yeah, exactly.

Emy diGrappa: Well, it's been great talking to you too.

Jen Simon: You're welcome. Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to First but Last brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkwy.org where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in The Equality State. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.

“The Wyoming Women’s Community Action Network really exists to try and make sure that we continue to move the needle, continue to move forward, and get people in the Equality State to understand the real benefits that women bring.” - Jen Simon

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