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Elevations Academy encourages women to effect change

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia and, more specifically, Charleston have produced no shortage of women who have brought about change. A panel of female community leaders came together Wednesday afternoon to discuss the impact many women have had throughout history, while urging women in attendance to become a part of that tradition.

Elevations Academy is an annual networking and professional development event hosted by the Charleston Area Alliance that encourages women to take on leadership roles in the workplace, as well as the community.

The panel spoke about women in a variety of manners, from women who mobilized change in Charleston to dishing out advice on how to become a community leader.

Virginia Rugeley, of The Junior League of Charleston, recounted the organization's involvement in a 1960s low-income housing project. As the city's three interstates were planned, Charleston started to experience a housing crisis, Rugeley said.

The league, along with the First Baptist Church Vandalia<co >, partnered to sponsor a housing project as part of Federal Housing Authority and Housing and Urban Development programs. The experience would reveal shortfalls and corruption neither the Junior League nor the church expected, Rugeley said.

The project was declared dead three times throughout the four years it took to make it happen, Rugeley recounted. The group met multiple times with federal lawmakers to ensure the project would be completed.

"We made a lot of people mad, because we pointed out a lot of the problems we'd run into along the way," she said.

Katie Rugeley, who is the granddaughter of Virginia Rugeley and a recent college graduate, attended the event in order to network.

The Charleston native launched a monogramming and embroidery business last June, she said, and found Wednesday's stories empowering.

"It's all very helpful," she said of the speakers' advice from throughout the day. "It's just nice to see all these women and how they've had successful careers, and I hope to do the same."

Lewis, the student personnel officer at Charleston Job Corps Center, said support for her position is difficult to come by. It's one that is often seen as a male role, but Lewis said she is finding ways to transcend those ideas about her work.

"In certain circles, there's still that shadow that believe women cannot be as powerful and strong," Lewis said. "I just be me."

Deb Weinstein, executive director of the YWCA of Charleston, said stepping out of comfort zones is part of being a community leader.

"This world is full of injustice," Weinstein said. "But as long as we just live in this world and not engage in this world, then nothing will change."

West Virginia University Professor Connie Park Rice, who specializes in African American and women's history, spoke of the compassion women had during the Civil War. Rice said that is what sets women apart from men.

"These women talk about their view of war and the things that they remember and how they feel about these soldiers," Rice said about Civil War letters that she has studied. "These women shared a commonality among themselves and what were their experiences regardless of what side they were on, and you can do that, too."

Lewis made a similar statement, saying empathy is a key characteristic in her position.

"Women disciplinarians are more sociable and try to see the root of the problem instead of trying to change the behavior," Lewis said of working with youth. "You have to be able to understand where the behavior comes from in order to try to change it."

Lewis wanted not only to be inspired, but also to bring back tools to encourage students she works with in taking on their own leadership roles, she said.

"It's hard to get our young people to step into leadership," Lewis said. "I want to find some ideas to light that fire, to bring that leadership out that they all possess."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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