Empowerment Project highlights ordinary women
doing extraordinary things
By Lou Fancher
There's stasis for women and girls. It's not that there aren't females of all ages doing remarkable things worldwide; it's that we don't hear about them. We don't often read their stories on the front pages of magazines, newspapers or online media sites.
But take 17 less-than-well-known women and splash their achievements on the silver screen in a short or feature-length film, and you might start a movement to overcome stalling when it comes to gender equality.
That's the gamble taken by filmmakers Sarah Moshman and Dana Michelle Cook, who embarked on a 30-day, 7,000-mile road trip from Los Angeles to New York to create the documentary "The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things."
Approximately 45 women cheered and applauded the film's highlights at a free screening at the Walnut Creek Library. The event was presented by Walnut Creek-based Canvas and Cabernet and co-sponsored by the Walnut Creek Library Foundation and the Mountain Shadow Film Society.
"The reason I wanted to show this film is that it grabbed me," said Julee Herrmann, founder of Canvas and Cabernet, who introduced the film and a post-screening discussion. "I came across a 15-second teaser on Facebook and knew I wanted to see more of it. But I also wanted to see it with my community."
Herrmann said the film's purpose is to spark conversation and action.
The prompt, outlined as the film begins, is a single question: "What would you do if you weren't afraid to fail?" Posters taped to walls in the library's Oak View Room posed related questions: Who inspires you? When did you stop dreaming?
Jen Lenard-Benson, of Concord, said she came to the event because her work as associate director for Alumni Relations for the University of Chicago doesn't fulfill her desire to empower young girls. Although there's intellectual curiosity expressed by the people she serves, a prior experience mentoring at-risk high school students burns in her memory.
"It was great to see girls achieve and dream without boundaries. Body image and boy issues weren't positive areas for them," she said. "We changed the focus. I need that in my life again, because I was never more alive."
The film shows an all-star but mostly non-famous roster: architect, astronaut, restaurant owner, pilot, math professor, four-star United States Navy officer, and others. The two filmmakers and their crew of three women fly in a Cessna, learn mathematical theories, pump iron, and drive for hours as they wind their way across the continent.
Like most journeys, the day-to-day companionship tells a story of community, but the aftermath is clearly the emphasis. It's not their road fatigue or interviews that resonate, it's the image of the five women leaping for joy at the end of the film that remains. Women love hard work, just one lesson that lingers.
A number of women at the screening told their stories, including Herrmann's co-host, Sandra Milan, of Orinda. A project team leader at Genentech, Milan oversees most of the biotechnology company's oncology portfolio.
"What I've found is that women, if they don't like the rules, they make up their own. But the problem is you begin to play a parallel game. You're not meshing. To compete, we can't play parallel."
The Empowerment Project doesn't claim to be the solution. But if it's true, as Herrmann said, that "power is found when you find that place where your passion lives," the ideas generated at the screening -- become an attorney, get a PhD., be a full-time mom, and more -- and the cheers and support of other women represented solid leaps, and not stasis.