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Leon County women raise questions to find crucial answers

A group of women standing in a line in front of a white wall
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Questions about issues that plague women and girls are pushing their way to into focus for the governments of Tallahassee and Leon County

The 2022 election cycle in Leon County saw the first candidate forums hosted exclusively by women’s groups. Ten groups serving women and girls collaborated on two such events, one for mayoral candidates and another for county commission races. Now they’re laying the groundwork for greater change.

The women’s groups asked the candidates questions they don’t usually get, on issues such as domestic violence, human trafficking and child care. One of the groups is the Survive and Thrive Advocacy Center, which serves trafficking victims. Robin Hassler Thompson, its executive director, says it’s vital to address issues affecting the most vulnerable people in the community.

“That’s who traffickers target, those who are most vulnerable," Hassler Thompson said. "So we need to know what these candidates are going to do to fortify individuals, services, responses from law enforcement and others…” 

Kelly Otte, executive director of the Oasis Center for Women and Girls, says the pandemic had a devastating effect on the non-profits serving vulnerable people.

“They’re just barely making it," she said. "So we have to come together so that we can actually bring those kinds of issues up in the public by bolstering each other up. So the more ability that we have to support each other, the more likely those conversations are going to rise up for discussion. And so I think that’s on us.”  

Otte also says it’s not up to anyone else to ask questions for women and girls.

“I think it’s our obligation to step up and say, ‘Don’t forget to think about this. Don’t forget to talk about this.’ And so I believe that’s what this is," she said. "I said to somebody a little while ago, ‘It’s as equally important to hear what women and girls are asking as it is to hear the answers.’”

Such questions come as the city and county have increased the funding for the Tallahassee-Leon Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, which now has a director for the first time. Her name is Stephanie Shumate, and she’s tasked with gathering the data to answer some key questions.

“What are the domestic violence numbers look like with women and girls? What does the numbers of gun violence look like for women and girls?" Shumate asks. "Because we do know that we can’t just assume they’re not participating in it, but what are the root causes? Are they more the perpetrator or are they the victim?…”  

With its first full-time employee, the commission is embarking on a strategic plan known as 2.0. Among its aspects: the development of performance indicators and other metrics to analyze the well-being of women and girls in the city and county. That will undoubtedly open the door to many more questions.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.