Organization of Women Leaders increases membership to 80 in one year

In the past 17 years, the Organization of Women Leaders (OWLs) has evolved from a registered student organization providing training and community support for female students, to a group that fights for social justice and gender equality issues on campus.

When OWLs was established at Central Michigan University's campus in 2000, Erin Smith-Gaken, OWLs adviser, said there were between 30 and 40 members. Last year, membership hit an all-time low with eight women involved.

However, the organization persevered and this year participation has peaked to 80 members.

"It has been interesting to watch the progression and changes the group has made," she said.

Smith-Gaken said the ultimate goals of the organization are always student driven. The OWLs executive board decides what issues the group will dedicate its energy toward.

Membership dropped drastically the 2015-16 academic year in part because the executive board's structure was disorganized, said OWLs President Madison Rodriguez-Eberth. Many women left the organization because its inefficient communication was too stressful.

Others left because a transgender member wasn't getting the respect they deserved due to the group lacking a "proper pronoun education," said the Allen Park senior.

The drop in membership sparked rumors of "exclusivity" in the organization, Rodriguez-Eberth added. Though she inherited a lot of problems coming into her presidency, Rodriguez-Eberth has been able to "work with it, work against it, prove people wrong and bring a better image to OWLs."

"This year we've made it very clear (that OWLs is a feminist group)," she said.

Creating a better image involved re-constructing the organization's constitution.

Article II of the constitution, for example, was revised to reflect the president's desire to promote inclusivity. It now states: "Membership in the Organization of Women Leaders shall not be denied based on age, biological sex, disability, familial status, marital status, national origin, political persuasion, race, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status."

Rodiguez-Eberth said she is still concerned that the language in the organization's title excludes men and gender non-conforming individuals, potentially barring them from joining.

"We just need to shift the dialogue," she said. "We'll be working on that next year, emphasizing that we're open to everybody."

In the fall, Rodriguez-Eberth will step down from her position. President-elect, Ashleigh Laho will take over.

Laho hopes to continue to build upon the activism that Rodriguez-Eberth brought into OWLs this year. The Wyandotte sophomore plans to create a monthly "open meeting" where prospective members of any gender identity can learn about OWLs.

"It isn't just for women, it's for everyone," Laho said.

Most OWLs meetings are only open to members. Having monthly open meetings can help encourage more students to get involved in the group’s advocacy.

In the first week of each semester, the organization hosts an open house where anyone is welcome to attend and learn about OWLs mission. During that week, students can apply for membership.

On the application, students are asked to describe themselves, what feminism means to them and the social issues they are passionate about.

Applications are then reviewed by the OWLs executive board, which selects and approves new members into the organization.

OWLs still needs to work on membership bonding. As enrollment grows, new participants are feeling isolated by the returning members, said Chesterfield sophomore Brittany Ouelette.

Ouelette proposed a mentor program to resolve these issues, where returning members could be paired with a newer member to make them more comfortable in speaking up and reaching out.

Laho echoed Ouelette’s sentiment. While the mentorship program idea is not "set in stone," Laho thinks reaching out within the organization is just as important as reaching to the CMU community for support.

To encourage OWL members to share their voices, Laho said she wants to begin every meeting with an "issue-education session" where students can openly discuss issues they are passionate about.

“Feeling like you’re part of a movement is key,” she said. “I want people to bring their passions, and that comes with intersectionality.”