Every December, The Citizen names their Women to Watch – those women who are busy making a difference in their fields and communities – and who are only going to do go on to do even better things in the years to come. Junior Staff Reporter Mallory Pike interviews the nine women who made this year’s list.
Jessi Ramsey, dancer/choreographer
Jessi Ramsey does not have time off work. When she’s not attending rehearsals for the NYCB’s upcoming season of Giselle – with brand new choreography, designed by her under the guidance of the company’s Ballet Master in Chief – she’s teaching at the free ballet school for children with disabilities she helped to found. At the moment the school only focuses on children with severe or profound deafness, but Jessi is hoping an upcoming funding boost will help them open their doors a little wider to admit teenagers and adults, too.
“I can’t really take any credit for the school - it was the Deaf community who approached me. Matt Braddock – whose initiative the school was – is an old friend of mine. Actually, I learned ASL so I could baby-sit him when we were kids! He remembered that I’d been involved in a ballet performance for the deaf when I was younger, and thought I might like to help.” As she speaks, Jessi moves her hands, expressively and gracefully, as you’d expect from someone who’s been dancing at a national level since the age of eleven. With that, and her day-wear of leggings, an oversized t-shirt and loose cardigan – with her hair pulled into a loose bun – she’s every inch the professional ballerina. But when she talks about the Braddock School she betrays something else; a deep passion for what she’s doing.
And she’s done more than just help. As well as teaching classes herself, she’s used her contacts in the dancing community to pull in some big names to help at the school – mostly with teaching, but this year the school’s attendees are preparing for their first performance – the Nutcracker, just in time for Christmas - and Jessi organised the donation and tailoring of the costumes for the performance. “Dancing, especially ballet, is still seen as very exclusive. People think that you have to look a certain way, be a certain way, to succeed,” she explains to me. “I remember how exciting it was for me, as a kid, whenever I met another black dancer; I want other kids who currently feel like they’re not part of the dancing world to know, the way that I now know, that they can be.”
Margarite Mason, animator
“Thirty-two still seems a little late for my big break,” Margarite muses over a chai latte. She’s just wrapped on Indigo, Jared, and Me, her second feature-length film since her break-out role last year in the children’s film A Lion in the Meadow. If you don’t remember seeing her, it’s not surprising – it wasn’t her, but her creations that were in front of the camera. Margarite is chief designer at SupraModel, which until recently was in the business of producing graphics for video games. When Margarite joined the company as a designer five years ago, she saw a better opportunity, one that meant approaching the independent film-makers who usually couldn’t afford the big budget computer animations used by large Hollywood Studios.
Just how did she convince the company to make the change? “My bosses didn’t think it would ever work, but I’ve never been good at accepting ‘no’ for an answer,” Margarite admits. “I’ve always found that if you push for what you really want, you’ll get it in the end. Oh, it also takes hard work, and people will call you a b***h for it, but in the end you get the results, and they don’t.”
Shannon Kilbourne and Kristy Thomas, entrepreneurs
Partners Kristy and Shannon made their first million when they were in their late teens, riding the dotcom boom – and avoiding the bust – with a website that helped desperate owners find lost pets, and for loving families to take in animals that current owners could no longer look after. “It was meant more as a community project,” Kristy remembers. “But we were offered money for advertising – based on those old, awful banner ads they used to have – and somehow it became so popular that we started getting offers from people who wanted to take it state-wide, or even nation-wide. We were both getting ready to start college, so we agreed that we couldn’t really manage it any longer, and that was it.”
But that wasn’t it at all. Four years later, Shannon – now with a biology degree under her belt – felt that her education, pre-university, had been lacking in the fundamentals needed for a science education. She tried to find any products on the market that could give young teens a fun, all-around guide to the sciences and what they could do with them. She couldn’t find one, so she got back in touch with Kristy and they started working at the concept for what is now known as the SciKit, a computer program and small-scale experiment package which allows children to explore different streams of science and think about how they might be used in future careers.
I press them to tell me about their latest venture, and the partners exchange speaking glances before deciding that they can spill the beans – a little, anyway. “A travel app, for the LGBT community,” Shannon says. “We’ve already got buyers interested, but I think we can safely say that much.”
“As with all out projects, we’re learning constantly,” Kristy explains, “And there’s bound to be changes before it hits the market. Every product, every industry we’ve worked with, has come with its own pitfalls and surprises. But we each bring our own strengths, and we’ve learned – more or less – when it’s time for Shannon to negotiate and compromise with people, or for me to simply steamroll on through.”
“It hasn’t all been success so far,” Shannon assures me. “Our third project went nowhere for two years and we had to cut it off completely. But we both love the challenge of solving problems.”
Dr Mary Anne Spier, historian
Mary Anne was just eighteen when she had her first child. At the time she supposed that that meant the end of her brief college career, which, for a woman who describes herself as having been a “conscientious but not ambitious” student, was a disappointment but not a crushing one. However, the impending arrival of her daughter awoke an interest in her own family’s genealogy, and by the time her daughter – now the eldest of three – could walk, Mary Anne had enrolled to do a short course in family history research. Before long, this blossomed into a full undergraduate degree, an MA, and finally a PhD seeking to study – and improve – library and other community outreach programmes for non-academic researchers interested in family history.
Mary Anne says it’s a field which is always expanding. “Some people will tell you that modern society isolates people; maybe that’s why more people are interested in learning about their past, because that knowledge, and those stories, aren’t passed down the way they once were. But technology is also allowing us to find information more easily and more quickly than ever before. It’s important to foster any interest people have in their own family and community histories, in order to make sure that information isn’t lost completely.”
As well as lecturing on local history research and research methods, Mary Anne is running a pilot program in schools in her own childhood hometown in Connecticut. “The point isn’t to have kids go away and produce family trees. That’s not necessarily going to interest them. It’s to have them discover real bit of history their families were involved in – big, world-changing events like wars and protests, or small moments, like attending the same school they now go to, or events which led to where and how the children are living now, like a decision to immigrate or migrate. If we can get them interested in history and research now, just imagine what they might be able to do as adults!”
Stacey McGill and Claudia Kishi, fashionistas
“We’re here because of Claudia. Her designs are phenomenal.”
“No, no, it’s all down to Stacey. I have, like, zero business sense, and if you can’t market what you’ve got you can’t sell it.”
“Sweets, you’re a walking billboard for the business! You know you wear our clothes as well as any of our customers do.”
I’ve jokingly asked the co-owners of boutique label GiKi which of them is the real powerhouse behind the business, and I can tell immediately that it was the wrong question to ask. Stacey and Claudia are close friends as well as business partners, and this is obviously a long-running, albeit comfortable, argument that won’t be resolved any time soon. I ask them what drew them to the industry, instead.
“We’ve both always loved fashion, but we come to it from very different directions,” Stacey tells me. “I grew up in New York City, and always loved walking past the big name fashion houses, even when I was a kid – I always wanted to wear whatever was on trend. I went through the not unusual stage of wanting to be a model, at least until I realised that modelling does mean wearing what you want – it’s what someone else wants. Whereas Claudia-”
“Didn’t know a lot about what was trendy, but loved making my own clothes,” Claudia finished. “Some of the outfits I wore were hilarious, although I think all kids should be allowed to be as creative with their dressing as I was. I know what you’re thinking,” she adds, gesturing to the dress she’s currently wearing, “but believe me, this is toned down.” The dress she’s wearing is an exaggerated version of a design which has just hit stores, a slim-fitting, pineapple-print dress with blue colour-blocking, paired with a bright yellow belt and even brighter pink heels. Stacey is demure by comparison in a sleek black mini-skirt and over-sized white blouse.
“So we’re a perfect match,” Stacey finishes. “Claudia’s designs are unique –”
“- And Stacey knows exactly which ones our customers are going to love.”
And not just their regular customers, who frequent GiKi’s exclusive New York store. GiKi has a large and loyal online fanbase, and their designs have been seen not only on the red carpet at Cannes, but rumour has it also behind closed doors at Buckingham Palace. With this in mind, Claudia and Stacey are gearing up for next spring’s London Fashion Week. “The collection is going to be out of this world,” Claudia grins, and from the look on Stacey’s face I’m not sure that she’s speaking purely figuratively.
Abby Stevenson, comedienne
As this issue of The Citizen goes to press, the pilot of a new dramedy, Shadows, will have already gone to air. The show has already got a lot of people talking – mostly for its diverse, SNL-alumnae heavy casting. Shadows’ creator and head writer Abby Stevenson hopes that the show, based on her own experiences moving from Long Island to a small town in Connecticut after the death of her father, will keep them interested for other reasons.
“It’s really about grief,” she says, “About how weird grief is. It makes you do weird things. Everyone talks about, you know, the guilt, the anger, the sadness, but they don’t mention that for five years you won’t buy a particular flavour of ice cream because you remember your friend eating it at the beach one time – it wasn’t her favourite, she didn’t hate it, you don’t have special memories of the two of you chowing down on it while b****ing about your exes – but you have to avoid it all the same.” And was that the kind of grief she dealt with after her father passed away?
Surprisingly, Abby grins. “I’ve been trying to tell people that Shadows isn’t actually biographical – more like biographical fiction. There’s definitely bits of me in Miri, the teenaged girl, but she’s got bits of my sister in her too – and Miri doesn’t have a twin, so while I had my sister when I was trying to cope with everything Miri only has a mother who’s a total wreck. And my mother would not appreciate being called a total wreck.”
Her mother still looms large in Abby’s life; after the death of her father, Abby’s adolescence was overwhelmingly dominated by women. As well as her sister and her mother, she’s still close to her maternal aunt and grandmother; her best friends as a teenager were all girls. “Comedy and comedy writing are still a boys’ club,” she points out. “But whenever I come up against what seems to be a brick wall, because I’m not a man, because I refuse to just be one of the guys, I think about all the women in my life and the amazing things they’ve done, and are doing, and they give me the motivation to keep going, despite all the s*** I get.”
Dawn Schafer, women’s rights advocate
Dawn tells me she can never be happy unless she’s fighting for something she truly believes in. When she left school she thought that was going to be conservation; three months after starting her law degree she came to the decision that human rights were more important – just. “I still work for the planet on my own time,” she explains, “and I make sure as many of my choices as possible are green choices. But I don’t think there’s much point living in this world unless we can be good to each other. And I believe being good to each other starts right outside our own front door.”
That’s why, after a two-year stint with UNIFEM in Mali, she returned to California to join Woman USA, where she has directed campaigns advocating for equal pay, better sexual education in schools and – most recently and controversially – prostitution law reform. “The law still treats sex workers like they’re less than people, and so other people treat them the same way,” Dawn says, her frustration plain. “And people don’t want to talk about it, or face their own prejudices, either. You know what most people ask me, when I bring this up? They ask me whether I’d want my daughter to be a prostitute, as if that’s what I’m fighting for.
“I’ve learned to say that as a mother, I hope I’ll never see my daughter in a position where she’s not in control of her own life. Because that’s what I’m fighting for – for women, all women, not just sex workers, to be allowed to control their own lives, and to have the means to do so. That’s the most important gift I can give my daughter, whatever she decides to do, or who she decides to be.”
I know it’s more than a little conceited, but I’ve read the article over three times from the time I pick up The Citizen from the newsstand at the bottom of my building and the time the lift pings to say I’m on my own floor. I could have got a copy for free at the office, of course, but I wanted to savour my victory all by myself. I’m the first ever Junior Staff Writer to get the Women to Watch interviews – and I got the assignment without even having to mention that I knew every single woman on the list. I’m a little bit shocked to find that I would have mentioned it, too, if I’d known I was in the running. Since joining the Citizen I’ve found I have a competitive streak worthy of – well, Kristy Thomas. For my first five or six years out of college I’d just been paying my dues, dutifully churning out whatever I was told – but once thirty loomed close it suddenly seemed that I needed to be writing something meaningful. I sent my portfolio to the Citizen on a whim, and from there everything just seems to have happen. I’m working harder than ever, but my name on this by-line proves that I’m finally getting somewhere.
My apartment’s dark when I open the front door. My girlfriend, Jen, is a sports writer, so she keeps weird hours and has to travel fairly often to get to the games she’s covering – although it does also mean that we understand each other’s work but don’t ever suffer from professional jealousy. I miss her a lot when we’re apart, but it all seems worth it when we’re together.
She’s away this evening – although I’ve already had three congratulatory texts from her about the feature – but I’m not planning on being alone. I have enough time to check that I’ve got a menu for my local pizza delivery and ice cream in the fridge before the buzzer sounds. “Jessi?” I ask through the intercom.
“It’s me,” she says. Her voice is as warm as it was when we were kids; tonight she sounds as though she’s holding back laughter. I buzz her in and it’s not long before I can hear her panting up the stairs – she considers the lift to be cheating, or so she says. She might change her tune if I lived on the twentieth floor instead of the sixth.
She’s clutching a copy of The Citizen in her hand when she arrives. “Mal, you’re brilliant,” she says. “I’ve already had two calls from potential donors. This is the best thing that could have happened – you’re the best thing that could have happened. The last time anyone wrote about us it was the sappiest thing imaginable and Matt threw the paper across the room. What you wrote is so much better, it’s real.”
I can feel that my face is growing hot under the flow of compliments, but as Jessi and I go into the apartment I’m grinning, too. It’s nice to feel that I’m having my own bit of success, at last. And it’s even nicer to be able to share it with my very best friend.