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Empowering Women in Austin and Beyond

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The board members of the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas speak out.

By Mikaila Rushing, Photos by Tess Cagle and Erika Rich

Koreena Malone, right, with her daughter, left

When Koreena Malone, board treasurer of the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas, walks into the annual Women’s Empowerment Conference, she notices one very important thing.

“I see a lot of other folks I can identify with,” Malone says.

For the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas, representing the population it’s serving is important, something that is clear in the organization’s diverse makeup. Both staff and leadership members agree that giving women, and particularly women of color, the capacity to engage with leadership roles in any organization is a high priority.

“Quite often, when I look at a nonprofit…one of the first things I do is look at the board,” Malone admits. “And then I look at the folks they’re serving. And I ask myself, ‘Is the board constructed with folks that they’re serving? Does it look like they’re represented within those power positions within that organization?’ ”

The Women’s Community Center of Central Texas was founded by Carrie Tilton-Jones, a University of Texas graduate, in 2013, and its doors officially opened in 2014. Since, the center has worked to connect women and women’s nonprofit organizations throughout Central Texas through empowering programs such as the center’s Alt Girl Cinema and the yearly Women’s Empowerment Conference.

“Many of the services in Austin that serve women and girls…we’re finding that there’s a disconnect between a lot of these nonprofits that don’t talk to each other,” Malone says. “Granted, they’re in competition, but in the end, it hurts the individuals and it hurts the community.”

Currently, the center is primarily run by four women: board chair Rocío Villalobos, board treasurer Malone, board secretary Alesha Istvan, and communication-and-event coordinator Danea Johnson. These women connect organizations, set up workshops, create and then run the Women’s Empowerment Conference, and participate in a variety of other engagements to help keep the community center up and running.

Rocío Villalobos

As the only full-time staff member, Johnson is responsible for day-to-day operations, which include contacting organizations and potential workshop speakers. Johnson was raised in Bryan, Texas, and moved to Austin to study women and gender studies, as well as Middle Eastern studies.

“Identity has always been something that I really wanted to work on in myself, and just finding more current women out there to work on with that too,” Johnson says.

After graduating, Johnson encountered the Women’s Community Center through its Making Austin Her Story video series, and was fascinated.

“My focus has totally changed a lot,” Johnson says. “A lot of it right now is just event planning because that still brings me that one-on-one connection to women and the community.”

Malone is a native Austinite and grew up with an affinity for math. From the age of 16, Malone knew she wanted to be an accountant. After graduating from Texas State University, she worked as an auditor in government housing, and gained a knowledge and appreciation for how important such resources are to underserved populations.

“Austin’s changing. It’s wonderful,” Malone says. “But it’s a double-edged sword. You see the changes…but you also see [that]people are getting left behind.”

Malone eventually began her own accounting firm, KM Business Solutions, which works with female-led businesses and nonprofits to build working business models and help them gain self-sufficiency.

“A lot of those businesses are not going to get access to folks like me unless people like me are making a space to do that,” Malone says.

It was about this time Malone was looking for a nonprofit organization that served women, was focused on intersectionality and allowed for more discussions of affordable housing for such underserved populations. In 2014, Malone became a consultant for the Women’s Community Center and later became board treasurer.

Volunteer team with Danea Johnson second from right

Villalobos, a native Austinite as well, has always been interested in community work.

“I just became really interested and invested in being involved in the community, and finding other ways, or as many ways as possible, to give back and to connect with other women,” Villalobos says. “And I know that, for me, I had really positive and influential role models who were women, and I don’t think I’d be who I am if I didn’t have their support.”

In 2013, a friend of Villalobos’ brought up the possibility of sitting on the new Women’s Community Center of Central Texas board, and since then, Villalobos has been an active member in the organization. As the board chair, she is often responsible for identifying organizations with which to partner, helping set up the Women’s Empowerment Conference and following up with board candidates. Her favorite part of the job is attending the conference, which has many workshops in Spanish.

“The energy in the room is just really beautiful and supportive,” Villalobos says.

At the moment, the Women’s Community Center does not have a physical location, but the board is working to secure funds for one. However, while building a safe place for women and others in the community is a priority, Villalobos says the Women’s Community Center extends beyond a physical space.

“Even if you don’t have a permanent physical location, there’s still ways to create a feeling of community that may be more fluid,” Villalobos says. “And once we get back to being able to be in a physical location, that will be great, and in the meantime, we’ll continue to try and build and strengthen those connections that we have, and create new connections that we want to make.”

And those connections, according to the women who run the center, are what make the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas.

“[We want] more connections among more women across race, class and gender because there’s really nothing to lose, I think, when we make those connections,” Johnson says.

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