YWCA event activates attendees

Brittany Moseley
YWCA staff, leadership program participants and speakers from the event gathered onstage at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Almost 700 people attended the Columbus YWCA’s second annual “Activists and Agitators” last night. The event, held at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, was a fundraiser for the YWCA’s leadership programs. Local mental health advocate Achea Redd of Real Girls F.A.R.T was the keynote speaker. In her speech, she discussed her mental health journey.

“My entire life I thought that I was too much,” Redd said. “I tried to shrink myself. Does anyone know what I mean?” The audience responded with an emphatic “Mmm-hmm.”

The event also included speeches from Fran Frazier of Rise Sister Rise and Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Nina West closed the show with a joyous performance of Lizzo’s “Good As Hell.” ("In Columbus, we don’t just have a mayor. We have a queen,” Britton Bauer said introducing West, star of the latest season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”)

Columbus YWCA CEO Christie Angel said she was moved by the feeling of sisterhood at the event and the excitement attendees had for the YWCA’s message.

“We want people to see different types of activists,” Angel said. “It can’t just be my mother’s YWCA or my grandmother’s YWCA or my YWCA. It has to be your YWCA.”

Alive caught up with Britton Bauer and West before the event to discuss what activism means to them.

You mention in your speech that you want to create “conversations over cones.” What did you mean?

Jeni Britton Bauer: That’s always been a part of what I do, which makes us different than all the other ice cream companies at the time when I started working. I just thought, because I love ice cream so much, what if we could make an ice cream shop for people like me. And in Columbus at the time, all my friends were the skateboarders, artists, bohemians, record shop owners. How could I get my friends to go to an ice cream shop? My grandmother was an artist, and we were always taught that art asks questions. Can we use ice cream to do that? That was the beginning of everything.

You’re known for your activism both onstage and off. Was that something you had to get comfortable with?

Nina West: I never intended for it to be a part of the act. But then again, life has a funny way of rewriting itself and guiding and pushing you through different paths and journeys. When I was in college I was bullied. I was harassed and had my life threatened. There was a turning point for me when I came to drag after college and learned what drag was to the gay community. I learned that drag has always been rooted in the political. Drag is punk. Regardless of what kind of drag you do, it is subversive and it is political by sheer nature of putting on another gender’s clothing. That in of itself is uncomfortable, because I knew that was what I was doing. And then I realized I could use my voice to speak up and connect to people by just being myself and telling my story, which is what I’ve done for 18 years. That’s allowed me to find connection and validity, not only in my art form but in myself.

You’re vocal about causes (and candidates) that are important to you. Did talking about these things get easier as your business and platform grew?

Britton Bauer: I got less comfortable with it the bigger my business got. When you’re really small, you just know who’s in your store. The last thing we want to do is make somebody feel unwelcome. But also part of building a community is laying down our beliefs. And so the idea that we are open and welcoming to anyone not everyone is a tough thing. You have to be really forward with what you believe now. You can’t just take a middle ground.

In one episode of "RuPaul’s Drag Race" you talked about the harassment you faced in college and how Matthew Shepard’s death affected you. It became a large part of your storyline. What did that do for you?

West: It changed my life. Again. It’s impacted these kids who are 14, 15, 16 years old who are straight and/or queer, who are coming to “Drag Race” for a moment of entertainment but then leaving it going, “Wait a minute, I should approach this differently,” or, “I should think about my gay friend in a different way.” … I am a kind, compassionate person. By being honest and open about my story and about who I am, I was allowed and able to give permission to people to tell their stories to me.