Doing it for themselves

Most of us have seen it: A man berating a woman in a parking lot. An angry boyfriend slapping or shoving a woman in front of a crowd of people. The majority of the time, nobody intervenes.

Local singer Laura Blackley once tried.

During a set break at a Johnson City, Tenn., club, her band was playing, Blackley saw something frightening going on outside.

“I started screaming, and what I yelled was, ‘There’s a man outside beating a woman,'” she remembers.

At this point, several men inside the club ran outside. “I guess they were his frat brothers or something, because they recognized that he was a friend of theirs. That’s when they started telling me not to worry about it, that ‘he was OK.'”

Not content, Blackley tried to get the bouncer to stop the attack, but he responded that he couldn’t do anything about it if it didn’t happen in the club. He also refused to call the police.

“The bouncer did nothing — he wouldn’t even look me in the eye,” says Blackley.

Angry and frustrated by the experience, Blackley began thinking about ways to help other women. She got together with fellow Asheville musicians Ginny Wilder and BJ Bowen, and the trio spoke with Valerie Collins, executive director of Asheville-based Helpmate.

The result is Women’s Music Fest 2003: Sistahs on Stage, an all-day concert scheduled for Saturday, May 3, and featuring headliner Catie Curtis, a superb singer/songwriter, plus Wilder and the Laura Blackley Band, along with locals Gavra Lynn, Kat Williams and others. The event is free, but donations are encouraged. All proceeds go to Helpmate.

The organization, formed in 1978 as a volunteer task force of the Buncombe County Commission on the Status of Women, began receiving state and federal government funding following a survey it conducted, which showed that more than 7,500 Buncombe County women were being battered each year. Helpmate has since added a number of programs and services, including a 24-hour crisis line and individual counseling, court advocacy, an emergency shelter and community outreach to assist victims of domestic violence, most of them women.

The majority of Helpmate’s funding, notes Collins, comes from government sources and from the United Way (about 30 percent from each), while private foundations add another chunk.

Buncombe County’s portion is “very small,” Collins adds, while the remainder of the organization’s budget comes from various fund-raising events and public appeals. Helpmate’s 80 active volunteers, involved in all areas of our agency, help offset expenses.

Women’s Fest 2003: Sistahs on Stage is the largest fund-raiser Helpmate has attempted since Collins took over the agency three years ago. While Helpmate hasn’t earmarked festival proceeds for specific programs, she says, 80 percent of the proceeds will go directly to client care (the shelter, counseling, court advocacy, etc.).

“The rest of it goes to overhead, which is mostly the mortgage and utilities for the shelter,” Collins elaborates.

This 80/20 split is considered above average for nonprofits, she notes: “With the average nonprofit, [only] 25 percent goes to overhead.”

So how does Women’s Fest compare to, say, the high-profile Lilith Fair (a musical forum for women artists as well as a large-scale fund-raiser for women-centered organizations such as The Breast Cancer Fund; The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN); and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

“The comparison is fair,” Collins says. “I’ve been teasing that it should be called Laurapalooza, [though] it’s not exclusively her project. A lot of good energy has gone into it.”

Much of that has been generated by event organizers, who started working on the festival last summer. They still meet about once a week to hammer out details.

Though the event is free, there will be a small parking fee, and booths are being sold for $100 to local artisans (potters, jewelry makers, painters) and businesses (massage therapists, T-shirt designers, food vendors).

“We will offer free booth space to like-minded nonprofits, elaborates Eva Hartman, a festival committee member and Helpmate volunteer. “We want to allow [these] other organizations to be there for little or no cost.”

The idea is to encourage people who don’t have much money to still come and participate, Hartman explains.

“People can lounge in the sun and listen to music in a safe environment,” she adds. “Everybody is welcome — the entire community.”

“I don’t know why there aren’t more events that feature women artists,” Laura Blackley muses. “Lilith Fair was the highest-grossing festival [1997-99] — higher-grossing than [even] Lollapalooza.

“We hope that if it becomes a yearly thing, it will continue to be free and open to anybody,” she continues. “[But] my biggest hope [is] that it’s well-attended and well-supported.

“That, and we hope people don’t forget why we’re doing it.”

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