Corinna Wood, founder of The Southeast Wise Women’s Herbal Conference, says she has always been a woman in business, specifically in “women-owned, women-run businesses.”
Inspired by the women’s herbal conferences popping up in the Northeast and across the country in the 1990s, Wood starting thinking that the Southeast would be eager for this kind of gathering. This year’s 12th annual conference will take place at Lake Eden in Black Mountain, Friday-Sunday, Oct. 14-16.
The conference celebrated its first event in 2005, with approximately 200 women attending. Since then, attendance has grown to over 1,000, in addition to several year-round staff members, dozens of seasonal staff members, hundreds of volunteers and a vendor marketplace — all made up of women, says Wood.
“What we quickly discovered was that the community was more than ready, that the conference is filling a hunger for the Wise Woman Ways in this region,” she says.
With over 60 classes on a wide range of topics — including plant identification, herbs and traditional medicine, health and healing, women’s empowerment, nutrition, creativity, song and dance, sacred sexuality, mindful living, the wise woman ways and much more — the conference now has a heart and soul of its own, Wood says. “At this year’s conference, we’re getting back to our roots,” she says, adding that the overall theme is “Plants as Medicine.”
“The plants brought us together for the first Southeast Wise Women’s Herbal Conference,” Wood says. “We are reaffirming our commitment to receiving their many gifts by welcoming back some of the finest — and most beloved — female herbalists in the land.”
Decades ago, Wood studied with Pam Montgomery, an elder in the herbal community. Montgomery will teach at the conference, offering an intensive session called “Plant Spirit Healing: Personal, Professional and Planetary.” And integrative medical doctor Jody Noé will lead “Medical Herbal Strategies for Integrative Cancer Therapies.” Other highlights include an intensive on stone medicine with local acupuncturist and stone medicine teacher Sarah Thomas and another on stress and the endocrine system with herbalist and United Plant Savers board member Kathleen Maier.
“And while the classes and teachers are usually the main draw to the conference, there is so much more to experience,” Wood says. “From dawn to dusk and beyond into the night, participants enjoy many opportunities to learn, celebrate and connect.” Dancing, yoga, storytelling, and sweet serenades by sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith of Rising Appalachia round out the activities on this year’s schedule.
“For many, it has become an annual event,” Wood says, “a tradition in education, inspiration and sisterhood.”
By women, for women
“What Southeast Wise Women is doing is probably unusual,” Wood says, “because we are not only women in business, or a women-owned business, but also, the services we offer are specifically oriented toward women’s health and women’s needs.”
The vision of the conference is to offer women educational tools, wisdom and experiences to support physical and emotional health, she says.
Wood adds that she enjoys running events with an all-woman staff. “We find that there is a sense of shared experience as women, as well as shared understanding around what’s valuable about our offerings.”
Kifu Fariq, a member of the Unity Village and programming team for the conference, says, “Organizing an event with women for women feels like I’m standing in my purpose as a seed keeper. I’m able to share ancestral knowledge from a female perspective that has been passed down from women to women, about how to be in right relationship with the planet, ourselves, and one another.”
Wood says her staff culture includes self-awareness, personal integrity, staff harmony and clear communication.
Members of the conference team also have a mutual appreciation and passion for herbs, nutrition, earth-friendly living and the education and safety of women and girls today.
“While emotions in the corporate world are often viewed as a handicap,” says Renee Conover, the conference’s programming director, “my experience being a part of an all-woman team organizing an all-women event is that we are able to celebrate our intuition as a doorway into creativity and connection.”
Conover and conference coordinator Ema Carmona have both been involved since SE Wise’s inception. Carmona says she loves seeing the familiar faces return year after year and the sense of connection and belonging that emerges in the all-woman context, as well as the joy of being together.
Wood notes, however, that creating and producing the weekend conference with a pack of women hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Reflecting on the conference beginnings, Wood says they initially had rough patches, such as the challenge of getting sponsors, media or venues to take the event seriously.
“As the conference continued to sustain, grow and thrive over the years,” she says, “we’ve seen a lot of those attitudes shift. In the early years, we felt intimidated in some areas like sound and electricity. We didn’t have any experience in those areas and had been socialized as women to think of those as male roles.”
Through the process of attending other women’s gatherings and networking with other women in a range of trades, their beliefs about their own capacity started to shift, Wood recalls. “We gained the confidence that as women, we, too, can learn those skills.”
The conference’s all-female seasonal crew now includes sound engineers, carpenters, natural building experts, riggers and electricians.
“The experience of producing the herbal conference is an ongoing education in women’s empowerment in itself,” Wood explains. “We’ve all been inspired to experience, through the implementation of the event, how capable and competent women really are.”
Waking the Wise Woman
According to Wood, there’s a key tradition of herbal medicine at the heart of the offerings and events at the conference: The Wise Woman Way is “a tradition for women that embraces the earth, local plants, deep nourishment and self-love,”she says.
“In a way, [this tradition] is a process of remembering much of what we already know,” she says, “including ancestral memories of using wild plants around us as food and medicine.”
Woods adds, “Many women [who attend the conference] feel a deep resonance, a cellular memory of a way of life.
“Just as the natural cycles of our world constantly move through day and night, from dark moon to full moon, from winter to summer, we honor our natural cycles — our ebbs and flows — and turn our attention away from ‘fixing’ ourselves, and toward nourishing ourselves, physically, emotionally and spiritually, such that our bodies respond by moving toward optimal health,” she says.
Same But Different
Wood claims that the woman-only setting is important for providing a safe container to explore issues unique to women. “It allows us to focus on issues that are important to us, free from potential shame or misunderstanding,” she says.
A large component of the conference is celebrating and developing understanding around the differences as well as the commonalities among women, she says. This includes special offerings for elders, like the croning ceremony and elder’s circle, as well as workshops on how racism and systemic oppression affect women’s health.
Given the current state of events across the country and most recently in Charlotte, the conference considers racial dynamics to be an important component to address, both individually and communally, says Wood.
“As organizers primarily of European descent living in the Southeast United States, we recognize the unique struggles that African-American, indigenous, and other women of color have endured in these lands and continue to face today,” she says. “All women are affected by dynamics of racial oppression. However, for women of color, day-to-day experiences of systemic racism, microaggressions, and internalized oppression add up to health risk factors.”
A class with activist Amikaeyla Gaston from the World Trust Organization called “Healer Heal Thyself” is one of the ways participants can take a deeper look into racism and bias in themselves and the world, Wood adds.
The conference is also open to anyone who self-identifies as a woman, she notes. “We do sometimes have trans women attend, who are resonant with our focus around earth-based healing and women’s health.”
“The Unity Village is the heart of the conference,” she adds. “It includes a gathering place for women of color as well as opportunities for all women to build bridges of understanding.
“Women share many common experiences,” Wood notes. “As we gather together as women, we connect and celebrate our commonalities as well as our differences. In this safe container, we cultivate self-love and dissolve barriers between women.
“Last but not least, we so appreciate that the men of our extended community are very supportive and respectful of this women-only space we create,” says Wood, “and [we] love the idea of the SE Wise Guys Conference!”
For more info, visit www.sewisewomen.com.
WHAT: Southeast Wise Women’s Herbal Conference.
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 14, 7:30 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 15, 7 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 16, 7 a.m. – 2 p.m.
WHERE: Lake Eden, Black Mountain
REGISTRATION: To register in advance, visit www.sewisewomen.com/herbal-conference/registration; walk-in registration is Thursday, Oct. 13, 4:30-6:30 p.m., and Friday, Oct. 14, 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
COST: $305 (includes camping)