New group connects Tucson women across cultures

(L-R) Debi Chess-Mabie, Shelley Lipowich and Maria Rodriguez participate in a Habitat for Humanity build on March 23.

Following the passage of Arizona SB 1070, an anti-illegal immigrant measure that critics say encourages racial profiling of Hispanics, in April 2010, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, considered ways to support Tucson’s Hispanic community, says Brenda Landau, JFSA director of women’s philanthropy and community relations. She knew about Threads, a Jewish/African-American/Latina women’s dialogue group run by the Birmingham Jewish Federation, which had succeeded in building more understanding in that city.

It was a model that could work in Tucson. Tucson’s Jewish/Latina/African-American women’s group first met in December. Sara Lindenbaum, an attorney at the Pima County Office of Children’s Counsel, was there. “I grew up in Wichita, Kan., where there was a lack of cross-cultural understanding,” says Lindenbaum, adding that the opportunity to engage in cross-cultural bonding “was a neat, innovative thing.” Striving for social justice was familiar to her: “My dad runs a nursing home,” she notes. “He’s got the social justice gene too.”

Blending social opportunities and community activism was also key to other participants in the group, which includes women from their 30s to their 60s. Anywhere from 10 to 25 members meet for conversation monthly. The Tucson Urban League cosponsors the group, which has named itself Women Connecting Across Cultures.

Many of the women say the group’s Habitat for Humanity build on March 23 was a highlight for them. It was a “win, win, win all the way with all three of our cultures on site, scrambling up ladders,” says Shelley Lipowich, one of the Jewish community members. “I believe women can accomplish anything. I believe it in my bones.”

Gabrielle Lee, an international airlines reservation specialist and African-American community member, attended her first women’s group meeting recently. “Tucson is a place where people blend and mix,” she says, but having moved here from Los Angeles 20 years ago, she still hadn’t created a network of women and was eager to join when a friend invited her.

The group is devising its own identity, says Marcia Zaccaria, a former educator. “Women have such an important role in society and the family,” she says. What inspired Zaccaria to be part of the group was a trip she took to Turkey last summer with her husband, Michael. “I had the profound experience of communicating without language in another culture at a pre-wedding henna ceremony,” she told the AJP. “As foreign as it was to me, I felt comfortable and safe. There were no barriers.”

The Women Connecting Across Cultures group introduces women of different backgrounds to each other, sometimes for the first time. “I’m not familiar with the Jewish culture,” says Maria Rodriguez. “I didn’t know anyone in the Jewish community,” she said, which encouraged one of the women to suggest making chicken soup and hamentaschen together, while another quickly chimed in, “and tamales.”

While cooking together can build the cohesiveness of the group, it also establishes a bond, says Rodriguez, “to make a dif­ference in the community.”