Build a Better Community: Invest in Women


Over $200,000. That’s how much money was raised at the 7th annual Women’s Fund of East Tennessee luncheon in mid-April.

As the keynote, I was delighted to play a small role in this year’s event, which was dedicated the formidable Betsy Bush. Much to my regret, I never had the opportunity to meet Betsy Bush, who passed away last year. That is one thing I look forward to about eternity – the chance to sit and visit with all the wonderful people I never got to meet, to hear their stories, to enjoy their laughter, to learn of their daring.

Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to track down stories of Betsy. Her son, Jay, (yes, that Jay Bush of Duke fame) and her grandson Cameron were gracious enough to share their own memories of Betsy.  By the time of the event, I had a pretty good sense of the woman Betsy Bush had been and how her devotion to the city of Knoxville had impacted the lives of so many other women.

I had arrived in Knoxville a few days early and much to my shock, it was snowing. Yes. Snowing in Knoxville. In mid-April. I had not expected snow and was not prepared for the less than idea Spring weather.  The luncheon was an outdoor tent event so I fretted a bit about how well everything would turn out if the cold spell continued, but I needn’t have worried. The force that is the Women’s Fund is more powerful than Mother Nature.

Hundreds turned out. About 700, in fact. Talk about a gathering under the Big Tent. It was awe-inspiring. They had gathered to hear me tell stories about Betsy Bush and about my own mother, Shelby Spears.

Women who are writing success stories of their own. Women who have overcome challenges untold, faced obstacles galore. They circled the day in red on their calendars and they showed up in their Manolo Blahniks and Christian Louboutins and in cashmere wraps and camel hair jackets, in white wool slacks and jersey-knit skirts. They turned out by the SUV load.

They came like a flood of goodness washing over that wide-open green space, the way women have been gathering for generations upon generations, all in an effort to do right by other women. Women in need of encouragement. Women in need of an education. Women in need of hope. Women in need of a listening ear. Women in need of a cheerleader. Women in need of a vision. Women in need of financial help.

Their mission is straightforward: At the Women’s Fund of East Tennessee, we believe that when you invest in a woman, you invest in a family, a community, and ultimately a region.The Fund serves 25 counties throughout East Tennessee, offering grants that enable women to better their lives through life skills, work skills, education and access to mentoring.

The Women’s Fund works off of the belief that plenty of women are trying to better their lives. Their goal is to give that assist that women need in order to become financially stable, to be able to care for themselves and their families, to become a contributing member to their own communities.

It’s not easy teaching women that they deserve better, especially in a culture in which women have been raised to not expect too much out of life. A culture in which men are more highly regarded than women, whether because of misguided faith traditions or just old-fashioned misogyny. A culture in which women are not encouraged to seek a leadership role, in the church or in the workforce.

Don’t get above your raising is the common refrain that most any woman who was raised in Tennessee has heard at some point in her life.

Don’t want more for yourself.

Be content it the other way young girls are taught to subvert their desires and abilities to that of their male counterparts.

It’s not solely a Southern thing. Girls from a host of regions, from a host of different cultures are told the same thing: Don’t want too much. You’ll only be disappointed. You are, after all, only a girl.

But trying telling that to the mayor of Knoxville.

Madeline Rogero is the first woman to ever be elected to the position. She was re-elected to a second-term in 2015. This is a woman who postponed her own college studies in the mid-1970s in order to work with Cesar Chavez to help migrants improve their living and working conditions. A woman who has served on boards for Gen. Colin Powell, Dolly Parton and President Barack Obama, seeking ways to impart vision to others.

Or tell that to Sharon J Pryse, Chairman  and Chief Executive Officer, The Trust Company, who was one of the co-sponsors, along with Diane Carter. Sharon has her own remarkable story of rising up in the face of discrimination. You can read about some of that in this interview with Sharon.

I wish I could recount to you the stories of many of the women who are making a difference in Knoxville. Women like Robin Wilhoit, a journalist at Knoxville’s WBIR. Or Alice Mercer, Terry Morgan, or Dawn Ford, who is also one of the leaders in Honor Flights Knoxville. Stay tuned because I hope to join Dawn for one of those flights out of Knoxville.

It was an easy thing for me to ask the folks at the luncheon to donate to the Women’s Fund. I believe in their mission. I believe that when we lift others up, we all rise. I believe that especially in regards to women.

During the keynote, I read from a poem by Maya Angelou, who herself had a story of overcoming horrors untold:

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody.
Can make it out here alone.

We can’t.

We cannot make it out here alone.

We need each other.

We are needed by others.

There are hundreds of women in Knoxville, Tennessee who understand that nobody can rise up in isolation.

That’s why there is a Women’s Fund of East Tennessee.

To learn more about the Fund or to make a donation, visit them here.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN, One Book One West Virginia Read 2018. (Mercer University Press).




Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

1 Comment

Estella C Shockley

about 5 years ago

When you fly high over Knoxville, think of "hero Mama" and me...we are so very proud of you. Thanks for the beautiful words...again.


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