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Jason Kucsma

Can you tell us about WERISE – what it is and what you all are working toward?

WERISE (Women Empowered Through Revolutionary Ideas Supporting Enterprise) was co-founded by Tomasia Kastner, Rozz Nash and Imani Uzuri. It is a women's arts organization with a collective component. Multi-cultural and multi-generational. WERISE seeks to empower and support women artists from a diversity of artistic backgrounds including visual artists, dancers, spoken word artists, singers, and photographers by coordinating and producing events to highlight the work of women within the collective as well as workshops, forums and retreats. We meet biweekly to organize various events throughout the city, as well as provide an opportunity for artists to network and learn from one another. We are most currently working on our International Women Artists Conference (the first annual) for women artists to be held at Barnard College in September 2002. By and far the group is talented, powerful, rejuvenating, and spiritual. We seek to support every member of the collective to fulfill their dreams in the art world...whatever they might be. Economic empowerment is critical to the work we support.

This past spring, you had your first fashion show. How did the idea to do a fashion show come about? How does it fit into the work of WERISE?

The fashion show idea came about last summer during our first board retreat in Ithaca. We were all sitting around a bonfire dreaming up our future as a collective. Myself and Imani Uzuri started talking about producing a fashion show for young women artists, called Individual Style. It made so much sense, as we are both interested in fashion and both are activists. We wanted to highlight the work of young women who are designing with depth, reflective of their communities both in New York City and their native homelands. The show was not your typical vapid-like (a bit of a harsh word) fashion show. We were all excited to produce a show that highlighted both the individual style of each artist, yet at the same time exemplified how powerful it is to bring together seemingly separate ideas/experiences into a sexy and powerful program.

Who was responsible for the show and how was it organized?

Imani and I immediately starting prepping for the show in January. We started spreading the word among our communities and through the WERISE collective that we were looking for designers. It went amazingly smooth. At our first planning meeting each designer showed pieces of their work and spoke about what vision they had for the show. The production of the show was quite collective (in terms of vision, staging etc). Imani and I coordinated most of the logistics, such as lights, music, and a DJ. It was a diverse group of designers — Black, Asian, South Asian, Latina...and the beauty of it was that we used our friends, friends of friends, and colleagues to model for us. Each individual selected their own music and a musician friend of mine put it all together.

I'm assuming this might have been the first time some of these women worked together collectively. Was this a conscious decision on your part as organizers? Given the short amount of time to plan the event and the sometimes time-intensive collective decision-making processes, what kind of obstacles did you all encounter and how did you overcome them?

Interesting question. In my day to day life, I co-direct the Third Wave Foundation (a feminist activist foundation www.thirdwave Within this organization and within other young women-led organizations, I find that it is quite typical to make collective decisions. I see it as part of the larger social justice movement happening across the country. The women I interact with, both at work and within groups such as WERISE, are not comfortable with the power dynamic associated with one or a small group of people making all of the decisions. In essence, we are challenging many of the traditional feminist organizations that structure themselves in a hierarchy. Of course, collective/consensus-building doesn't come without its obstacles, as you so poignantly ask. It is difficult at times to be mindful of deadlines when making decisions collectively. It is common to ignore and miss deadlines, truthfully. It is important to assign each individual with specifics roles and responsibilities. Everyone is accountable to each other and to the larger cause. This group was amazing to work with, as everyone respected the deadlines and most importantly believed strongly in what we were trying to produce. This is the ideal. Those of us doing activist work on a daily basis know that at times this is not the reality. On the bright side, when you have a group of people sitting around the table, a table where everyone is heard and respected equally, your vision is stronger because of all the diverse opinions, ideas, and input. That is why the fashion show was a success.

Could you tell us a little about the logistics? How much time did you have to set it up? How did you publicize it? What kind of turn out was it (i.e. who showed up, how many). Was there any press there? If so, how was it reported?

We all met about four times prior to the show and e-mailed weekly about invites and other logistics. The lighting and music was donated. The week before the show we met to coordinate the runway, figure out the order of appearances and what we would say about each piece. We never had a dress rehearsal! The day of the show was bustling with 30 models and last minute design preparations. The DJ spun music and Imani hosted the event. About 120 people showed up and we had to turn people away! Unfortunately, we didn't do any formal public relations or media work. In retrospect, we should have. Because the event turned out so well. People were jazzed.

Are there plans to work on more shows? What are some of the lessons you learned from this show that you'll take with you to future shows?

Given the success of the last show, we met a few weeks ago and are planning a larger show in the fall (early October). We are all working to secure a space either in downtown Manhattan or Williamsburg. I am trying to plan well in advance, as we are going to invite fashion folks, clothing store owners etc. I am going to put together press kits with photos of each designers pieces, as well as bios. I think this should and could go somewhere. Plus, I am quite interested in producing shows such as this, so I want to commit the time and energy it takes to make it a must see and experience kind of thing.

For more information or to get involved, contact W.E.R.I.S.E c/o SisterFund, 116 East 16th Street, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10003
Phone: (212) 894-3723 x12,

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