Mountain Mama Sits Down with Anna Levesque and Melina Coogan

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Two of Western North Carolina’s finest outdoorswomen, Anna Levesque who has dedicated her life to empowering women on and off the water and Melina Coogan who is a photographer and adventure writer, teamed up to organize travel logistics from Asheville to the DC for the Women’s March this coming Saturday. Women and men are gathering to stand together in solidarity, believing that the strength of our country comes from our vibrant and diverse communities.

When one of us succeeds, we all rise. That was the spirit of the gathering at a café in Asheville to make signs for the Women’s March in DC, to listen to a presentation about civil disobedience and to receive information about the march.I had the opportunity to sit down with Anna and Melina and was so inspired by their words that I want to share them here with you:

Were you politically active before the election?

Melina: Until recently, I was mostly all talk. I’ve always cared deeply about the environment and social issues, but it wasn’t until last October when I started seeing more Trump than Hillary signs that I was moved to take action.

I kept thinking that I haven’t done anything to stop this. I’ll have to tell the kids that I haven’t yet had that I stood by and watched.

Anna: In college I studied international studies and spent a semester in Chile, focusing on liberation theology in Latin America. I interviewed people who were exiled, men and women who had been tortured. I saw first-hand what it was like to live under a dictatorship, to hear the stories of people who had been silenced by their government.

My life took a detour and I have focused on empowering women through kayaking. When I started seeing more ego-centered leaders use extreme rhetoric, I had to do something. I felt that if I remained silent, I’d be contributing to the problem. I don’t want to look back in twenty years and wish that I had taken action.

How did you become involved?

Melina:  I volunteered with the Hillary campaign during the last three weeks of the election. I made phone calls and greeted people at the polls handing out the democratic ticket. The first thirty-six hours after the election I was in a state of horror and when that lifted I realized that it would be a new world for me, for everyone. I got in touch with Anna and we talked about organizing the Asheville contingency of the Women’s March in DC.  We started brainstorming how we can move forward after the march with connecting women throughout Western North Carolina. Anna, I know you’ve spent decades empowering women on the water. How has your work leading kayaking trips overlapped with organizing logistics to travel to DC?

Anna: Organizing kayaking trips involves a lot of the same skills including group management, communication, risk management, and organizing transportation. Now I’ve taken on that same role as trip leader in a different setting. Helping with the march logistics has gotten me outside my bubble and connected me to women I might not have met otherwise. This project challenged me to do something different while still using my same skill set. Stepping outside my comfort zone has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve met so many great women in our community.

How have you incorporated political activism into your lifestyle?

Melina: Up until I was twenty-nine, I lived a dreamy outdoor existence – every weekend I was either rock climbing or kayaking. Then I got sick with lymes disease. I stayed at home for an entire year. I couldn’t go outside. There were days when I couldn’t even read.

I asked, “Why is this happening to me?”

All of my outdoor friends were healthy and going on new adventures, while I was battling for my life.

The more I got involved with chronic illness community I started answering my question of why not me. I’m not entitled to good health more than any other person. Spending so much time outdoors probably put me at a greater risk for getting lymes disease.

Now when there’s an opportunity to affect positive change, my mantra has become “why not me.” We would all rather go outside and play, but if nobody shows up then our voices go unheard.

Has it been intimidating to become involved with activists projects?

Anna: Calling representatives is like paddling a scary rapid. I really want to do it but at the same time would rather not.

All the same worries pop up. Making calls can be intimidating, but then it’s just a matter of picking up the phone and communicating my opinion about a particular policy. Just like paddling hard rapids, the more I do it, the easier it becomes, and I always feel good after I make calls to representatives.

What tips do you have for others who might want to get involved but don’t know where to start?

Anna:  Get involved in a group on Facebook. At first you can just read the posts and private message people.

Share your interest with friends and family, start with a safe circle and ask them questions. Share your own actions and story.

Melina: Speaking from the perspective of someone who is new to activism, it’s simpler than you think. Show up to something because just like anything, it’s all about momentum and inertia.

The hardest meeting or march or rally is going to be the first one. Give yourself permission to go late and leave early if that what it takes, just leave the house and go. It’s easy to get caught in the self-talk that you’re just one person, but if we all did that we’d be sitting home drinking coffee.

So far it’s been a real warm and positive experience connecting with others. I feel an immediate bond with anyone going to the march. We all need to fight the panic, grief, and dread and I don’t think we should face that alone. We are so much stronger together.

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