An empathetic response by the North Oconee Rotary Club to a member’s statement of concern about possible discrimination against her Chinese-born, adopted daughters after the November election has had an unexpected outcome.
A group, calling itself Oconee Progressives and claiming nearly 300 members, has emerged.
The goal is community building, the women say, and they’ve organized luncheon meetings and picnics for their families so people can get together and share their concerns.
Also planned is a workshop to help children learn how to deal with bullying and another workshop to teach participants how to write more effectively letters to advocate for their causes.
Story Shared Twice
The story of the formation of Oconee Progressives is a complex and surprising one that begins with Andrea Wellnitz, 47, an artist and social worker who works with veterans who are at risk for being homeless.
Wellnitz lives in the far west of the county near Statham.
Wellnitz first shared her concerns about the implications of the elections on her two daughters, adopted from China, with the Rotary.
Then she shared the positive response of the Rotary with her friends on Facebook.
That second sharing led to the emergence of Oconee Progressives.
Holt And Kettering
Margaret Holt, 69, a retired professor of Adult Education at the University of Georgia, who lives on Mars Hill Road in the northwest of the county, found the story of Oconee Progressives so compelling that she wanted it documented.
She asked Wellnitz and three of her colleagues to meet on the morning of May 15 in the Athens office of entertainment attorney Bertis Downs.
Holt and I met a number of years ago when she was doing a report for the Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, on civic life in Oconee County.
Subsequently, I, too, have done work with Kettering, examining the contribution of journalism to what Kettering calls deliberative democracy.
Holt asked me to attend her interview on May 15, and I agreed on the condition that I could tell the story of Oconee Progressives on this blog.
Four Women And A Story
Holt spent a little more than a half hour interviewing the four women.
Present, in addition to Wellnitz, were: Courtney Davis, 41, an attorney in Athens specializing in bankruptcy; Tracey Wyatt, 47, a licensed professional counselor with private practices in Georgia and South Carolina; and Fabiana Hayden, 44, a linguist who teaches, translates, and develops curricula and other products for both Portuguese and Spanish languages.
Davis has a 13-year-old son and lives in Watkinsville.
Wyatt has an 11-year-old daughter and lives in the west of the county off U.S. 78.
Hayden has a 10-year-old son and lives near Oconee Veterans Park.
All are registered voters in Oconee County.
Holt is former chair of the Oconee Democratic Party.
Invitation From Rotary
The story of Oconee Progressives begins with the North Oconee Rotary Club.
Earlier this year, the North Oconee Rotary invited Wellnitz, a new member, to share a story and do an introduction to the group.
As she was preparing for her comments at the end of January, Wellnitz said in the session with Holt, she received a newsletter from the Rotary talking about peace building and about the role of the Rotary in producing understanding in the community.
She decided to focus on that theme in her introduction, using her family as the centerpiece.
PowerPoint And Pictures
Wellnitz prepared a PowerPoint presentation, with referral pictures of her then-infant daughters from China.
“We brought our oldest home when she was 11 months old and our youngest home when she was 14 months old,” Wellnitz said. “And I’m bringing them home to this amazing country of ours, to America.”
Wellnitz said she and her husband had “hopes and dreams for my children to grow up in a diverse community...and dreams that they are going to grow up and have opportunities in our country.”
Those daughters are now 11 and 13.
Present Concerns Stated
Wellnitz told the members of the Rotary Club “about my concern right now in the United States as their mom.”
“Crimes against Asian Americans have tripled in some communities,” Wellnitz said, “and that’s really concerning for me.”
Wellnitz said she has “worries about the first time someone might say to my daughters, you know, ‘Why don’t you go home?’ when really this is their home.”
“I wanted to talk to the Rotary Club about my hope that we would be a club that would promote peace and that we would also be a club that, if we hear of hate, in our community, we would stand up and speak out against that,” Wellnitz said.
The response from the Rotary was very positive, Wellnitz said.
“I was really inspired by how it turned out,” Wellnitz said. “I had a lot of positive feedback from the other Rotary members. And I left feeling really hopeful.”
Wellnitz was so hopeful, in fact, that she decided to share the Rotary Club experience on Facebook.
That posting on Facebook hit a resonant chord.
Other people from Oconee County came forward to say they shared Wellnitz’s concerns and hopes for the county.
And that was the beginning of Oconee Progressives.
“I saw that post,” Davis said. “I’m in Rotary. It was right after the Women’s March in Washington.
“I had just returned from Washington in a car full of Oconee women. We had gone up together. Oconee moms. We didn’t, I don’t think, identify as activists or anything like that. But I knew that they were out there. I knew there was a larger community of progressive people in Oconee.”
Davis said she saw in the responses to Wellnitz’s post “that people felt very isolated. ‘Oh, I didn’t know that there were people like me out here.’”
Davis started a Facebook group.
“I think it was a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon,” she said. “By that weekend, there were a couple of hundred people in that group.”
Sense of Relief
Wyatt also saw the Facebook post by Wellnitz.
She said she didn’t know “any of these ladies” but she responded saying “if you ever want to go to coffee,” get in touch.
“Watching all of these people respond, it was that sense of relief,” Wyatt said.
“I had organized buses for the Women’s March as well,” Wyatt said, “but I focused on Athens, because I didn’t know where to turn to in Oconee.”
“I have an 11-year old who’s about to go into Middle School,” Wyatt said. “And so all of these things happening right now here in our country since the election, they touched me.”
“I saw Andrea’s post,” Hayden said. And she saw Wyatt’s response.
“I’m thinking, I want to join this. I want to go to coffee with these people,” Hayden said.
“And then, all of a sudden, one of my friends asked me to Oconee Progressives,” Hayden said.
“And I’m there, and I see all of these people joining. The numbers went to 200 very quickly, in a few days. It was really impressive. It was really a relief, actually, to see all these progressives in Oconee, which is a mostly conservative county.”
Only By Invitation
Membership in Oconee Progressives at present is by invitation only.
Present members invite new members.
Hayden is handling the Facebook logistics, and she said at present there were 284 members in the Facebook group, basically people who were added by friends.
Those interested in joining can contact Hayden at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s In A Name
All four of the women admitted that they are political.
But it’s not a matter of being a Democrat or a Republic or a liberal or a conservative, Wyatt said.
“We’re here to hold our community together, whatever shape that takes,” she said.
“It is still about our community, and anyone who wants to get involved in those things, regardless of party,” is welcome, she said.
“Progressives is a title that is comforting to people who are members of this group,” Hayden said.
The four women talked frankly about their feelings and their experiences raising children in Oconee County.
Wyatt said her daughter came home and “told me, ‘I have a teacher who said that Hillary is supposed to be in jail.’” Wyatt said she and her daughter had a talk about that.
Davis said “my son goes to school, and there were chants of ‘Build the Wall, Build the Wall,’ things like that.
“So we in our family had a discussion with him about how to be an ally to your friends, particularly in that instance. He has a lot of Latino friends. So how to be an ally. How to stand with your friends.”
The complete video is below. It begins with an introduction by Holt and then turns to Wellnitz's story.