In tough times, influential women unite to inspire one another

By Caroline Tanner
Medill Reports

CHICAGO – “Every woman is a pioneer,” rang loudly through the Chicago Theatre on October 24, during a night of honest talk between eight women on a couch, designed to portray a conversation you’d have with your friends in your living room. Aimed at uniting public figures with fellow women, the traveling Together Live Tour brought together 3,000 people, almost exclusively women, mostly white and young. A few men accompanied their dates, appearing to be fathers, husbands and boyfriends.

The audience was first subjected to a live reading of love letters and text messages between a former professional athlete and a New York Times bestselling author. It was reminiscent of a scene from a bad Lifetime holiday movie, but audience members didn’t seem to care, soaking up the real-life love story.

Chicago marked the second-to-last stop of the national 10-city tour, in which influential women shared their personal stories of challenging times and struggles marked by growth. Speakers included authors, Olympians, actresses, social justice activists and entrepreneurs.

During a nearly four-hour conversation with each other and the audience, the panelists talked honestly and informally about various issues they’ve all faced at one point in their lives and careers, including racism, sexual harassment, failure and the decision to speak up.

Lincoln Park resident Alyssa Hannah, 16, attended the speech with her mom and said the idea of letting go of fear resonated with her.

“I stay in fear a lot,” said Hannah, a University of Chicago Lab School student. “The idea of just doing it is really important.”

The tour was co-founded by Jennifer Randolph Walsh, who runs the literary division of the talent agency WME.

“The Together Tour is the evolution of a collective dream — a fierce, intersectional, multi-generational gathering where you will hear from badass, earth-shaking, hilarious, authentic storytellers from across the globe,” Walsh said.

International soccer star Abby Wombach and author Glennon Doyle shared their real life love story on stage.

The evening began with two-time Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach and her wife, author Glennon Doyle, reading love letters they’d written to each other since meeting in 2016.

“We have this one life, fight for love,” said Doyle, an activist on women’s and children’s issues and author of the New York Times bestselling book “Love Warrior.” “That’s when I stopped asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”

Wambach recalled the night she first met Doyle at the  2016 ESPY Awards. It came at a time of transition for Wambach, who announced her retirement from soccer in December 2015, as the all-time leading scorer in international soccer history. Less than three months prior to meeting Doyle, Wambach was arrested in Portland on a DUI charge.

“Failure is the thing that people try to avoid the most, but it’s the thing that we learn from the most,” said Wambach, who is now focusing her career on “fighting for equality and inclusion across industries.”

Ten-year Army veteran Jen Lee saw the show with his girlfriend. Lee, 31, who is originally from San Antonio, talked about the role men play in supporting women’s empowerment.

“I think that we need to be more open to talk about touchy subjects,” said Lee. “{As men} we don’t need to be in charge all the time.”

Author and wellness expert Latham Thomas leads the audience in a group meditation.

“Are you breathing Chicago?” asked Latham Thomas, a celebrity wellness and lifestyle expert and author of the new book, “Own Your Glow.”

Thomas led a group meditation, in which she invited the audience to close their eyes, sit on the edge of their seats and breathe deeply. After a few minutes, audience members were then encouraged to stand up and connect to one another by feeling the bra straps of the person standing next to them, holding on to one another to engage in a communal hum. Throughout the several-minute meditation, the room was silent other than Thomas chanting that “we are wired and nurtured to support one another and gather together because our lives depend on it.”

Nearly every audience member participated.

“This night is an opportunity to expand and become the best versions of ourselves,” said Thomas. “As fully expressed dreams of our ancestors, united we rise.”

Referring to herself as a “side-eye sorceress,” New York Times bestselling author and digital strategist Luvvie Ajayi spoke about her struggle to come to terms with identifying as a writer.

“It took me nine years to finally say I’m a writer because that wasn’t the plan,” said Ajayi. “I was supposed to be a doctor.”

Nigerian-born Ajayi, who also serves as the executive director of the Red Pump Project, a nonprofit that educates women of color about HIV, encouraged listeners to do the thing that scares you, because you can run away afterwards and deal with it.

“I’m hoping my journey inspires other people to be boldly themselves,” said Ajayi. “Each giant leap gets slightly easier because if that’s what’s in your spirit, you’ve got to do it.”

Chicago was the ninth city to host Together Live.

“Inclusion is awesome,” beamed 2016 Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was the first Muslim American female athlete to medal for the U.S. Olympic team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as the first American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.

Muhammad weighed in on Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has sparked criticism from President Donald Trump for kneeling in protest against police brutality during the national anthem at NFL games.

“Anyone who tells you this is about a lack of patriotism is missing the point,” said Muhammad. “We have to keep pushing forward.”

Representing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Lupe Gonzalo, a migrant farmworker who works in Immokalee, Florida, shared her story in Spanish.

“I, just like 80 percent of women who have worked in the fields, have experienced sexual violence,” said Gonzalo, who is now “demand[ing] the right for women to work in an environment free of abuse,”

Gonzalo spoke about the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, an alliance between farmworkers and consumers to enlist major food retailers, including McDonald’s and Whole Foods, to sign Fair Food agreements with the CIW in an effort to end farm labor exploitation.

In a one-on-one interview before the event, Gonzalo touched on how she was denied access to water while working in the fields and the physical abuse she and her fellow farmworkers endured in retaliation for attempting to drink water. She said that suffering sexual violence was not the exception, but the rule at the farm where she works, and noted similar treatment occurs at other farms.

“Together we have the power to create change,” said Gonzalo. “It’s time that women start working in a world where they are treated with dignity and respect.”

Photo at top: Three of the night’s speakers are featured on screen. From left to right, human rights advocate Alisa Roadcup, columnist Jamia Wilson and author Luvvie Ajayi. (Caroline Tanner/MEDILL)