For more than a quarter of a century, AWARE’s Women of Distinction gala has brought overlooked stories — both of survivors and volunteers — to light.
On Tuesday, AWARE announced its 2023 Women of Distinction Honorees. AWARE is a non-profit organization that works to prevent violence and support people who have experienced gender-based violence in Southeast Alaska. For the past 26 years, the organization has held a Women of Distinction Gala to celebrate women who’ve made a positive impact on the Juneau community through their service.
AWARE announced the 2023 honorees are Susan Bell, Jeni Brown, LaRae Jones and Kate Wolfe. The four are set to be honored at the upcoming event at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on March 4 of 2023.
Along with honoring the women, the event’s proceeds will also raise money to go toward AWARE’s intervention and prevention services and its adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence. According to AWARE, tickets will go on sale in January.
Mandy Cole, executive director of AWARE, said each year the honorees are chosen by the AWARE board of directors based on nominations sent in during early fall where anyone in the community can nominate a woman from or is connected to Juneau who holds the qualities of integrity, dedication and leadership and has provided positive service to diverse communities in Juneau to better the community
“This is a way for the community to celebrate the positive aspects of the work that we and other women in the community do, and not just necessarily think about the tough parts, the sad parts,” Cole said. “This is a way to say ‘There’s really a lot of beauty and a lot of integrity and service here and we should celebrate that and normalize that.’”
The rates of violent crimes against women — particularly Alaska Native women — are extremely high in Alaska. According to a report of a survey performed in 2020 and released by the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, it found that more than half of Alaska women — 57.7% — have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetime. The results found a 14.7% increase compared to its 2015 survey. For people facing domestic and/or sexual violence, AWARE provides a free 24/7 CareLine that can be called at 1-800-478-1090.
Cole said when AWARE first was established in Juneau back in 1978, it was a time when violence against women was still a very quiet issue, and the organization decided to create the Women of Distinction Gala to both bring more awareness to the traumas and difficulties many women face in Juneau, and celebrate how they overcame them and brought positivity to the community.
She said this event is in part to let women in the community know that there are other women out there who have faced hardships and have extended a hand to help those who need it, which over the 26 years had created a ‘safety net’ of women in the community who people can know are working to help.
Cole said she encourages people to come to the event to lift these women up for all the work that they have shared with the community and to celebrate the positive changes happening in Juneau for women, children and survivors.
“This is a unique event,” she said. “It’s not about who gave the most money or who gave the most time to our organization, it’s really about how regular women in our community embody service and love — and that’s what we need.”
Cole said each of the 17 galas she’s attended over the years have been special because of the different individual stories that speakers share and how each impacts diverse facets of the Juneau community that might have not been spoken about in previous years.
“Those stories of people’s lives who value service are always moving. “I laugh, I cry and I get an aspect of someone who I may have heard of in the community but I think you really get to see the authentic person when they are sharing what motivates them,” she said. “If you want to have an evening that’s fun, that’s moving and deepens your connection with the community then it’s a perfect event for that.
Descriptions of the honorees provided by AWARE
— Jeni Brown, a Tlingit resident originally from Hoonah, was chosen in honor of her dedication to sharing her story about her recovery from being formerly incarcerated and her advocacy work with others in the Juneau community who have faced similar challenges. Brown is now a Family and Community Engagement Specialist for CCTHITA, and according to the person who nominated her, she is not shy about her past and said sharing her journey with others is part of her healing.
— Kate Wolfe is being honored for her service as a leadership staff member at REACH where she ran and created multiple programs in Juneau for more than 30 years. Wolfe is known in the community for working at REACH for many years. According to the person who nominated her, for the past four years she has been with Family Promise of Juneau walking with homeless families on their path to attaining sustainable housing.
— Susan Bell, a Juneau resident originally from Nome is being honored for her work as president of the McKinley Research Group — formerly McDowell Group — where she leads a team of professionals as part of Alaska’s most experienced research and consulting firm. According to the person who nominated her, Bell as president has conducted thousands of studies for hundreds of public and private-sector clients in areas from transportation, health and social services, tourism and more. As an Alaska Native woman from the Iñupiat group, Bell wishes to live a full-time subsistence lifestyle, hunting, fishing, and gathering as her ancestors have done for generations.
— LaRae Jones is being honored for her work as treasurer of the Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition for over 20 years. According to the person who nominated her, she played a big role in the fundraising efforts that enabled Planned Parenthood to open their Juneau clinic, and as a member of JPCC, Jones has led the efforts to bring LunaFest, an international film festival by and about women, to Juneau and has become their primary annual fundraiser. Jones is also a lifelong supporter of PFLAG and was on the Juneau Pride Chorus for many years.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.