Domestic violence. Human trafficking. Gender inequality. Racism.
They happen everywhere, from the largest cities to the most rural villages — and yes, even in peaceful, wholesome places like Hopkinton.
These issues and others are the focus of the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women, established in 2015. The commission is a regional offshoot of the state-level commission.
“We have provided trainings in advocacy and salary negotiations, and [we’ve] headed to the Statehouse with all the other commissions for annual advocacy days,” said Jean Bertschmann, one of two commissioners from Hopkinton. “We’ve had very successful legislative breakfasts, public hearings and events on topics like domestic violence, sexting, human trafficking and revenge porn.”
MetroWest Commission Co-Chair Heather Panahi explained that there are nine commissioners, and the scope of the organization encompasses 26 towns and two cities from across the MetroWest area.
In 2020, Panahi had the idea of creating a teen advisory board as part of the commission, which led to the formation of the Athena Council. Deirdre Belger, a 2022 Hopkinton High School graduate, was one of the founding members for the Athena Council’s inception in January 2021 and served as its student chair.
“I think the thing I am most proud of is turning an idea into an actual thing,” Belger said. “When I first became involved with the commission, right before COVID in March of 2020, Heather mentioned her idea about creating a girls’ council. It was so fun to see it blossom into something amazing.”
Belger added that other regional commissions from across the state, inspired by the Athena Council’s success, have created their own teen advisory councils.
“The voice and perspective of a teen girl is one that is so important and so often overlooked, yet often holds the key to changing the world,” Belger said.
The MetroWest Commission and Athena Council members, along with MetroWest legislators and community members, recently held an event in Hopkinton where the Athena Council presented its findings on a school survey on mental health, according to commissioner and Hopkinton resident Nasiba Mannan.
“It was very well-attended by Hopkinton School Committee and Select Board members,” Mannan said. “It was important for them to listen to the outcome of the survey and may help them in the future when they make town- and school-related decisions.”
Bertschmann cites the creation of the Athena Council as perhaps her proudest moment as a commissioner, noting that last year the council did its own research study of issues facing girls in the MetroWest area.
The council presented the study “to local legislators and school officials at an ice cream social here in Hopkinton,” Bertschmann said. “Subsequently, they were invited to the State House to share their work. I can’t wait to see what they set their sights on next.”
Belger noted that the ice cream social was her most memorable moment with the Athena Council. She explained that during the winter, the council had distributed an anonymous survey on mental health to teens in the MetroWest area.
“We then used this data to create a presentation highlighting important data points and hosted our local legislators and elected officials,” she said. “We discussed how they can use this data to better support students in our region. It was an amazing day and an awesome opportunity to speak face-to-face with legislators and elected officials from my community.”
Members of the Hopkinton School Committee and the Hopkinton Select Board attended the ice cream social, Belger said, adding, “Talking directly with them hopefully inspired discussion relating to mental health within our school system.”
While the Athena Council focuses on topics relevant to its teen membership, other commission members often have personal connections to the causes they espouse.
Commission Co-Chair Stephanie Deeley lost her sister to domestic violence. One of the regional commissioners had experience with human trafficking issues.
“I am passionate about helping the immigrant communities in MetroWest,” Mannan said. “Many times, they do not have a voice or a seat at the table where decisions are being made or issues are being raised. One of my goals is to make that happen by raising their voices or bringing their issues to light.”
A new project spearheaded by Mannan and Panahi will focus on amplifying the voices of diverse communities by bringing members of those communities together with legislative and community leaders.
Though members of the commission come from various backgrounds and different experiences, their success comes from their support of each other. Belger said that the backing of Panahi, Bertschmann, Deeley and former commission member Rachel Niemic helped her thrive in her position on the Athena Council.
Commissioners’ terms expire in December. Applications for open commissioner spots are available at mass.gov/service-details/metrowest-commission-on-the-status-of-women. For more information or to join the commission, email email@example.com or visit its Facebook page at MetrowestCommissionStatusWomen.
“I believe in building a bigger table when we have more, and in my small way, I am trying to give back to Hopkinton and the surrounding MetroWest region,” Mannan said. “I hope that we, as a commission, are making a difference.”