Alana Tillim

"I remember being fascinated by my mother’s ERA bracelet. It sat in a drawer where she kept scarves, Lucite rings, and two-dollar bills. She told me about what it meant, in simple terms that were digestible for a nine-year-old. It was hard to believe that a law was needed for a girl to be equal to a boy. It was even harder to believe it failed. I grew up in an era of feisty and smart role models. Punky Brewster to the protagonists in my favorite novels, the entrepreneurial Baby Sitters Club, the maternal leader in Homecoming, and warrior Offred in the Handmaids Tale were all strong women. I didn’t realize that below the surface were cracks… the ones left behind by that bracelet collecting dust in my mom’s drawer.

The cracks fissured when I was sexually assaulted at 15 and then verbally and emotionally assaulted by the rumors that followed. Mostly, I kept this a secret through my teen years and consumed myself with every activity that would get me out of my hometown and into college. Student government, journalism, but mostly dance. Dance is what saved me from a host of bad decisions. It was my church, my therapist, and my family through the ‘two years’. Too slutty, too driven, too outgoing, too outspoken, trying too hard. Dance helped me learn accountability, responsibility, and grit. It was the one place where I felt I was seen, and that my hard work paid off.

The apathetic 90s culture was all about acting like you don’t give a shit about anything when I deeply cared about everything. I itched to get out, to heal, to make a change, and to find a home. I found my home in Santa Barbara. This place has had many meanings to me over the years, but ultimately it is the place that I found my calling, my family, and myself.

The activist: At UCSB, I marched the streets for Take Back the Night and cried on a dark microphone as a testified in front of hundreds of strangers about my rape. It gave me the courage I didn’t have before. I learned about feminism and my own privilege. I went on to lead, march, and eventually work on campaigns and volunteer. As I met local heroes and warriors, I learned we are all one tragedy away from becoming an activist.

The artist: In 2015, I stood in Storke Plaza with tears streaming down my cheeks. My dancers had just performed a piece entitled “Not One More” for the one-year anniversary of the Isla Vista rampage. The families of the murdered students watched with glassy eyes and my teens quickly understood the power of art. They carried candles and marched for the lives of those who were shot that fateful night. It was one of the proudest moments in my career as an accidental studio owner. In college, a chance meeting with the flamboyant and nurturing Steven Lovelace would change my life forever. Our mutual belief in artistic activism pulled us into a business partnership that would shape the lives of thousands of children. We built a safe space for kids at Santa Barbara Dance Arts and co-founded the Arts Mentorship Program, a non-profit dedicated to supporting emerging artists and low-income youth. I have owned the business exclusively since 2013 and expanded our community role through collaboration with the special needs and homeless communities, Rape Crisis Center, CASA, CALM and creating space for youth to heal through the same art form that saved my life many years ago.

The mother: I peed on a stick at Starbucks. That magical word PREGNANT appeared on the small screen. I was scared. Not because of labor or sleepless nights, but because when you have suffered a miscarriage and three long years of infertility, you are quietly robbed of elation. But it stuck, and though I puked several times a day for 9 months, on February 27, 2014, I became a mom. The fear melted away and I knew my purpose was inextricably linked to this little being. I gained empathy, patience, and a sense of the importance of my work with kids. Again, I was perplexed by the fight for women’s rights, with its importance feeling so obvious and profound. Quickly, I realized that when you are a mom, and for me, as a working mom, the struggle is real. Perfection is expected on every front. We know it is not possible, but we are not so subtly expected to be the perfect boss, wife, professional, and mother.

The Teacher and Student: It is an interesting time to be a woman leading (mostly) women. On the surface, the raucous voices shouting ‘me too’ and ‘times up’ while marching in solidarity are hopeful. However, women struggle to support each other in real life. Strong women are even harder to support. The dress is still too short, she was too opinionated, or she works too hard (this one kills me). We are back at the ‘two years.’ I encourage my students to embrace their sister that goes the extra mile before calling her the teacher’s pet. Leaders who hold you accountable are not ‘bitches’ and Instagram can’t be a tool to exacerbate gossip and hurt. But, I am also a student. I learn from these kids. Their fiery spirit to change our country leaves me profoundly moved. I think of that bracelet… and this movement a new generation has created, so that women can be seen, appreciated, and respected on a deeper level.

I asked my mom if I could have her bracelet for my 40th birthday. It no longer collects dust in a drawer. I wear it with pride and talk about it with my students. They look at me with the same perplexed gaze when I tell them the story of the ERA. I hope that it inspires them to continue the fight for both equality and grace for women, so ambition and dreams never get left in a dusty drawer." 
~Alana Tillim

Nathan Williamson