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  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette AVOW founders, from left, Marilyn Moran-Townsend, Rachel Tobin-Smith, Patti Hays and Faith Van Gilder have done much to advance the area's civic conversations over the past two years.

  • Hays

  • Van Gilder

  • Moran-Townsend

  • Tobin-Smith

Sunday, December 30, 2018 1:00 am

Citizens of the Year

The founders of AVOW

Patti Hays, Marilyn Moran-Townsend, Rachel Tobin-Smith, Faith Van Gilder

PAST CITIZENS OF THE YEAR

2017: Dr. Deborah McMahan, Fort Wayne-Allen County health commissioner

2016: Dan Wire, advocate for the rivers

2015: Chuck Surack, founder and president of Sweetwater

2014: FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson and Board President Mark GiaQuinta

2013: Michael Packnett, president and CEO of Parkview Health System

2012: Irene Walters, executive director of university relations at IPFW, community volunteer

2011: Larry Wardlaw, chairman of Fort Wayne Metropolitan Human Relations Commission,community volunteer

2010: Meg Distler, executive director of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, and Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center

2009: Lynn Reecer, co-founder and president of Aboite New Trails

2008: Jane Avery, executive director of Community Harvest Food Bank

2007: Jeff Krull, director of the Allen County Public Library

2006: Hana Stith, founder and curator of the African/African-American Museum

2005: John Stafford, director of the Community Research Institute at IPFW

2004: Shirley Woods, founder of the Euell A. Wilson Center

2003: Donald Andorfer, Sister Elise Kriss, university presidents; Chancellor Mike Wartell

2002: Judges Fran Gull, Steve Sims and John Surbeck, court reform activists

2001: Jim Kelley, philanthropist

2000: Rosetta Moses Hill, education activist

1999: Father Tom O'Connor, founder of St. Mary's Soup Kitchen

1998: Phil, Joann, Matt, Glen and Ryan Nixon, activists for bike trails, traffic safety

1997: Jane Novak, mental health advocate

1996: Ternae Jordan, Stop the Madness founder

1995: Ian Rolland, Lincoln National CEO, community activist

1994: Irene Walters, Mike Hawfield and Patty Martone, Fort Wayne bicentennial organizers

1993: Jane and Tom Dustin, environmentalists

1992: Joyce Schlatter, Fort Wayne Community Foundation specialist

1991: Don Wolf, founder of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Fort Wayne and Fort Wayne Community Schools Study Connection

1990: Brenda Robinson, director of Old Fort YMCA

1989: Dr. David Porter, child abuse prevention specialist/advocate

1988: Paul Clarke, philanthropist and founder of Fort Wayne Community Foundation

More on AVOW's founders

Patti Hays is CEO of AWS Foundation, a division of the former Anthony Wayne Services created in 2007 to fund not-for-profit programs helping people with disabilities live as independently as possible. Earlier, she was an administrator with Lutheran Health Network.

A native of Ohio, Hays grew up in Pittsburgh and earned a nursing degree at West Virginian Wesleyan College. She lived in West Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana before relocating to Fort Wayne with her cardiologist husband, Peter Hanley. They are the parents of three grown children.

In addition to her work with AVOW, Hays is a member of the executive committee of the Allen County Department of Health. She also has served on the boards of Leadership Fort Wayne, Civic Theatre, McMillen Health and Visiting Nurse.

Marilyn Moran-Townsend is chairman and chief executive officer of CVC Communications-Business Storytellers.

A native of Seminole, Oklahoma, Moran-Townsend graduated from Purdue University and started her career as a reporter and news anchor in West Lafayette and Fort Myers, Florida, before relocating to Fort Wayne as weekend co-anchor for WKJG-TV.

After starting CVC with her husband, Bill Townsend, Marilyn dove into community service at the local and state level, serving two terms on the Indiana Commission for Higher Education as Gov. Mitch Daniels' appointee. She was chair of the commission, as well as the board of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. She was a member of the Indiana Education Roundtable and chairman of the board of Parkview Hospital. She was co-founder of Elevate Northeast Indiana and a founding chair of Invent Tomorrow. She has two grown daughters and five grandchildren.

Rachel Tobin-Smith, retired as executive director of SCAN at the end of 2016. In her 31 years at the child abuse and neglect prevention agency, she oversaw its growth from two employees and a $28,000 annual budget to 230 employees in a $17 million corporation serving 38 counties in northern Indiana.

A licensed clinical therapist, Tobin-Smith is a native of East Liverpool, Ohio, and earned degrees from Ohio State and Virginia Commonwealth universities. She moved to Fort Wayne in 1982 to lead the former Daybreak Children's Shelter. Since her retirement from SCAN, she has served as consultant to nonprofit organizations and is a member of the Fort Wayne Plan Commission and the Indiana Children's Trust Fund Board. She is the mother of two grown daughters.

Faith Van Gilder is senior account supervisor at Asher Agency. She moved to Fort Wayne with her husband, David, an attorney, after they served two years as teachers in the Peace Corps in Kanye, Botswana. A native of Defiance, Ohio, she studied journalism and political science at Bowling Green State University and worked at numerous publications, including The Journal Gazette and News-Sentinel, before joining Asher.

Van Gilder also serves on the boards of Wellspring Interfaith Social Services, Creative Women of the World, Friends of Cedar Creek and Friends of the Parks of Allen County. She has two grown daughters.

Among the first-time local government officials sworn in next week will be Denita Washington, newly elected Adams Township trustee. Washington honed her successful election skills in August as part of a campaign institute organized by Advancing Voices of Women, a local nonprofit created less than two years ago. Washington also participated in AVOW's Coffee and Conversations series and attended the organization's Civil Conversations for discussions on religion and other hot-button topics. At AVOW's urging, the founder of Fort Wayne Girlz Rock wrote a guest column for The Journal Gazette on leadership.

Encouraging Washington and others to step up as community leaders is precisely what Rachel Tobin-Smith, Patti Hays, Marilyn Moran-Townsend and Faith Van Gilder had in mind when they founded AVOW in early 2017.

For their efforts in raising the voices of women in our community and encouraging civic participation and civility, the founders of AVOW are The Journal Gazette's Citizens of the Year. We honor them for the new ideas and perspectives they have brought to our opinion pages and for the prospects of more inclusive and respectful public debate and participation in local, state and national government.

Their accomplishments multiplied in the past year:

• In addition to the Women's Campaign Institute and Civil Conversations series, they've raised the voices of more than 100 women in a series of guest columns published here each Sunday. The regular presence of female voices on our Sunday letters page has inspired other women to weigh in on local, state and national issues. Our pages are richer for their contributions.

• The Coffee and Conversations program they started and will now co-sponsor with the YWCA encourages women in professional and community leadership with small-group discussions built around various topics.

• AVOW's founders jumped into action when they learned U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would speak to an invitation-only Fort Wayne audience in June, quickly organizing a news conference featuring Indiana speakers who challenged the Department of Justice's immigration policy.  

• This fall, in the midst of an angry election season, the nonpartisan AVOW launched a community-wide “Campaign for Civility,” encouraging basic rules of respect in public discourse, with a call to seek common ground and to recognize all views as equal.

AVOW's creation was inspired by what the four women recognized as a troubling lack of respectful discourse. They hoped that encouraging new voices in civic life might change its troubling trajectory.

Moran-Townsend, disturbed by the angry tone and quality of leadership in the 2016 federal election, started an email conversation with about 100 people. She said she was looking for suggestions for what could be done “to promote the importance of civility and truth in the public square.”

The response was overwhelmingly encouraging, but there also was a “really hateful response” from a distant family member, she recalled. 

“It made me aware of how deeply everyone felt about what was happening in Washington,” said Moran-Townsend, chair and CEO of CVC Communications. “I thought I might not be able to influence conversations at the national level, but I could make a difference here.”

Tobin-Smith was among those from whom she sought ideas. Energized by the November 2016 election, the former executive director of SCAN Inc. attended the Women's March in Washington on Jan. 21, 2017.

“I never had felt that level of energy; the cohesiveness,” she said of the event, believed to be the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. “On the way back to Indiana, I remember thinking: There's got to be something we can do here – I know for sure there are a lot of strong women leaders and I know there's something we can do if we can promote those women. I called Marilyn and she and I had lots of conversations about what we might do.” 

Tobin-Smith reached out to Patti Hays, CEO of the AWS Foundation, who also had attended the Washington march.

“It was almost serendipity,” Hays recalled. “Rachel wanted to get these editorials together and – would I write one? I said, 'Sure, but what else can we do?' And who else do we want to talk to?”

They brought Van Gilder, account supervisor at Asher Agency, on board and the four women tackled their first goal of raising women's voices in guest columns. AVOW soon took form as a nonprofit, with each of the experienced community leaders using their own talents and interests to build the organization. Tobin-Smith spearheads the op-ed initiative, where she doggedly reaches out to new voices and taps experts on issues in the headlines.

Moran-Townsend, the first female to head the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, is the driving force on the campaign institute. She also set the tone for AVOW with the first of the opinion columns, calling for “3rd alternative-thinking” as “a lesson in how we can stop demonizing one another when we disagree.”

Hays has developed expertise in guiding Civil Conversations – both literally and figuratively. At each session, she explains the ground rules for respectful debate, summoning skills she said she honed as a psychiatric nurse and hospital administrator.

“The goal is always to identify some common ground,” she explained. “Even with the difficult topic of gun control, with very disparate views in the room, we had some common ground.”

Van Gilder, a former journalist, is available to guide first-time writers on guest columns and keeps AVOW's messaging on track and in the public eye.

She points to the news conference after the attorney general's appearance as a high point.

“We really educated and opened people's eyes to the immigration issues that he addressed in his talk. ... And then they came back another week later and we had another packed, standing-room-only conversation on immigration at Trinity English Lutheran Church,” Van Gilder said. 

Tobin-Smith said the group's founders have worked to include women of all political persuasions in AVOW, with an ongoing push to include conservatives. Men are welcome, as well.

Paul Helmke, professor of practice and director of the Civic Leaders Living-Learning Center at Indiana University-Bloomington, was an early supporter of the women's efforts. The former Fort Wayne mayor lent his name to the organization's Paul Helmke School for Women in Public Life – a bipartisan version of the Richard E. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series that has launched hundreds of Republican women into the political arena over the past 30 years.

Helmke also was a panelist at “Let's Talk About Guns,” a Civil Conversations event that drew about 120 men and women seeking consensus on a most contentious topic.

“Once someone has done that on guns, perhaps they can do that on other issues,” said the former director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “How can we get to that point of agreement? That should be the goal.”

Denita Washington and others participating in the August campaign institute benefited from election advice offered by Helmke and a half-dozen other experts, including the head of the Women's Campaign School at Yale University.

“I care a lot about how our system of government is supposed to work,” Helmke said. “Part of it means more people expressing their opinions, expressing them civilly, getting involved, serving on boards, running for office. I think this group is doing a great job encouraging all that.”

Washington, the newly elected Adams Township trustee, is firmly on board with AVOW's mission, as well.

“Any time you can educate and empower women, the world is bound to change,” she said.