By Rita Henley Jensen
WeNews editor in chief
Sunday, September 11, 2011
While grieving and overwhelmed like most New Yorkers in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, Rita Henley Jensen says the event surprisingly also permanently changed the direction of Women's eNews for the better.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--For a Manhattan dweller, I escaped relatively unscathed from the events here 10 years ago.
Nevertheless, the consequences of Sept. 11 and the dark months that followed, filled with bomb scares and anthrax attacks, changed my life profoundly. The events also shaped the arc of Women's eNews' growth in surprising and deeply gratifying ways.
At about 9:10 a.m. on Sept. 11, I was in an Upper West Side subway station, on my way to work at Women's eNews. There was an unusual amount of milling around in front of the token booth. Looking around, I noticed a woman who had been in my class at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She told me her husband who worked in midtown had just called to tell her that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I expressed my surprise--no alarm--and hopped on the train that pulled in. I assumed, oh so wrongly, that the plane was a personal jet.
By the time the train entered Times Square, the loud speakers were announcing no trains were going further downtown. Realizing that maybe something was terribly wrong, I climbed out of the subway, withdrew cash from an ATM and bought a bottle of water at a bodega -- the two essentials in a crisis. I then began to walk the 40 or so blocks south to my office, which was tucked inside the Soho offices of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The closer I got, the stronger the smell of smoke. You know the rest.
By early afternoon, Kathy Rodgers, president of NOW Legal Defense, told us that public health officials had deemed the office too close to the burning buildings and had closed it down for an indeterminate time. I told my staff of three we would be working from home for a while. (See our series "Women at Ground Zero" from that time).
Women and 9/11: Special Reports
At night, and over the following weeks, I lay in bed filled with sadness for the families, friends and colleagues of those who died and were injured in the attacks. Overhead, I could hear the fighter jets patrolling Manhattan's air space.
During the first week of October, I accompanied my older daughter and her husband as she gave birth at a local hospital, all of us still in shock, our joy constrained by our fear.
In early November, the board of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund decided, given the fact that its fall gala had to be cancelled, that the organization could no longer support Women's eNews. Our last day on the payroll would be Dec. 31.
That Thanksgiving, with a new granddaughter to kiss and facing imminent joblessness, I decided to spin off Women's eNews as an independent news service. Over the weekend I wrote a business plan. By Jan. 1, I had found a fiscal sponsor, raised $100,000 and signed a lease on a shabby office near Penn Station.
Women's eNews began in 2002 as a one-woman band. But after my easy success in initial fundraising, I hit a wall. By May, it looked as if Women's eNews would not survive the summer.
And then a philanthropist who was in my class at Columbia took me to lunch and, after reading the business plan, promised he would see that Women's eNews would survive. Anonymous, as we call him, was the one who asked if Women's eNews would be interested in creating an Arabic version. YES!
His motivation was clear: He learned to speak Arabic during his military service and believed strongly that after Sept. 11 such an effort would be a powerful venue to counter the anti-Muslim backlash that the attacks triggered and encourage the leadership of Arabic-speaking women.
In that moment Women's eNews was transformed from a news organization that focused solely on the United States to one that covered the globe, with a special interest in Muslim women and the Arabic-speaking region. Since launching the Arabic site, I have traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to attend conferences on women's rights in Islamic nations.
I recall one dinner in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where I sat with 14 wealthy, well-educated men dressed in traditional white robes and red-checked head coverings and discussed the events of Sept. 11. They expressed their shame that so many involved were from their nation; I told them about the ceremony shortly after that day in which New Yorkers gathered along the shores of Manhattan and lit candles, praying for peace.
This summer we launched the redesigned Arabic site and today, in fact, the new beautiful Arabic daily and weekly newsletter is expected to begin. We further disseminate all these stories through Facebook and Twitter. In addition, Women's eNews is building more capacity for Arabic Women's eNews to report and edit its own stories in Arabic and provide the English site with translations.
Having a foot in the Arabic-speaking world has shaped our coverage of the region and Islam. We now provide regular reporting of gender-focused news in the region, where women's rights are constantly in play, including a recent series about women's participation in the Arab Spring.
Beginning in December, Women's eNews will be partnering with the Jordan Media Institute and Princess Rym Ali, a former CNN correspondent. The institute is scheduled to send an intern to New York to assist in the daily updating of the Arabic site and its related social media.
In addition to the Arabic site, the events of Sept. 11 led to another major development for Women's eNews: a women's history walk. The lease for our midtown office expired in 2008. The city's incentives to developers willing to rebuild in the Ground Zero area required the builders to set aside inexpensive space for nonprofits. Women's eNews signed a 15-year lease at significantly lower rent, with significantly more room to grow.
After a board member toured the then-raw space, he and I walked across Broadway to catch a cab. At the Park Row crosswalk, he noticed a street sign said: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Corner. I was stunned. Why was this corner named after them? The answer was not available on Google. I discussed this with Betsy Wade, my friend and former chief of the New York Times copy desk. Her husband, James Boylan, a retired professor of American journalism history, assured us that the new Women's eNews neighborhood was populated with sites where significant female journalists had practiced their craft. The two agreed to research and write the biographies of some outstanding examples.
Opening the Way, as the women's history walk is called, now has 21 stops, including the corner where Anthony and Stanton published the weekly Revolution; the site where Margaret Sanger was indicted; and the church where Sojourner Truth worshipped. Contemporaries, such as Gloria Steinem, Kathleen Turner and Carol Jenkins, have recorded the words of the women featured, and those recordings are available via the Opening the Way Web site, cell phone and iTunes.
This weekend, the emotions of 10 years ago will come flooding back, that sadness and regret for all the lives lost and forever changed in tragic ways. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum will open today, around the corner from the Women's eNews, to honor such memories.
But I will also feel gratitude for my granddaughter, who entered third grade this month, the chance to give birth to and raise an independent Women's eNews and Arabic Women's eNews and the opportunity to create the means of recognizing the women who made history on the very streets I and the staff walk every day.
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Rita Henley Jensen is editor in chief and founder of Women's eNews.