Celebrating Women’s History Month with Jersey City Women’s Collaborative
During Women’s History Month, we’re spotlighting incredible historical and current history-making women across the world as well as local women and their greatest female inspirations that empower them to make a difference every day. EJC writer Colleen Morrison sits down with Jersey City Women’s Collaborative founder to discuss their accomplishments and goals for this Women’s History Month.
From COVID to Collaborative
When the pandemic lockdown started, like everyone, Jenna Toulantis Leggio, a Jersey City artist and photographer, was stuck at home with only her newlywed husband to keep her company. She tried to be positive and make the most of her reluctant free time by spending spring days beautifying their outdoor space, painting murals, and watching the trees bloom, something she hadn’t been able to make time for or appreciate before with her busy schedule. As the months went on, however, the extroverted Jenna was missing her girl gang and the plans they would have made as summer arrived.
“Eventually I thought, ‘You know, I really love my husband, but I really miss being around girls,’” said Jenna.
Jenna turned to an Instagram page she created in 2019 to support her passion for building community encouraging the creation of a general female-identifying group in Jersey City, one that wasn’t just for moms or singles or young professionals, but it hadn’t taken off at the time. She designed some attractive-looking graphics to gauge interest and float the idea of a socially distanced gathering in West Side’s Lincoln Park to her small following in July, fully expecting to be sitting on a blanket with two other people if she was lucky. Instead, 20 masked women showed up eager to chat with someone new.
“It made me feel like, ‘Wow, this is really necessary if I just got 20 women to come out of their homes during a global pandemic to meet with strangers,’” said Jenna. “There was a need for this group to begin with, but I don’t think it would have gotten the same momentum if it weren’t for COVID.”
Jenna dubbed this new collective of women the Jersey City Women’s Collaborative (JCWC), a safe space for women to gather, connect, support each other, and give back to the community.
Making Connections in an Unconnected Time
After the first meet-and-greet in the park, the Jersey City Women’s Collaborative has consistently met every few weeks with a theme, including plant swap, menstrual product drive for the West Side Community Fridge, “Self-Care Sunday,” collaging event, furniture collection for Just Human – a group that redistributes home goods to women escaping domestic violence – and friendship “speed dating” event. The Collaborative has also organized holiday and Valentine’s markets showcasing local female artists’ work and a clothing swap at The Hive Goods and Deep Space Gallery.
Once COVID numbers rose and the temperature dropped, the meetings moved to online-only with local expert speakers covering topics like cocktail making, mental health, tarot and intuition exercises, sexual wellness, and financial advice. Purely through the power of social media sharing, the group has steadily grown to 40+ women attending each Zoom meeting. Meetings are open to all female-identifying people of any age, though the group currently does skew Millennial, to come and go as they please with no obligation to attend.
“All of our calendars are looking pretty bleak,” said Jenna. “For some people who are single or live by themselves, going out and connecting with people has become so infrequent. I think the Collaborative has given a lot of people a reason to show up to something and brush their hair or just get out of their comfort zone off the couch.”
The women who attend these meetings are by a large majority small business owners and crafters, creatives and artists, and professionals looking to make new, local, interesting friends. Though their reasons for attending vary, it’s easy for everyone to get swept up in the open atmosphere and feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable in the safe, feminine space they’ve created together. Meetings are often filled with personal, inspirational stories of triumph and hardships that are difficult to speak about outside, but in the Collaborative bubble, there’s nothing but support and acceptance. Strangers quickly become friends and social media followers who emphatically share each other’s businesses and projects to help get the word out about the Collaborative while uplifting their fellow women.
“I’m always inspired and moved by the women I meet who come to our group,” said Jenna. “It makes me feel honored and accomplished that they feel so safe coming into this space that I created.”
The Power of Word-of-Mouth
The Collaborative, still in its infancy, has gained the attention and recognition of some surprising fans. Television’s Survivor: Kaôh Rōng winner and Hoboken resident Michele Fitzgerald heard about the group while shopping at Love Locked and reached out to Jenna to volunteer as a speaker for a Zoom meeting where she spoke about her experience on the show and the importance of taking care of mental health. Jenna was also nominated for and won a Tiffany & Co. Hometown Hero award in 2020, which recognizes local heroes who make a significant impact in their communities – the only person in the tri-state area to have this distinction and one-of-kind necklace.
“My aim is to make people feel welcome and accepted,” said Jenna. “I have been very blessed in my life with my support system and that I always have friends and family nearby I can call on at all times. It’s become increasingly obvious to me that not everyone is that lucky. I’ve always been the empathetic friend that wants to be everyone’s shoulder, so why not extend that passion to my community?”
As vaccinated population numbers go up and more involved in-person events become possible, Jenna is excited to see where the future takes the growing Collaborative.
“In the next few months, I want to continue to host more safe, socially distanced seasonal markets since that’s a great way to promote local female businesses,” she said. “I’d love to do more fundraisers and collections for local causes who want to collaborate together to keep the momentum going.”
Divine Female Inspiration
Behind every great woman are other women cheering her on, and while the Collaborative is of Jenna’s making, she credits the incredible women who came before her as inspiration for how she lives her life with a passion for uplifting others. Jenna keeps one of her biggest influences, the legendary Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, close to her heart with a tattoo of the painter on her arm as a daily reminder of strength to get her through even her hardest days.
“I’ve never seen someone go through such hardships in so many different ways and come out of it with such stamina. She kept getting knocked down and always picked herself up,” said Jenna. “She makes me feel that whatever is happening, it’s only for right now, and I’m going to get through it because there are bigger and better and more important things in my life than the hardships.”
Another strong female inspiration for Jenna is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. AOC is a young woman who unapologetically speaks her mind, fights for what she knows is right, and doesn’t back away from being spoken down to as is too common with women in power. Jenna pulls a lot of her determination and forthrightness from the example AOC is setting now for women looking to make their own voices heard.
“I love her for the way she so fearlessly puts herself out there as a young woman of color sticking it to all these white men,” said Jenna. “It’s so brave, and she has so much fierceness in her. The fact that she came from a humble upbringing and is now making such waves in the political world is really astounding.”
Some of the most inspiring women in our lives can live just a few miles away, too. Jenna cites one of her biggest supporters and collaborators that she’s met through the Collaborative as Eiko La Boria, local founder of The Flow Initiative, a JC nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect all girls, women, and menstruators from a lack of access to period products while erasing the stigma, shame and humiliation associated with period poverty.
“Eiko is incredible. On our first phone call, we talked for three hours about what we loved about Jersey City and what we feel it needs more of and what we’re passionate about, one of them being gender equality and supporting women,” said Jenna. “I think what she’s doing with The Flow Initiative is amazing and very inspiring.”
Join the Circle
The next Jersey City Women’s Collaborative digital meeting is on Thursday, March 4. Time and Zoom details will be posted on the Instagram page for any female-identifying women of all ages interested in attending. For information on upcoming meetings and events and ways to help out or donate, check out their website or follow Instagram and Facebook.
If you’re interested in collaborating on upcoming events, charity drives, or markets, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The group is also seeking to add senior members to help organize and run meetings.