Women Shaping Their Communities: Jonne Smith

Jonne Smith

Following the January 21, 2017 international Women’s March, the organizers of the march in the United States put out 10 Actions in 100 days to try to keep the momentum going. One of those 10 actions was huddle with people in your community. Jonne Smith was invited to one such event and a group formed. Over the next few months they became more organized and members eventually shifted into positions that suited their own goals—some, like Jonne, forming action-oriented groups. Jonne’s focus was immigration and along with several other women created an immigration team within the larger Huddle UP Philly group.

Jonne and her team created “Sanctuary Suppers.” These dinners are a partnership between a nonprofit doing immigration work and a sympathetic restaurant. Jonne’s group facilitates the dinner, connecting the restaurant and nonprofit and selling the tickets. The price is split between the restaurant to cover the costs and the nonprofit to support their work. It’s a modest fundraiser but the main goal is the conversation: Changing the conversation, one meal at a time. The nonprofit has speakers who talk about their work then join the attendees for supper and continued discussion of immigration issues.

Sanctuary Suppers

“Our specific project within this broad and emotionally centered concept is based on something Helen Gym [City of Philadelphia Councilwoman] said, (paraphrased) ‘you have to change the public perception before you can change policy.’ We want to be part of the change in our public conversation about immigrants and immigration which Donald Trump and his supporters have encouraged. It is a modest effort…  Our Big Goal is to encourage other people to do the same thing.”

I asked Jonne where her group got the inspiration for these suppers. She told me about the work of two restaurant owners, Cristina Martinez and her husband Ben Miller. They have been hosting “Community Dinners” to publicize the contributions immigrants make to the restaurant industry. Cristina is undocumented and has had the courage to speak out publically about what it means to be undocumented in the restaurant industry. Ben spoke at the first Huddle Up Philly meeting and the immigration team decided they wanted to fundraise for Cristina and Ben. The first Sanctuary Supper was at Cristina and Ben’s restaurant and the concept grew from there.

The last Sanctuary Supper was in support for the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia. Not only did they bring two speakers who were able to inspire the room with their stories, they had a young woman do traditional Cambodian ballet. We got a taste of the culture through food and dance and then got a chance to hear about what the challenges for this immigrant community are, many of whom came to Philadelphia as refugees.

Sanctuary Suppers

My favorite question to ask people, women particularly, is “what does feminism mean to you?” While some feminists feel the answer is simple and straightforward (equality!), the ways that people articulate their own understanding of the concept intrigues me. Jonne describes feminism as a “belief in and support of women and female qualities as equal to the traditionally masculine qualities.” Like many people who identify themselves as feminists, the realization for Jonne came in her teen years when she stopped wishing she were a boy so she wouldn’t be limited by society’s lower expectations for girls.

Jonne discourages identifying societal injustices as “women’s issues.” She pointed out that we don’t have “men’s issues.” Like other aspects of society such as women’s art or women’s literature, identifying issues as “women’s issues” gives the impression that other issues (men’s issues) are the standard. It implies that these issues only impact women or that only women should care about them. A typical example is reproductive rights. Reproductive rights, at their core, are about a person’s control over their own body. Everyone should care about this because setting precedence that there is a group of people (congress) that should get to decide what happens to another person’s body is a threat to a free society. Making reproductive rights a women’s issue enables men to miss this threat.

Most of Jonne’s professional experience is in education. She got a degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. When she retired she volunteered to teach adult immigrants. She and her friend, Stephanie (who also hosts Sanctuary Suppers), run a pro-bono English as a Second Language consulting business.

As you can imagine, based on her professional history and her work on Sanctuary Suppers, Jonne feels strongly about the importance of immigration issues.

“I think [immigration] is integral to our strength as a country. Also I am influenced by my years of contacts teaching immigrants. I have the sense that these are the strongest, bravest, individuals. I have the greatest admiration for people who have the courage that I have seen.”

One of Jonne’s strengths in the current movement is her ability to recognize the possibilities for effecting change in our everyday lives.

“We have to find something that is comfortable to our personalities, lifestyles, backgrounds. Most of us are consumed by our private lives. I think we have to do what we can and remember that if everyone does a little the result is big.”

She is adamant that taking risks and putting yourself out there can have more of an impact on the world than you might know. When I met Jonne we were at a sparsely attended fundraising Happy Hour. Jonne came right up to me and started talking about Huddle Up Philly and Sanctuary Suppers. She got me excited about the idea and I’ve stayed excited, leading to this blog. Maybe reading Jonne’s story has you excited… can you organize a Sanctuary Supper?


Article by Claire E. Ryder

VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist