Newest Women of Distinction offer their counsel

Newest Women of Distinction offer their counsel

Four months after Champaign's first majority-female city council was sworn in, its five members will be saluted.

Doing the honors: the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, who'll bestow their annual Women of Distinction awards upon DEB FEINEN (mayor), ALICIA BECK (District 2), ANGIE BRIX (District 3), CLARISSA NICKERSON FOURMAN (District 1) and VANNA PIANFETTI (District 5) at tonight's Diamonds, Desserts and Distinction gala.

Staff writer Natalie Wickman sat down with all five this week for a wide-ranging, roundtable-style Q&A. Here are the highlights.

Who here was a Girl Scout?

Feinen: I was a Girl Scout through high school.

Pianfetti: I was one through eighth grade.

What effect did that experience have on you?

Pianfetti: It taught me to go outside my comfort zone and try new things and challenges. My mom was my Girl Scout leader and ... just having that influence that women can be leaders was a good stepping stone.

Feinen: Leadership skills and ... basic camping skills, a love for the outdoors and respect for nature. Girl Scouts really provides an opportunity not only to be a scout but to then learn to lead as a scout.

Any good stories from those days?

Pianfetti: When we were selling cookies, there was always one house that we wanted to go to because the mom always would buy like three cartons of cookies for her son. So everyone was trying to be the first one to get to her house. When we were camping, I remember it was exciting when you figured out how to start your first fire because we figured out we could cook better food.

Feinen: Cookie sales were the perfect training for knocking on doors as a politician. If I wanted to go to summer camp I had a minimum number of cookies I had to sell so it was a great experience of learning to talk to neighbors in the community. Also my mom was a cookie mom so I remember a living room filled, floor to ceiling with cookies as girls would come and pick up their boxes.

What advice do you have for girls and young women who want to get into local government?

Beck: It's really good to expose yourself to lots of different things. You'll need to know a little bit about a lot of things. But mostly you need to learn how to learn, how to listen to other people and get input. If you expose yourself to lots of different ideas and scenarios, that gives you a leg up in knowing how to relate to other people and understand what their concerns are.

Fourman: I would say that you can do anything. I say that and it sounds crazy but if I told you 15 years ago that I would be sitting here, there's no way that I would believe you. Women, girls, we just have this strength about us that we can overcome things and do things. I encourage young girls, no matter the situation they're in, to persevere because you can become anything. If you don't try, you'll just never know.

Beck: Failure is success in itself because you've tried something and you get experience.

Brix: And your perspective matters. Everybody has differences in how they grew up, where they're from or their life experiences and you can contribute. You don't have to feel like you're uber special in any one particular thing. If you have interest and that's something you want to do, then you should absolutely go for it.

Who is a female politician, representative, judge, etc. that girls should look up to?

Beck, Fourman, Pianfetti, Brix: Deb.

Fourman: The way (Feinen) makes it okay to be a working mom and that you can have a husband, that your husband can contribute and that you can be equal partners -- even if I wasn't on council, probably the first person I would say is Deb.

Pianfetti: I think she empowers women leaders and we're all here as distinguished women because of her leadership. I know I thought I could do (city council) because I'd be working with a really amazing leader who would listen to my ideas and thoughtfully consider what I had to say.

Feinen: I think we're great as a collective and with our male counterparts. I also think there's a uniqueness about the city council, partially because we're non-partisan, but also because of the style of the City of Champaign. We may sometimes have disagreements about the path we need to take to get somewhere, but everybody really cares about the city.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask what your favorite Girl Scout cookie is.

Brix: Tagalongs.

Pianfetti: Samoas.

Fourman: It's a tie between Thin Mints and Samoas.

Beck: Thin Mints, but I like them frozen.

Feinen: Samoas.

For those of you who were scouts, what was the hardest badge for you to earn?

Pianfetti: Sewing, I don't know if I would even earn it today.

Feinen: I don't remember the hardest one but I took a lot of joy in teaching my sister's Girl Scout troop the horseback riding badge. And since I've been mayor I've been invited to talk to Girl Scout troops who are getting their government badge.

What goes into getting a government badge?

Feinen: Well they've got to meet with an elected official, and when I did it for my older daughter's troop they divided into groups and came up with a law or something they'd like to pass or change. We talked through that process and how it would impact the community.

Did being a scout inspire you to join local government?

Pianfetti: When my Girl Scout troop didn't have enough leaders, all of a sudden my mom came home one day saying she would be a leader. She said "If not you then who." The impact (of scouts) is that you look reflectively as a woman or young lady and say to yourself - this is an opportunity and do you have the courage and commitment in you to push through and do what it takes. So when the (council) opportunity came along I thought okay, if not you then who.

What tips do you have for women and girls who want to be more involved in their communities?

Fourman: Find something you're passionate about and throw yourself into that. You'll get just as much out of it as you give to it.

Pianfetti: And don't wait to be invited and ... don't think you have to do what all your friends are doing. If there's something that interests you - you go to that meeting or you talk to that person.

Feinen: Don't apologize for being interested or passionate about something.

Brix: And don't be afraid to talk to people either. I think people are just genuinely interested and if it's something you're passionate about and you have questions about, then people will want to help you to do that. Don't be afraid to reach out or ask for help.

Fourman: I don't think there's any such thing as too many people being involved.

Feinen: And seek a mentor. Don't be afraid to reach out and find a woman who's doing what you're interested in. My experience is that there's a big sisterhood willing to spend time with younger women and help them advance in their goals.