In 2003, long-time Grand Rapids resident, Bette Sebastian, was feeling frustrated about the tone of politics in the country, about the prevailing assumption that West Michigan was a universally conservative area, about the lack of money available for progressive candidates, and the shortage of women interested in running for local office. She knew from experience that there were progressive people out there, they just weren’t getting heard. So Bette went to an old family friend, a long-time activist, and said, “I want to do something.”
One introduction led to another, and it turned out that there were a number of women who had been working on campaigns for some years, building lists of like-minded people, and studying what makes a successful civic organization. In the summer of 2003, Bette and a handful of these women with community and political connections met in her living room to talk about how to create a different force in the area by organizing a local progressive women’s group.
That initial group grew to 14 women who became the first board of the new organization. In the fall of 2003, they adopted the name Progressive Women’s Alliance of West Michigan and began developing a statement of values and a policy agenda. They started inviting people to become charter members, and the size of the group rose to more than 65. As word of the new organization spread, the numbers quickly reached 200.
By 2004, PWA had been organized as a non-partisan political action committee (PAC), and the first large-scale fundraiser was held on May 24th, with Governor Jennifer Granholm as the featured guest. More than 450 people attended, netting $30,000 for the new PAC. The Grand Rapids Press quoted Governor Granholm as saying, when she was invited to speak to a group of progressive women in Grand Rapids, “I thought, ‘OK, 30 women or so.’” Her first words to the crowd were “Unbelievable… What’s going on here? Am I in the right place? It’s so excellent.”
Since that time, the numbers have continued to grow. To date, more than 800 people have contributed to the Progressive Women’s Alliance of West Michigan’s political action committee (PAC), and a lakeshore group was organized to represent progressive voices in the lakeshore communities of Holland, Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Muskegon.