Take 5 with Kathryn Wandling

Catching up on the New Hanover County Commission for Women
Kathrynwandling Take5

When she thinks about women’s ability to, as she says, “knock it out of the park” even in difficult circumstances, KATHRYN WANDLING remembers a quote about Fred Astaire’s dance partner: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Wandling chairs the recently re-established New Hanover County Commission for Women. She’s an attorney – the only one on the eleven-member commission, but she’s also a mediator.

While waiting to take the North Carolina bar exam after moving to Wilmington a few years ago, she earned a license to mediate legal disputes and joined the staff of the nonprofit Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Center. Then, she and fellow ADR mediator SHEILA EVANS co-founded the Coastal Community Mediation Center of North Carolina. The center, of which Wandling is co-director, works with parties to settle disputes that otherwise would go to District Court.

That mindset of defusing conflict and solving problems through consensus will serve Wandling well as she and the commission’s ten other members strive to identify priorities and advocate for women.

“Overall, this is a dynamic, thoughtful, and solution-oriented group: three things that I think are essential for public service work,” she says. “I think our strongest attributes are our abilities to brainstorm and think outside the box and, perhaps most importantly, laugh together and regroup when the challenges seem unmanageable.”

Although the commission, which held its first meeting last August, reports to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, Wandling says the county has given it no real agenda or expectations so far.

“We are flying by the seat of our pants this first year,” she says. “We’ve had tremendous freedom to set our own agenda and goals, but with COVID, we have huge social issues smacking us in the face.”

The upheavals resulting from the pandemic this past year have underscored such long-time problems as racial inequality, socio-economic disparities, and gender pay gaps, Wandling explains, adding that women have been especially affected by the difficulties of the COVID environment. And there’s the fact that women, who make up 51% of the North Carolina population, are underrepresented in positions of leadership in state government as well as in the business community.

There are many issues to tackle, but the commission believes health care – including mental health – is the biggest one and underlies some other issues.

“When we started meeting last summer, we identified health care access as one of the most important issues,” Wandling says. “We kept thinking, ‘This is not going to go away.’

“Health care was problematic before COVID; now it’s just staggering,” she adds. “We have to do a better job of recognizing what women are being asked to carry at this point. I don’t think we have the mental health structure anywhere to deal with the (fallout) of this pandemic. And stress is a terrible conundrum.”

But even in so-called normal times, women continue to be at a disadvantage, she says.

“That’s kind of our mission now: communicating to lawmakers the importance of these initiatives that address women and children,” she says. “(Women) have made such gains over the past thirty to forty years we lose sight of the fact there is still so much work to do.”

Five of the commission’s members are appointed by the county. They are MEAGHAN LEWIS, SHEILA EVANS, BHAIRAVI JEGANATHAN, STEPHANIE JOHNSON, and NATOSHA TEW.

Another five are appointed by the city of Wilmington: BRIDGET TARRANT, JANE BIRNBACH, KIMBERLY SPADER, KATHERINE KIRBY, and Wandling. One slot is reserved for a representative of the YWCA Lower Cape Fear: currently, that seat is filled by the organization’s CEO VELVA JENKINS.

Take 5 with Kathryn Wandling

What issues and problems have been at the forefront so far? What are your priorities?

“Health care issues have been at the forefront of our work. Our Healthcare Subcommittee is hosting a virtual town hall on Medicaid expansion in March along with the League of Women Voters, Women’s Issues Action Team, and the YWCA, and we are partnering with other women’s commissions throughout the state to address vaccine hesitancy among other issues brought to the forefront by the pandemic.”

What’s your background, and what experience do you bring to the group?

“My automatic answer to that question is ‘I’m a lawyer,’ but my experiences as a mother, a daughter, and a friend influence my policy standpoints so much more. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to lead a life surrounded by strong women, including those who are serving on this commission with me, and I feel we all have an obligation to lift each other up.”

What attributes do the other commission members add to the group?

“I wish I could go through our membership and give everyone a different superlative! Overall, this is a dynamic, thoughtful, and solution-oriented group – three things that I think are essential for public service work. I think our strongest attributes are our abilities to brainstorm and think outside the box and, perhaps most importantly, laugh together and regroup when the challenges seem unmanageable.”

What does the commission hope to accomplish in the next, say, three to five years?

“That’s a question that I don’t have an answer to. A year ago, I would’ve told you we’d have some kind of a comprehensive plan. Right now, I can say I hope we continue to provide organized forums for issues at the forefront for women in the community. I hope that whatever the next three to five years bring, we respond in a way that supports all the women of our community.”

What has surprised you most in helping to improve the status of and opportunities for women in the area?

“How much work we have to do. It can seem pretty bleak and overwhelming – particularly in 2020 – when you think about the issues women still face in this country, particularly women of color and women in lower socioeconomic classes. However, I want us to remember that women are tough as hell. We’ve overcome so much, and I have faith that we will continue to do so. Especially after the past year, I feel so much hope and inspiration from watching the women of this state and this country knock it out of the park.”

To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.

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Categories: Women to Watch