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Activism a full-time job for Lake Tahoe woman

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Jen Gurecki teaches a class at the California Conservation Corps station at Echo Summit.
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Service is the rent we pay for life, says community activist

By Amanda Fehd

Tribune staff writer

If Jennifer Gurecki is not pumping along on a bike in a Critical Mass ride, then she might be organizing a fund-raiser for the Women’s Center.

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If she’s not doing that, she’s tied up in numerous other activist exploits.

She might be at work at a residential treatment center for boys, or teaching at the California Conservation Corps, or on a march in Washington, D.C., or selling American-made T-shirts and underwear. Or she might be writing a grant proposal to Soroptimist International of South Lake Tahoe.

Sitting around watching TV just doesn’t jibe with Gurecki’s philosophy in life: “Service is the rent we pay for life; we were not put on this Earth to sit on the couch.”

Gurecki saw the quote in New York City a couple of years ago, and has held onto it ever since. Since moving to South Lake Tahoe a few years ago, she’s impressed many in the social services community with her activism.

“I don’t know how she does it. She goes above and beyond,” said Sara Raskie, an advocate coordinator at the Women’s Center. “She’s very passionate and articulate. And influential – her energy and motivation are contagious and have inspired a lot of us.”

She’s a 26-year-old brunette with freckles, a disarming smile and an energetic spring in her step. But her talk is serious, saturated with topics such as violence against women and children, sweatshops and labor inequality, or the traffic and pollution problems in South Lake Tahoe.

“There are a lot of people who know what’s wrong, but are apathetic about being a part of the solution,” said Anna Richter, grants manager for Women’s Center. “It’s the actual action involved that’s inspirational about her.”

Tahoe Turning Point

Gurecki was the first person to obtain a grant from Soroptimist International for Tahoe Turning Point, a residential treatment center for boys, in its 20-plus-years’ existence here. Soroptimist traditionally only supports programs for women and children, but Gurecki used some convincing logic:

“In order for women to be successful in life, we must have educated, supportive men. We need men to support us. And so by educating young men on topics like fatherhood, and family planning and relationships and domestic violence, we’re actually helping women.

“Tahoe Turning Point takes kids out of an environment which was not successful, and we put them in an environment here where they learn to be thoughtful, intelligent men who make good choices.”

All in a name

Gurecki also brought the play “The Vagina Monologues,” which has been performed worldwide, to South Lake Tahoe for the first time last winter as a fund-raiser for the Women’s Center and Tahoe Youth and Family Services.

Employees at the Women’s Center performed the play and the tickets and raffles netted almost $3,000 for the two community support organizations.

If you are a little surprised to see the “V” word in print, you aren’t alone. One of the casinos originally offered a free venue, but Gurecki said she was told she could not use the word in advertisements. She would not compromise and held the play elsewhere.

It’s meant to be in-your-face, Gurecki explained.

“It’s to bring awareness to the issues that surround violence against women on a domestic level and an international level. And to end the stigma attached to the word vagina, and promote overall empowerment of women,” Gurecki said.

“The Vagina Monologues” is a collection of short monologues based on stories of real women who have survived abuse, rape, mutilation or genocide throughout the world. It also includes positive and funny stories of women’s experiences.

The play’s title does offend some people. When she advertised for it, she received a couple of negative e-mails which accused her of advocating sex, but the rest were all positive, she said. The potential for controversy could be why she’s the first to host the play here.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to put themselves in that position because, although there are a lot of people who support you, there are a lot of people who don’t support you and that can be very difficult. …You are pretty much letting your community know where you stand on an issue that can be very divisive and very controversial.

“I look at our society, and I think we are in such a conundrum. We turn on MTV or TV shows or movies and it’s so … everything is sexualized. And then when it comes down to something that isn’t sexualized, and it’s actually the correct term for a woman’s body and it’s used in an educational setting – people have a problem with that.”

Critical Mass

“The Vagina Monologues” will be back in winter, but before that, Gurecki will be on her bike the last Saturday of each month through September for Critical Mass, a protest in the form of a bike ride to advocate alternative transportation. In South Shore, the group of cyclists sometimes blocks a lane of traffic on their ride from Horizon Casino to Meyers.

In larger cities worldwide, the protests have clogged whole highways with bike traffic and resulted in violence between motorists or police and cyclists. On South Shore, it is intended to be less aggressive, she said.

“We haven’t had any issues with them,” said Steve Gwaltney, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol, adding that there have been no complaints regarding the ride.

As if all this weren’t a full plate, Gurecki also has a not-for-profit business called Pantyline Productions which she uses as a base of operations for fund raising and social activism. The business sells clothing silk-screened with risqué political slogans and sayings like “I love Tahoe.”

The products come from an American company which doesn’t support sweatshops and offers fair benefits, wages and continuing education for its employees, Gurecki said. Profits are donated to various causes such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Once again, the name Pantyline sometimes prompts confusion or negative remarks, but Gurecki lets it slide off her back.

Being an activist in South Shore has its pluses and minuses.

“People move to Tahoe to escape and relax. If you are in the biz of social activism, you aren’t escaping or relaxing,” Gurecki said.

She acknowledges that some people may not agree with her solutions to society’s problems. But at least she’s off the couch.

“I’m not out there burning my bra in the street, I’m not doing anything crazy. I’m just trying to support the community that I live in and give back,” she said.

– Amanda Fehd can be reached at afehd@tahoedailytribune.com


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