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Meet Shana Ginsberg and Stephanie Hebert, Co-Founders of The Ashera Project

by Erika Thuesen

Shana Ginsberg and Stephanie Hebert met only a few years ago, but they both aspired to the same specific dream job:  to teach a traveling sex ed class.  Actually, what each woman really wants is to save the world, but these visionaries are also pragmatists, so together they conceived The Ashera Project -- a labor of love to provide youth with the skills, knowledge and support to become successful, healthy, active members of their community, and one that takes its name from the Hebrew goddess of home, education, empowerment, equity and support.

 “The kids who are referred to our classes are pigeonholed as ‘at risk’,” says Shana,  “But why?  Home, community and life all shape these kids.  The system isn’t really set up to help them.  We want to help these kids realize that they can own their own health, that they can give and receive support in their communities, that they can do and be so much more than they realize.”

“Teen pregnancy is a big part of what we address, but there’s so much more,” Stephanie explains.  Rather than try to reach young minds through the traditional lecture-and-test classroom format, the Ashera Project teacher coordinates guest speakers such as peer counselors from the college level, helps the students organized their own community projects, and facilitates discussion among the group.  “We also give the kids college counseling,” Shana adds.  “A lot of them are left out of that.”

Mothers to their own young children, Shana and Stephanie laugh easily as they recall how their own mothers shied away from their sex education.  “I was 15 when my mother found a condom my boyfriend had slipped into my purse as a joke,” Stephanie recounts.  “She hollered, ‘Don’t do it, don’t talk about it, and don’t even think about it!’ "  I shot back,  "That’s absurd!"  Shana notes how even as a nurse, her mother still sees AIDS as a problem suffered by the gay community.  Both Shana and Stephanie were natural peer counselors in their teens.  Shana even considered a career as a sex therapist, but the prospect of sifting through boudoir issues one client at a time didn’t speak to her desire to impact whole communities.

Shana and Stephanie each moved to Austin as young marrieds, and love being here.  Stephanie and her husband came from Lake Charles , Louisiana for his job at the capitol, while Shana and her partner left Atlanta , GA with their sights set on either Austin or San Francisco .  Luckily for Austin , the couple stopped here first and decided to stay.  Over the next few years, Shana and Stephanie plan to nurture the Ashera project as it spreads into more schools, garners sufficient funding to hire 3-4 fulltime staff members, and has a curriculum so successful that other programs buy it and copy it, spreading the message into an ever growing sector of the teen population.

Both women savor the sense of purpose and community that working on the Ashera Project has brought them.  They both value the friendship of Erin Cloke, who was an original cofounder of the project, but whose personal goals led her in other directions.  The majority of their fellow board members are mothers, and Stephanie and Shana recall the early days when babies nursed or napped through meetings.  Now that those babies are active toddlers, they hang out with their dads while their mamas work on saving the world, one teenager at a time.  When she’s not mothering Luna or working with teenagers, Shana bikes and drinks coffee, and is one of the original Lactivistas, an Austin group that promotes breastfeeding.  Stephanie maintains the career that preceeded both the Ashera Project and son Samuel.  “I feel like I birthed two babies in one year!” she laughs.  Both shrug off suggestions of future political careers. “It would take too much time and energy away from our families,” they protest. 

Here's more from Stephanie and Shana...  

Who inspired you growing up, and why?  

Shana:  As far back as I can remember was Clara Barton – she was nurturing and caring and started the red cross in the USA; Gerda Weissman Klein – Concentration Camp survivor; Golda Mayer- first prime minister of Israel- I was going to be the first woman president of the USA; I had a couple of Aunts, one who taught me that reading was a sign of intelligence no matter how poorly I did in school, and one who was extremely eccentric and went against the community norms without care or concern; a young Jewish couple –the woman taught my Hebrew school class and I spent every Saturday (shabbos) with them for about a year. They were just so wonderful to me when I needed them, that I’m sure they influenced my sense of compassion. And let’s not forget my elementary school science teacher, Mr. Eswine. I was not only in love with him, he was a wonderful educator who taught everyone to respect and love the earth and nature; he was an environmentalist before being an environmentalist was cool.

Stephanie:  I was inspired by my grandmother (my dad’s mom); we called her MawMaw.  She died when I was 13.  I just always remember her being happy.  She was so supportive of me – always wanting me to show her the new dance I had learn in dance class, tell her the new words I had learned in French, just sit and visit with her and tell her about what was going on in my life.  She ran a beauty shop out of her home and I used to love to get up early and sit in the shop with all the old ladies getting their hair done!  And she made the best coffee milk!  Anyway, I guess she inspired me because she really taught me that it was ok to be myself.  I wish I had gotten to know her as an adult; I think she would’ve liked who I’ve become.

You are face to face with your ten-year-old self. You have one thing to say to her about her future, what do you say?

Shana:  Keep following your heart and do what you feel is right as your life will lead you to fulfillment and accomplishment. You will have a loving and supportive family, one so wonderful you couldn’t possibly imagine. Oh, and stay away from French fries and chocolate.

Stephanie:  Always speak up for what you believe in.

What is the biggest challenge you see mothers faced with today?

Shana:  My greatest challenge is to not be my mother (hence the following). I also find challenge in striving to become the ideal of what I see as a healthy loving nurturing mother and at the same time keeping a hold of reality, fulfilling my own needs and having the identity of mother be only one aspect of my life. I feel challenged to develop a sense of community where families are as open, and outside (literally) as they once were, a community where it is not intrusive to ask for or offer help. I am challenged as a fulltime mom to maintain a feeling of respect for what I do when my society typically does not view it as the most important, extremely demanding, and most valuable work anywhere. Saving the world is hard, too.

Stephanie:  Thinking we can, and must, do it all!  And do it all right all of the time! 

What do you see as your biggest challenge in being the kind of person you want to be?

Shana:  In addition to the challenges I mentioned in the previous response, my biggest challenge is getting over my own false ideas of perfection and allowing myself the room to make mistakes.

Stephanie:  My emotions – I want to always be strong, to always openly stand up and speak out for what I believe in, but crying at the drop of a hat, or going off on cursing tantrums sometimes interferes.  Having said that, it’s also those same emotions that make me such a passionate person and I think that’s a good thing.

What makes you most happy about what you give back to the world?

Shana:  My daughter makes me the happiest and I see her as an incredible contribution to the world. In addition, it makes me happy when one of the youth I am working with treats me with the same respect as she treats her peers. That is, she/he calls me by name rather than Ms. or feels comfortable enough to let go and speak his/her mind. I am happy when I see one of the youth I have worked with several years later and she/he remembers me and feels the same level of comfort as they did when we worked together. I am happy when one of the youth I have worked with makes it to college and/or has maintained the same extraordinary goals she/he had when we worked together. I am happy when they tell me they don’t want the group/program to come to an end for I know then that I have reached that person and potentially made a difference in their life.  

Stephanie:  I’m just happy that I can do what I love; that I can stay true to myself and my beliefs; that I have the support of my family, friends, and co-workers to be a good mom at the same time.  I guess what makes me most happy is that I feel like a good role model for my son.

What makes you most happy about the way you parent?

Shana:  What makes me most happy is my child and the person she is becoming. When I see what she has learned and when I notice that she laughs way more than she cries, I couldn’t be happier. I am most happy when I handle a seemingly unmanageable situation in a way that I can be proud of. I am happy when I make good, healthy choices for myself and for my family at times when unhealthy choices seem easier.

Stephanie:  It makes me happy that I am able to be a pretty laid back parent.  I used to be such a worrier – I was notorious for worrying about things that I had no control over.  I was sure that it would only get worse when I became a mom.  But somehow the opposite has happened.  I have really been able to take it one day at a time and really enjoy every minute with my child and my husband and know that we have a great kid who is really going to have a great life and be a great man!  That makes me really happy.  

How do you balance parenthood and art?

Shana:  I am not an artist in the traditional sense. However, I joined a book group to make the time to at least read one book a month. I also brainstorm ideas for my partner’s school projects and lessons. But most of my creative energy seems to go to making up songs to entertain my child as we make a rough situation into an easier and fun one.

Stephanie:  Motherhood and ART?  Well I guess that would depend on your definition of “art”.  My career has mostly been my “art” over the last couple of years.  Starting Ashera has taken most of my creative energy.  It often feels like I’ve birthed two babies in one year!  But I guess I only balance it because I have great support systems!  I have an amazing husband (who thankfully has a flexible work schedule!) I’ve found great playgroups and support groups like AustinMama.  And people involved in Ashera have been a support group, of sorts, as well.  I certainly couldn’t have any balance in my life without all of these pieces!  As for “art” in the traditional sense, my son is perfectly happy with my 5th grade level drawings of trees and stars!

Which two notable people would you like to see handcuffed to each other for a day?

Shana:  Bush and Jesus. I think Bush might get a better impression from the man himself than from his right-wing, fundamentalist advisors who pretend to be speaking on his behalf.

Stephanie:  Terri Leo (the TX State Board of Education member who added all the anti-gay wording to the high school health textbooks) and any one of the amazing young people that I’ve worked with at OutYouth (a non-profit organization in Austin that supports and provides services to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth).

What do you wish you could automatically grant, like a fairy godmother, to mothers during trying times?

Shana:  Eight more hands and a Mary Poppins to come and give them a rest, clean the house, and cater dinner. Also, a well-deserved, all-expense-paid vacation for one wherever her heart may desire. But, ultimately, the ability to see the big picture and know that this moment is only but a moment in the big scheme of things.

Stephanie:  My first reaction was to say extra body parts – extra arms to hold the babies, hands to clean up, wipe noses, etc., an extra brain, because I know mine only works half the time – but then I realized that this just goes back to the feeling that we have to be able to do it all!  How about a group of mommy specialists who can come in and take care of everything, including the mama in need!  A group of people who can come in and cook, clean, put the kids to bed, and then give mama a massage, a pedicure, and a facial.

Thanks Stephanie and Shana!

To learn more about the Ashera Project, visit www.asheraproject.org 

The Countess Galleria / Sarah Higdon




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