The Ethical Writers Coalition began as an idea between three outsiders at a trendy New York City launch party, and grew organically from woman to woman. Now at almost 70 members, it is truly a force to be reckoned with. The women involved — whether bloggers, journalists or stylists — all share a mission to improve the world in some way through their creative work online.
Rank & File caught up with the three founders, Elizabeth Stilwell, Alden Wicker and Emma Grady, to sit in on their candid conversation about how they organically created their own network and how their “collaboration over competition” mindset is helping them all to individually fuel their social good missions. Let’s listen in as these trendy community builders reflect and share lessons learned and dos and don’ts for organically building your own support group.
emma: I first heard about Alden in 2013 at her launch party for EcoCult, a blog covering all things eco in NYC. I met Alden and danced, and there were amazing swag bags to boot. At this time, I had been in New York covering ethical fashion for five years. The sustainability scene was very close knit in New York, but it was starting to wane as people moved away from New York and pursued different projects. It was great to meet others who were passionate about discussing and supporting similar causes.
alden: Oh yeah, my launch party! I had Counting Room come up with some organic cocktails, had some of my friends DJ and cold emailed anyone who I thought might care at all about the existence of a sustainable lifestyle blog. I didn’t have a PR agency and wasn’t sure if anyone would come! Nowadays, it’s easier to do events all together through the Ethical Writers Coalition, but I’m getting ahead of myself …
At the time, I wasn’t seeing very many other sustainable blogs out there — especially the types that I wanted to read — that were both thoughtful and beautiful. But as I started going to events around the city, I starting meeting a few like-minded women, Emma included. At first I was scared to talk to many of them, because, wow, what amazing bloggers! But they turned out to be really cool and nice. And I also stumbled upon The Note Passer by Elizabeth. I swallowed my competitive feelings and emailed her to say hi.
elizabeth: I was flattered, to say the least. I’d been blogging about a year, but hadn’t yet been to events or out in the sustainability scene in NYC. Alden kindly connected me with Emma, and we started sharing event invites.
alden: Every time we all hung out, I got some valuable information or advice about sustainability: which brands were doing cool things and wanted to work with bloggers, which events were coming up, how to grow my reach and impact, warnings about people who were acting unprofessionally and should be avoided, and a lot more. Oftentimes bloggers, especially women, can be competitive, but we had gained so much already with just a small core of women willing to be vulnerable, helpful and collaborative. I decided we should formalize a group. I think I mentioned it to Elizabeth first. And Elizabeth, well, once she decides to do something, she’ll push it forward. The lady does not procrastinate.
elizabeth: Ha! I do procrastinate, but at this point in time, I was in serious need of a support system and community. I was figuring everything out alone, and I knew that was not sustainable. The traditional rules of blogging (like sponsorships and affiliate links) don’t always apply to sustainable bloggers, so I couldn’t always find answers online. I needed a different kind of network. Only a year before, I had been a teacher and was not familiar with the ins and outs of blogging, PR and events, nor did I know much about sustainability; I only knew that I wanted to make changes in my life, and I was determined to figure out the best way to do that. I suppose we all felt that isolation and wanted to cement our connections to each other. I was thrilled to have found these women who would guide and support me, and I wanted to do the same for them. It seemed natural to start a network together — after all, there’s strength in numbers!
alden: I totally felt the same way! I would work all day alone and had no one to talk to about the particular issues I was facing. So I sent out an email to the few bloggers I knew, and we had our core group!
emma: It was Alden who had the idea to “formalize” the group. Leading up to the EWC, I had to turn down amazing opportunities because I simply didn’t have the resources to execute them on my own. Joining with others seemed like an opportunity to take on fun projects that could only be done by working with others. The EWC has really been a way for me to share my experience gained in working as a freelance writer. I had mentors when I started out who generously answered my questions, and now I’m helping do the same for others.
elizabeth: We began simply, with emails to share events and circulate inside information. Everyone followed everyone else on social media and we shared each other’s work, which led to the desire to organize further with a website, logo and events. Our first event was a Sustainable SummerFest in 2014 that doubled as our launch party.
alden: Elizabeth deserves all the credit for the website and logo — she put them together for us. We started accepting other members, instituting a small fee to cover costs, and quickly realized we needed a way to communicate that wasn’t just a long email chain. So we set ourselves up on Slack. And we planned more events together. The whole process was really democratic, collaborative and fun!
Running your own creative venture can be so opaque. Sometimes you look at a beautiful website, and you can feel jealous or intimidated. But we’re bringing everyone together and humanizing each other. I’ve learned from this that we all each have our own strengths and weaknesses, so we can lift each other up! It’s so refreshing.
elizabeth: Alden keeps us all communicating and moving forward with her energy and drive. Emma, thank goodness, keeps us on track financially. Our launch party was a true learning experience: we didn’t even break even!
emma: Yes, our first event was a lesson in event planning, but most of all in working together. It was the first time we had all collaborated, so we had to learn our individual strengths. We had amazing sponsors for our launch event, but we simply didn’t sell enough tickets — the event was way out in Bushwick, Brooklyn — to cover our expenses. We are a smarter team now and continue to work with great sponsors, which is one way we are able to host fun and affordable events.
elizabeth: Since then, we’ve hosted eight events, including a local flower workshop, a zero-waste fashion talk with Daniel Silverstein, a Fashion Revolution Day event and our bi-annual clothing swaps here in New York. And we have a few other events up our sleeves, thanks to our new events coordinator, Faye Lessler of Sustaining Life. We try to keep costs low so that events and memberships are not prohibitively expensive. Expense is a common complaint in the realm of sustainability, so we work hard to remain accessible. One example is our swaps. Rather than an event with expensive new clothes to buy, we teach consumers that secondhand is a cheap and fun way to refresh your wardrobe. We still expose attendees to sponsors that align with our mission, but they play supporting roles at these events. Our events with local stores tend to be educational or communal, rather than shopping for shopping’s sake. We prefer to teach (rather than tell) our readers and fans about sustainability so they will have the tools to make choices based on their own needs and ethics.
The coalition has grown organically, with people using their personal strengths to further our mission. We chat on Slack about current events in sustainability, who we are working with, our struggles and our successes. It’s been a way to reassure ourselves that we are not alone in our efforts. For example, we frequently discuss the delicate balance of helping emerging sustainable businesses (who often have little to no budget) and making sure we are paid fairly for our time. It’s an obstacle I struggle with in my own work, so I’m glad we revisit the topic often.
alden: It’s also been really helpful on a business level for members. We syndicate each other’s pieces to our own blogs, which sends traffic around and gives members great free content. And we’re often checking in with each other on how much to charge brands, whether what brands are offering seems fair or not. Information is powerful, and we’ve become a pretty powerful bunch. Nobody is going to exploit an EWC member!
elizabeth: We recently created an executive team to address marketing and social media for the coalition. (Kamea Chayne is our marketing guru, and Holly Rose and Stephanie Villano are the voices of our social media presence). Every month we have new members and more brands reaching out to us. We struggle with how much time we devote to the group and how we can create a sustainable business model with so many moving parts: membership, PR, brand relations, events. It can feel overwhelming at times, but I feel so lucky to be a part of this collective and to have met so many supportive and compassionate individuals. I look forward to tackling the important issues of our time with all of them by my side!