FigTree Header 10.14


Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

In Women Leading Together retreats, storytelling builds relationships


Katy Sheehan—with son Reed Sheehan-Schultz—and Julie Schaffer lead Women Leading Together retreats.

Women Leading Together retreats helped Julie Schaffer of the Center for Justice and Katy Sheehan of the Community Building Foundation promote and support the importance of relationships and help young women studying law gain greater self-awareness.

Both wish they had had access to the insights during their intense, competitive law school studies, preparing for an adversarial profession, and in the context of media images of women that seek to define who women should be.

Both grew up in Spokane, valuing being outdoors, growing food, living sustainably, having compassion and respecting diversity. Julie grew up in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and Katy grew up Catholic.

Both felt they lost who they were in law school.  Julie graduated in 2008 from the University of Washington Law School, and Katy in 2007 from the City University of New York Law School.

Katy said she was also lost in media images of women that created a “back voice,” nagging her to be skinnier, smarter and work harder.  Now she accepts herself, her faults and doubts as tools to help her grow.

After Julie went to a Cultivating Women’s Leadership Retreat in 2013 in California, she invited facilitators from Bioneers to lead a September 2014 retreat for 20 Spokane women.  Bioneers, a nonprofit based in New Mexico and California, developed the retreats as part of its commitment to promote solutions to global environmental and social challenges.

After the 2014 retreat, which Katy attended, she and Julie proposed doing a similar retreat for women law students and developed Women Leading Together.

Twice since then they have offered Women Leading Together retreats for women students at Gonzaga University’s Law School.  To tailor retreats to students, they invite participants to share their stories.

While the majority of Gonzaga’s students are middle-class white students, who may not seem diverse, “once the students tell their stories, we find how diverse they are,” Julie said.

“Storytelling builds relationships,” Katy affirmed.

While classes focus on facts, issues, rules, analysis and conclusions, she said, students need to understand how people tick in order to relate with colleagues, clients, judges and juries.

“Especially in an adversarial profession, we need to see people as human beings,” she said. 

Following a recent two-and-a-half-day “Women Leading with a Purpose” retreat with 11 women law students, Julie and Katy said participant responses were heartening:

• The retreat helped one reflect on her strengths, weaknesses and purpose.

• It helped another face her obstacles about relating with strong women who are also struggling.  It helped that woman find common ground with women and realize she is not alone.

• It helped another see what matters, who matters and what she hopes for.

• Another left seeking to find more of what makes her “tick.”

• Others appreciated reflecting on their lives and goals, and committed themselves to being more considerate and supportive of other women.

• Some appreciated thinking of law school as a community rather than individuals competing.

• Another hopes it will translate into finding mentors to help her be an effective leader.

Participants valued that Julie and Katy shared their stories and feelings of vulnerability.  Both also shared their stories in The Fig Tree interview.

Julie went to law school to gain a variety of tools for broad use.

“I found little support for being outside the track,” she said.  “I kept busy doing the work, but I did not build relationships with classmates.  Study groups were to cram, not for support.”

Julie had not realized the importance of relationships.  To her, professors were intimidating experts, so she did not connect with them. Eventually, a support group of six women and two men nurtured her interest in public law.

She worked two years with the Snohomish County prosecutor’s office in Everett on land use and environmental law.  Then she took a six-month leave to go with a friend to Alaska where she lived in a tent, gardened in exchange for room and board, backpacked and kayaked.

“I came back to myself and knew what I wanted in life,” said Julie, now the mother of a year-old son who “adds new dimensions to my life.”

Returning to Spokane, she learned the Center for Justice needed a staff attorney, a job that combined her legal skills and passion for social justice. She began in the fall of 2010. In Spokane, she knew people, so she had relationships and connections.

Julie, who is exploring Buddhist meditation to strengthen her sense of compassion, said women and men may burn out and drop out of law school or legal careers if they do not build relationships and lift each other up. 

“Some want more than working long hours with more clients to win more cases or earn more money,” she said.

Women Leading Together emphasizes relationships before tasks, similar to Julie’s work at the Center for Justice to collaborate on projects and explore creative, alternative solutions.

For example, she helps the center collaborate with Smart Justice Spokane and 30 organizations on criminal justice reform to help people as they enter, experience and leave the criminal justice system.

Julie promotes restorative justice and mediation, which require relationship building because both focus on the people harmed rather than on laws broken. 

“An alternative to litigation or criminal justice is to gather everyone who has been affected by a crime in a circle to come up with a solution to the harm done, so the person who harmed someone can continue to be part of the community, Julie explained, rather than having a third party make the decisions.

“It’s about making things right, rather than convicting and excluding people,” she said, recognizing that the traditional legal system is necessary in many conflicts and crimes.“ Despite skepticism about whether it can work,” Julie said, “restorative justice is the ‘traditional’ way many cultures deal with conflict and crime.”

Women Leading Together retreats can help women alleviate self-doubt and self-limiting stories, Julie said.  It encourages participants to look within themselves to understand their own journeys and others’ journeys, and to develop compassion for themselves and others.

Katy said that in law school, she missed having relationships and felt she had to silence her vision of sustainable living.

She went to law school after graduating in 2002 with a degree in studio art from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., and after serving a year with Americorps and a year of working as compost manager on her father’s farm. 

After law school and before taking the bar exam, she worked with the Department of Agriculture in Puget Sound mud flats looking for invasive weeds.  That experience epitomized the contrast.

“I went into nature and wore mud boots after being in New York wearing high heels,” said Katy, who describes herself now as religiously eclectic—exploring Buddhism and Unitarianism, and sometimes attending Episcopal, Presbyterian and Catholic churches—valuing creation and being in nature. 

Katy passed the Washington bar exam in 2008 and then worked five years at the Fair Housing Center of Washington dealing with housing discrimination.  She returned to Spokane to become director of the Community Building Foundation in 2014. 

“Life is about relationships, which can sometimes be tough to navigate,” said Katy, who is now exploring the world and its simplicity as the mother of a three-year-old and a baby. 

Katy said adversarial law and media images of women can be the antithesis of “what we need in the real world. The stronger our relationships and networks are, the stronger we are as a people.”

Both said they felt vulnerable going on maternity leave and returning to work—feeling inadequate as mothers and at work—but their willingness to discuss that made one retreat participant feel she could talk about how important it is for her to be a mother and an attorney.

For information, call 835-5211 ext. 1498 or email or

Copyright © April 2016 - The Fig Tree