“It was just like straight-up group therapy," says Connie Wohn. "People would say, ‘I'm worried about being deported or I'm worried about women's health issues.'” Wohn is describing the meetings she had with other women after the 2016 election that became the groundwork for NXT LVL, a female production collaborative that's taking over Portland. “A lot of us are doer-type people, and we just reached a point after three meetings where we were like, this has to galvanize into some action.”
The group of 20 women, with some well-known faces among them—Fran Bittaki, owner of Seizure Palace screen-printing company; Anna Jensen, a talent buyer for Monqui Presents; Sarah Baker from the monthly Get Down dance parties; and Wohn herself, who over the years had produced beloved Portland events like the Do Over dance parties and Portland Mercury's Open Season fashion shows—set about crafting their first event as an afterparty for the historic Women’s March in January 2017. The format, they decided, would be fun and philanthropic. Each NXT LVL event supports two nonprofits and gives them space to speak. Mid-dance party, the music stops, the nonprofits get up and talk about who they are and who they help, and then everyone goes back to partying in a double win of feel-good vibes. And the group worked hard from that first post-march party to make sure women felt they were in a good space.
“The secret sauce that we added without realizing it at the time was that we made it a tampon drive for the Portland Menstrual Society,” Wohn says of that first party . “The thing about making an event a tampon drive is that it immediately deflects any douchebags. No shitty dude is going to come to an event that is a tampon drive.”
It was a huge success, with an overload of positive social media commentary on how seen and heard people felt. The group kept going, producing events like the Zodiac KiKi ball with the vogue community, a bingo fundraiser hosted by drag queen Flawless Shade, a She Shreds collaboration for a rally, and live show at the Time-Based Art Festival earlier this month featuring hauntingly beautiful music from Kelsey Lou and Serpent with Feet. At each event, organizers prioritized putting women of color first as speakers, entertainers, light projectionists, and benefactors—nonprofit organizations like Brown Girl Rise, SMYRC, and Trans Lifeline—for whom they collectively raised over $16,000 dollars this year. They’re even trying to find a way to recruit women of color as event security staff to help create comfortable boundaries at every level.
“I've got to tell you: it is the one of the most challenging things I do in my life," Wohn says. "But that is why I participate. It's teaching me patience, collaboration. I get so much from it that I don't get in my work life, and that's kind of why I choose to participate. Plus, we're doing good and raising money for amazing organizations. It fulfills a piece in me: The world is fucked, but I'm doing the little part I can to like help it.”