21 Leaders 2015: Seven Who Interrupt Legacy Narratives

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Brenda E. Stevenson: Los Angeles’ Challenger of the Accepted History
Recipient of the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism

Brenda E. Stevenson

Three women, each of vastly different heritages, each with their own experiences of being an outsider in the United States, were central players that set the stage for the 1992 Los Angeles riots, touched off by videotape of the brutal police assault on Rodney King and the videotaped murder of Latasha Harlins. This is the case made by historian Brenda E. Stevenson, recipient of the 2015 Women’s eNews Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism.

"This riot was boiling forth from the moment Latasha Harlins was shot," Stevenson said.

Stevenson’s careful and nuanced examination of race, gender and class in the book "The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the LA Riots" provides the family history of three women most deeply involved in a moment of violence in a small grocery store in Los Angeles: the teen victim, the shooter and the trial judge. Each one’s family left their homes to seek freedom and economic opportunity, one each from the U.S. South, from pre-war Europe and from South Korea.

Stevenson documents how each one’s heritage and experiences gave them much in common and how their differences in family stature played a significant role in the outcome of the criminal trial of the store owner who shot unarmed Harlins point-blank but was acquitted of murder and served no jail time for a felony manslaughter conviction.

A tenured history professor on the faculty of UCLA, Stevenson is in the first generation of her family to attend college, receiving her doctorate in American history at Yale University. She grew up in a Virginia coastal town listening to her mother, Emma Gerald Stevenson, tell tales of life in South Carolina.

"So many wonderful and so many terrifying stories," Stevenson said. Her father, James Stevenson, a longshoreman and union organizer, was able to send all three of his daughters to college and graduate school, the family’s dream.

"The Harlins book looks at the history and systemic problems within the criminal justice system," said Stevenson. "Not just police, but also juries, judges, prosecutors, all have problematic issues that often break along racial lines. Women are also players in this system and are invested in, as well as victimized by, that system. Black women are similarly victimized as black men, and that must be considered."

Stevenson added, "Black women are completely out of this discourse of unfair treatment under the law and by the law–by the police as well as in the courts, and by juries and judges . . . Even President Obama seems not to realize the tragic place black women have in our criminal justice system, and he has two daughters."

–By Rita Henley Jensen

Dr. Nina Ansary: Los Angeles’ Unearther of Unexpected Consequences

Dr. Nina AnsaryBorn in Tehran, Nina Ansary was only 12 when she left Iran in 1979 at the cusp of the Islamic Revolution, and has not returned since.

Growing up in New York City, Ansary received her B.A. in sociology from Barnard College and her M.A. in Middle Eastern studies from Columbia University. In 2013, Ansary finished her Ph.D. in history from Columbia University.

Ansary is the author of the upcoming book "The Jewels of Allah," based on her doctoral thesis about the women’s movement in Iran. Inspired by her scholarly journey, Ansary seeks to shatter the stereotypical assumptions and the often misunderstood story of women in Iran today.

"In writing this book, my intention is to pay homage to the myriad of accomplished women in Iran, who, despite the patriarchy of the current regime, continue to shine their bright light," Ansary said.

She added, "When I first started to conduct my research, I was baffled by the fact that women were one of the biggest supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, and in fact a contributing factor to the collapse of the Pahlavi Monarchy. As an Iranian woman, this piece of information was not only counterintuitive but difficult to reconcile, given that the Pahlavi regime was solely responsible for emancipating the Iranian woman."

While doing her doctoral research, Ansary discovered a startling truth: In the three and a half decades since the Islamic Revolution, the number of women in higher education has increased from just over 35 percent at the cusp of the 1979 revolution to 80 percent now.

"Today, despite all obstacles and the current regime’s best laid plans to redirect women into the private domain, the female population in Iran is distinguished by an unprecedented surge in female literacy and a flourishing feminist movement against the boundaries of a traditional religious prescription," Ansary said.

She said the education surge happened because when Khomeini came into power, he segregated society and mandated the veil. Such measures initially proved to be a liberating medium for the traditional segment of the female population. The schools were now segregated and many traditional families who could not relate to the westernized trend set in motion by the Pahlavi Monarchy, felt it was safe to send their daughters to school in a newly chaste atmosphere.

"These are some of the unanticipated consequences of measures undertaken by the Islamic regime, which ironically ended up empowering women. I refer to them as fortuitous blunders by Khomeini where women are concerned."

The current regime, Ansary added, has routinely attempted to silence the women’s movement. "Therefore, a crucial ingredient is for the international community to engage in bringing attention to the plight of women in Iran who continue to be debilitated by the irrational premise of patriarchal laws."

–By Jan Paschal

Dana Bolger: D.C.’s Campus Rape Survivor Turned Title IX Activist

Dana BolgerOrganizers such as Amherst College alum Dana Bolger are bringing new life and activism to the enforcement of the historic women’s rights law, called Title IX.

Bolger, co-founder of Know Your IX, said her organization aims "to give students that basic legal literacy around the rights they have and the schools’ responsibilities to fill them," by informing college students that the federal law requires academic institutions that receive federal funds to not discriminate on the basis of gender.

"If you don’t know you have them [these rights] you can’t protect them and insist that your school honor them," Bolger said.

Bolger, along with other survivors of sexual violence, founded Know Your IX after discovering firsthand the impact of not knowing her rights. After her report of sexual violence and stalking by a fellow student to a college dean, Bolger temporarily left campus as the dean recommended. Later, she learned she was entitled to stay on campus and continue her education.

"Once I learned I had that right I was able to stand up for myself and march into meetings with administrators and demand my place on campus," Bolger said.

Now a full-time job for Bolger, Know Your IX has a two-pronged strategy. First, the organization educates students about their rights to an education free from violence. The website, written largely by survivors and with the guidance of attorneys, covers basic information on Title IX and provides resources ranging from starting a campaign on individual campuses to how to find a lawyer. It also publishes "Know Your Rights" advertisements in campus newspapers and online.

The second strategy, ED ACT NOW, lobbies the federal Department of Education for more energetic enforcement of the law in cases of rape, dating violence, stalking and harassment more broadly. Last year, the organization’s impact was felt when the department stepped up its enforcement, including issuing public findings of non-compliance against several colleges and universities.

This year, Bolger and her co-organizers are broadening the organization’s focus to campaign for economic justice for survivors.

"Often we don’t think about the financial impact of violence, especially on campus rape survivors… that could be anything from tuition refunds for a survivor who is left no choice but to drop out of school and take time off, medical costs or the costs for STD treatment, or counseling costs," Bolger said.

In addition, Know Your IX seeks to expand media coverage and the law’s enforcement to the full range of higher education institutions, including at technical and community colleges, and in the midwest and southern U.S.

"The current system puts a significant burden on survivors to take the initiative to file complaints, which is not a particularly easy process," Bolger said. "Basically we are asking for transparency and enforcement."

–By Meagan Lee Butler

Sharon D’Agostino: New Jersey’s Texter-in-chief For Saving Lives of Pregnant Women

Sharon D'AgostinoSharon D’Agostino has been working to keep women around the world healthy.

D’Agostino assumed responsibility for strategic philanthropy at Johnson and Johnson in 2006 and was appointed vice president of corporate citizenship in April 2012. She has been integral in the company’s five-year commitment to the United Nations’ secretary general’s 2010 Every Woman Every Child campaign, a "call to action" with the aim to establish health programs and policies that will save the lives of 16 million women and children by the end of 2015.

Her work with Johnson and Johnson has helped build partnerships and programs focused on maternal and child health, including MAMA: the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, which delivers health information to new and expectant mothers in low-resource settings via their mobile phones.

"I feel connected to so many women I’ve never even met," D’Agostino said, "and am grateful to work with colleagues and partners committed to improving the health of girls, women and children."

Raised in New Jersey by parents who themselves were raised by strong women, D’Agostino was an adult before she realized that women’s rights were central to women’s health. It was while teaching French, her first job after graduating from college, that D’Agostino served on several school committees and had some realizations.

"As part of those committees, I began to notice how much women had an opportunity to provide a unique voice, and I decided to go to business school," D’Agostino said.

Not long after graduating, in 1989, she joined Johnson and Johnson as a part of the company’s consumer business.

"I was told that my kindness was going to hurt my career," D’Agostino said. Yet she eventually became the skincare franchise’s global president, until 2006 when she accepted a corporate role.

As D’Agostino travels the world to speak with and learn from local women, inspiration comes from "every single woman I have met," she said. During a visit in Malawi, for example, she sat with an HIV positive woman on the floor of her home as she learned how to prevent passing the infection to her baby. "Her commitment to her baby was breathtaking."

D’Agostino also served as a representative of the private sector on the board of the World Health Organization’s Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health and is in the corporate cabinet for the U.N. Special Envoy’s Millennium Development Goals Health Alliance.

"I am honored to add my voice to so many around the world," D’Agostino said. "I will continue to advocate for the health, survival and education of women and their families–always."

–By Crystal Lewis

Dorothy Davis: Transcontinental Developer of African Economic Justice

Dorothy Davis

Dorothy Davis has been a pioneer all of her life.

Born in Liberia to U.S. Foreign Service parents, her family moved to New Jersey from their posting in newly independent Tunisia when she was entering third grade. Prior to their arrival, the headmaster of the private school of her parents’ choice assured them she would be welcome. However, when the school saw that Davis was African American, they informed her parents that private schools in the state did not admit African Americans. Her parents sued the state and Davis became the first black person, and black female, to attend a private school in New Jersey.

Since multicultural school environments had been her norm overseas, Davis was unaware of her double minority status in U.S. classrooms full of boys. She remained the first African American female to attend her schools in Washington, D.C., and Switzerland until her senior year at an all-female high school in New Jersey.

"That’s when I became more cognizant of the leadership capabilities of women," she said.

Davis’ mobile upbringing required her to readily adapt to new environments. She continues this lifestyle today and her "collage" of experiences and networks informs her vocation.

After working in media (Fortune magazine), nongovernmental organizations (African American Institute), multilateral organizations (the U.N.) and with governments and the private sector, Davis founded The Diasporan Touch. Through the organization, she specializes in finding common ground between people, cultures and interests to produce positive, effective and sustainable results.

"I empower people by helping them identify their talent and discover how it can contribute to a unique solution to a certain circumstance or opportunity," she said.

A strong proponent of gender balance and human rights, Davis is a founding board member of the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund and currently chairs its international board of directors. Leveraging the resilience of female traders during Liberia’s 14-year civil war, the organization builds or renovates markets, provides literacy and financial training and advocates for market women in policymaking spaces worldwide.

Next, Davis wants to inspire youth to take the road less traveled through writing a book that features her eclectic journey. She wants to encourage them to become social entrepreneurs dedicated to producing economic empowerment for all.

"We should applaud ourselves as we take the journey," she said. "Sometimes we think we should only applaud at the finish line, but the finish line keeps moving. We should applaud as we achieve each success."

— Maggie Freleng

Dianne Dillon-Ridgley: Iowa’s Ceaseless Traveler for Mother Earth

Dianne Dillon-RidgleyWherever Dianne Dillon-Ridgley goes, and that is almost anywhere in the world, she acts and reacts to her core belief: Women’s rights and the work of developing a sustainable planet are intrinsically linked.

Throughout her travels and her many leadership roles, she carries a favorite saying of her grandmother who from her earliest days as a child would extol: "You owe for the time you take up and the space you occupy on the planet."

Understanding "all issues are women’s issues," Dillon-Ridgley has donned hats representing many issues: she is executive director of the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future, having just completed her term as the first woman to chair the board at the Center for International Environmental Law; she was appointed by the White House to the U.S. delegation for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the 1997 U.N.’s General Assembly on the results of Rio and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, making her the only person to serve on all three delegations. She also served as U.N. representative for the World YWCA-Geneva, and has had an 18-year tenure as director at Interface, Inc., Atlanta, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles and a global leader in sustainable design.

Her decades of work and leadership on climate change, reproductive freedom, human rights and corporate sustainability are all grounded by her fundamental belief that "we must work for a just and sustainable world . . . .and we can never have that world without the full equal participation of women," she said.

Growing up in Dallas and Kansas City in an African American family of educators, physicians and activists, she learned at an early age the importance of being an advocate for the community, particularly for decisions that impact a community’s health and social well-being. When she took her first job as a college intern at the brand new fledgling Environmental Protection Agency, she started a career-long journey where she put that legacy and early knowledge into practice.

Dillon-Ridgley said there never was a shift in what she wanted to do. "I just do what I was reared to do."

Her advocacy ranges from promoting more women and people of color on corporate boards to ending female genital mutilation and expanding renewable energy generation. "They are all connected, all essential," she said.

To note how far we have come in the last half century, Dillon-Ridgley recalled an occasion in the 1980s during her four terms as president of the Association of Iowa Human Rights Agencies, when after a speech she was ineloquently asked: "Are you a woman or ‘a black’?" She replied: "I don’t divide myself, nor do I allow anyone else to. When I come in the room, all of me crosses the threshold, a woman, mother, daughter, environmentalist, African American, former dancer . . . They are all connected, all essential."

–By Maggie Freleng

Karen Elizaga: Hawaii’s Welcomer of New Arrivals

Karen ElizagaKaren Elizaga is the dynamic board chair of the largest Asian American domestic violence organization in the nation and has been instrumental in using her law degree and business savvy to push the organization to new levels.

Under her leadership, the New York Asian Women’s Center (NYAWC) recently opened its second outreach center in a New York neighborhood populated by many Asian new arrivals, offering services to survivors of trafficking and domestic violence and other gender-based crimes. The center’s two locations, the other also in a neighborhood where many Asians settle down in, offer such innovative programs as trauma-centered yoga, mentoring for child witnesses to family violence and immigration legal services, as well as walk-in assessment, English language tutoring, job counseling, emergency shelter housing and public benefits.

Elizaga has served as board chair for the NYAWC since June 2013 and as a board member since 2007. With Elizaga at the helm fundraising, NYAWC has broken annual gala records steadily since 2007 and is particularly proud of the organization’s increased attention to protecting victims of human trafficking.

Elizaga grew up in Honolulu and has traveled all over the world. She graduated law school at the American University Washington College of Law in 1996. After an unsatisfying career as a lawyer, she decided to change her trajectory.

In 2004, at the age of 33, she founded Forward Options, a personal and executive coaching firm. Earning a Certificate in Organizational and Executive Coaching from New York University, and authoring the 2014 book "Find Your Sweet Spot," she is passionate about inspiring young women to make the most out of their personal and professional lives.

"My favorite exercise with clients is getting them to think of a person they love, somebody they would do anything for to see them succeed and to try and turn that feeling back around on themselves and embrace a form of self-love," Elizaga said. "Confidence and self-esteem are crucial in achieving success in both the personal and professional life."

She considers one great success a break through with a female teen who appeared unimpressed and apathetic during a workshop. The teen later sent Elizaga an email, thanking her for opening her eyes and showing her she could aspire to greater things despite her tough home life. Nine years later, the young woman graduated from college, works at a job she loves and she and Elizaga are still in touch.

"It’s a work in progress," Elizaga said. "I feel like I’m never finished. There’s always more that can and should be done for women who are disenfranchised and in dangerous situations. I want us to go further and continue doing amazing work."

–By Coryn Julien

For more information:

Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2015 Home Page
Women’s eNews Annnounces 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2015
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Interrupt Legacy Narratives
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Transform Cultures
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Give Life to Movements

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