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2010 - Seven Who Invent a Better Future

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Profiles of seven outstanding leaders dedicated to improving women's lives: Robin Abrams, Andrea Arroyo, Cecilia Boone, Vivian Castleberry, Salome Chasnoff, Kathy Cloninger and Martha Diaz.

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Profiles of seven outstanding leaders dedicated to improving women's lives: Robin Abrams, Andrea Arroyo, Cecilia Boone, Vivian Castleberry, Salome Chasnoff, Kathy Cloninger and Martha Diaz.
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(WOMENSENEWS)--

Robin Abrams, Messenger of Opportunity

Robin Abrams

Silicon Valley executive Robin Abrams aims to be the conduit between women and technology.

In 2008, Abrams joined the board of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, an organization whose mission is to increase the positive impact of technology on the world's women. She believes that disruptive technology, or innovation that drives market creation, is the area that women should focus on because, "when change happens, it creates opportunity."

Abrams recalls a defining moment in her career that demonstrated how technology could empower women. Stationed in Hong Kong as the managing director for Apple in 1995, she was approached by the United Nations to sponsor the Beijing Women's Conference. The event would eventually draw Hillary Clinton and more than 5,000 representatives from 2,100 nongovernmental organizations and nearly 30,000 individuals. New to the Chinese market, it was a no-brainer for Apple to sign on, thereby meeting its dual objectives of gaining visibility in the country and identifying the right partners with whom to conduct business.

"For the first time, there were Internet cafes set up that allowed the attendees to use technology to caucus in real time with their membership back in their native countries," Abrams says.

Abrams has spent the last 33 years in the technology business. The York, Neb., native started her career as an attorney with the U.S. National Bank of Omaha (now Wells Fargo Bank). After two years, she transferred to the commercial side of the industry. It wasn't long before she was exposed to the promise of technology.

"What inspires me is promise," Abrams says. "I think about it as a balance sheet: If there is an asset that is untapped--undervalued--(I start to think) how can I work with that female CEO, how can I work with that wireless technology, how can I work with that student. That, to me, is inspirational."

Over the years, Abrams has held numerous positions at corporations in addition to Apple: Unisys, VeriFone and Palm Computing. She also serves as an advisor to privately held companies--particularly those led by female executives.

Two such firms are Enhanced Medical Decisions, an online search engine that provides information to consumers and professionals, and GoGoVerde, a web tool that helps communities live a more earth-friendly lifestyle.

"I think technology allowed traditional functions to be done more quickly and in much greater access," Abrams says. "New technologies--and the application of those technologies--create for women an opportunity to work with a more level playing field as they go about solving health and safety issues, providing education and taking advantage of income-generating opportunities."

-- Shahnaz Mahmud

Andrea Arroyo, Rememberer of Forgotten Women

Andrea Arroyo

As an artist, Andrea Arroyo always found inspiration in women.

"When I was a professional dancer, I was fascinated by the female form," says Arroyo. "Soon after I became a visual artist, I began doing research on women's images. Since then, I have been intrigued not only by the female form, but also by female stories."

Not long after arriving in New York City as a dancer in 1983, Arroyo started experimenting with sculpture and drawings. She held her first solo exhibit, "Andrea Arroyo/Sculptures and Reliefs," five years later at On the Wall Gallery, which garnered a positive response from casual observers and art collectors. Her public art commissions, including "Harmony" (two relief murals) and "My City, My Planet, My Sun" (a series of large-faceted glass art panels), can be found at schools and subway stations in the Bronx.

Arroyo's latest project, "Flor de Tierra" ("Flower of the Earth"), looks to commemorate the women of Juarez, the border city in Mexico where more than 400 women have gone missing or been killed in the past 15 years. The phrase is also a Spanish expression that means something is buried or planted in a shallow place.

"I was appalled by the number of women who have been killed or missing and by the fact that the authorities have not taken proper measures to investigate or stop these crimes," says Arroyo.

Many of these victims were abandoned in the desert or buried in shallow graves, and Arroyo's project focuses on the vastness of their deaths. She's creating a pastel-on-paper drawing for each victim; to date, she's completed 230 of them.

"I feel privileged that I'm able to create art, so when I receive an award or acknowledgment I'm grateful and humbled," says Arroyo, who was named official artist for the 7th Annual Latin Grammy Awards by the Latin Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006. She also received the Groundbreaking Latina in the Arts Award from "Catalina" magazine and the National Association of Latina Leaders in 2008.

In addition to "Flor de Tierra," Arroyo is working on "Flor de Vida" ("Flower of Life"). This project consists of brightly colored acrylic paintings based on historical and mythological women, such as Lilith, Athena, Cleopatra, Xochiquetzal and Frida Kahlo.

"In my work, female forms connect all women--linking the past with the present, the vulnerable with the indestructible."

--Kayla Hutzler

Cecilia Boone, Pioneer for Social Justice

Cecilia Boone

Cecilia Boone's first feminist role model was her mother, Marie Keene Guthrie, a widow who raised three children while working as a Circuit Court clerk in Kentucky from 1959 to 1981.

"She was a woman of a lot of ability and a lot of pride," Boone says. "It was clear to me as a child that she didn't have the same kind of breaks that a lot of men did."

Boone says that the second-class treatment her mother received on the job left her feeling pressured to do everything perfectly to avoid being berated by her male colleagues, who were lawyers and judges.

"She was treated more like the county secretary than an elected official," Boone says. "It was just the way men viewed women at that time."

Guthrie's obstacles inspired Boone to dip her toes in the nonprofit world in the 1980s by volunteering and fundraising for her children's schools. A longtime pro-choice advocate, Boone expanded her activism and joined the board of her local Planned Parenthood in Texas in 1995, eventually becoming its chair in 2000. It was while working at the reproductive health care organization that she became fascinated with the intersection of politics and social justice.

"I realized that no matter how many people believe in a social issue, they can't begin to approach the power of government," Boone says.

That revelation formed the cornerstone of Boone's commitment to using philanthropy to impact both public policy and women's lives. As chair of the National Planned Parenthood Action Fund, she's been pivotal in keeping women's needs paramount in the fight for health care reform. As chair of the Dallas Women's Foundation, she's helped raise more than $18 million for women's causes that range from supporting domestic violence shelters to supporting agencies that offer job training and language classes. And as a member of Women Moving Millions, she's been a pioneer in--and champion of--women-centric philanthropy.

"I don't know that women are any more generous than they've ever been. Before, when we were doing fundraising for women's issues, we were afraid to ask for big gifts," Boone says. "It's been a totally liberating experience on both sides, giving and receiving."

--Sarah Seltzer

Vivian Castleberry, Groundbreaker for Peace

Vivian Castleberry

Vivian Anderson Castleberry has served as a godmother of the women's movement in Dallas since the mid-20th century, when she was editor of the student newspaper at Southern Methodist University.

Now 87, Castleberry mentored many female journalists and won several awards while working at the Dallas Times Herald from 1956 to 1984. As a reporter and editor, she was responsible for some of the newspaper's first stories on issues like child abuse, birth control and prostitution. She often clashed with her bosses over covering these subjects, but she refused to shy away from controversy.

After she retired in 1984, Castleberry was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame, but she wasn't content with resting on her laurels. She took the passion for justice that informed her work as a journalist and channeled it toward peace, launching Peacemakers Incorporated in 1987. The nonprofit organization sponsors international women's conferences on peace. Its most recent gathering in 2007 inspired participants to create "Women Stand With Iraq," and a peace institute bearing her name was started the following year. (It's now affiliated with the University of North Texas.)

Castleberry is just as keen on helping women at home as she is abroad. She co-founded the Family Place, the first women's shelter in Dallas, with attorney and longtime women's rights advocate Louise Raggio. It provides emergency shelter, crisis counseling and intervention for all victims--women, children and men--of domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as transitional housing.

Castleberry achieved many firsts in her journalism career, including being one of the first women to sit on a newspaper's editorial board. The Press Club of Dallas honored her with its Buck Marryat Award for a lifetime of outstanding contributions, and she received an honorary degree from Southern Methodist University in 1999. In addition, she's been profiled in a documentary, "Trailblazing Texas Women," and by the Oral History Project on Women Journalists.

-- Gayle Reaves

Salome Chasnoff, Giver of Tools to Be Seen
Ida B. Wells for Bravery in Journalism Award Winner

Salome Chasnoff

Documentary filmmaker Salome Chasnoff has not only been transformed by her women's rights work, her work now offers transformative experiences to women and girls.

Chasnoff knew from firsthand experience that giving the tools to women to equip them to tell their stories could make those voices heard on a wider scale. While pursuing her doctorate in performance studies at Northwestern University in 1990, she worked with a group of pregnant teenagers who were sent to an alternative education program in their last trimester. According to the program director, teachers and families viewed the teens as "renegades and losers" for becoming mothers at such an early age.

"We did research and audio interviews about teen motherhood," Chasnoff says. "We read plays and did a lot of writing."

That project resulted in the movie "Looking at Teen Motherhood: The Fantastic Moms Video," which the girls felt presented a more sensitive, caring image than other films about teenage mothers.

"We made this movie and the girls came alive. They found their voices. Their stories moved people and, in turn, gave them a tremendous sense of the value of their lived experience," Chasnoff says. "All these girls who were once seen as renegades and losers became experts in the eyes of their viewers. In the process, they became community leaders."

When Chasnoff attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, everything she saw and heard clarified her idea for an organization that would amplify the voices of underrepresented women and girls worldwide through their own media productions.

"What was clear to me was women and girls were completely left out of the information revolution," Chasnoff says. "Women had a marginalized role in the news media and even in alternative media."

Chasnoff made a documentary about the conference, which drew about 40,000 women from around the world. That effort led to the creation of Beyondmedia in 1996 to support distribution of the documentary. In 2000, it expanded to become a nonprofit organization to provide free services to women and girls in the highest-need communities: young women with disabilities, girls in foster care, girls in low-income neighborhoods, girls at high risk of incarceration, immigrants and refugees. Beyondmedia now encompasses four programs: "Girls! Action! Media!," in which young women discuss issues of concern while learning media, arts and technology skills; "Q'd In Media," which supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in organizing and educating communities; "Women and Prison," which helps incarcerated women and girls, former prisoners and their families use media arts to tell their stories; and "Teach Beyondmedia," which offers media-making skills and curricula ideas to teachers and students in public schools throughout Chicago.

"All the work we do is for social justice," Chasnoff says. "It's not just about teaching skills, but creating a more humane world."

--Vivian Lingard

Kathy Cloninger, Scouter of Girl Power

Kathy Cloninger

For Kathy Cloninger, the Girl Scouts aren't about selling cookies or earning merit badges. The chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of the USA sees her mission as one that expands the number and diversity of girls in the leadership pipeline throughout the country, ultimately transforming the Girl Scouts into a movement.

Cloninger's tenure at the organization--with its three million participants and nearly one million adult volunteers--has focused on developing strategies of leadership development, which is rooted in her own experience.

"I was a Girl Scout in Dallas and my mother was a troop leader," Cloninger says. "It was not a community of college grads and we couldn't afford much in way of after-school activities, so scouting is the place where I got that girl energy and learned to connect in a sisterhood. It really did change my life."

Watching her mom take charge, Cloninger says, demonstrated to her that Girl Scouts could inspire individuals to achieve beyond their comfort zones. Other causes she has been involved with over the years include working with police to assist rape survivors and helping Sissy Farenthold with her unsuccessful bids for governor of Texas in 1972 and 1974.

Cloninger has been connected with the Girl Scouts for more than 25 years, serving as CEO with Girl Scouts councils in Tennessee, Texas and Colorado.

"When I had the opportunity to come to a national leadership role, I thought, 'I've known the impact it has on girls on a community level, but I don't know if the world knows that'," Cloninger says. "I want us to have a sense, as an organization, of how big an impact we already have and unify girl scouting into one large movement."

Since becoming its CEO in 2003, Cloninger has rolled out several new initiatives to accomplish that goal, including a new national program that reflects the organization's renewed leadership focus. She has also unveiled programs that specialize in health, environmental awareness, and financial literacy.

Cloninger has also worked to expand the reach of Girl Scouting into low-income neighborhoods, both urban and rural. Under her leadership, the Girl Scouts has consolidated many of its smaller regional offices so that resources will be distributed equitably to participants and has continued to make diversity a central part of the organization's mission.

"When we improve the quality of life for girls, the whole nation is lifted up."

--Sarah Seltzer

Martha Diaz, Bold Promoter of Feminist Hip Hop

Martha Diaz

As a young girl, Martha Diaz found feminism in hip-hop through artists like Queen Latfiah, Salt-n-Pepa, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante and Mary J. Blige. More than a quarter-century later, she's dedicated herself to pushing its shared values because it bridges the gender, religious, race and generation gaps.

The founder of at least four major organizations dedicated to promoting the principles of hip-hop culture, Diaz is also the creator of the Womanhood Learning Project, a network of women around the world who promote women's leadership roles within hip-hop and the community. As part of that project, she created the Ladies First Fund, a grant of $2,500 that seeks to create opportunities for women of color in Newark, N.J.

"We want to provide funding and technical assistance to women who have ideas to solve problems in their community" and empower other women through social entrepreneurship, she says.

Diaz is also due to release, "Fresh, Bold, and So Def: Women In Hip-Hop Changing the Game," an educational resource book that profiles 365 international female artists, activists and entrepreneurs who are, in her words, "taking matters into their own hands and making a difference in society."

"As a first-generation Colombian American, I didn't have any of my mother's family members living in America and my father wasn't in the picture. The community became my extended family," Diaz says. "Hip-hop was the culture that helped cultivate my voice; it nurtured all of the arts during my years growing up in Paterson, N.J., in the early 1980s."

She adds that she was inspired by strong female artists and pioneers like the "Godfather" of hip-hop culture Afrika Bambaataa, a disc jockey from the Bronx, N.Y., whose Zulu Nation organization showed her the way.

"We had to cultivate the individual and the community," she says.

While working in the entertainment industry, Diaz became disillusioned with how the media degraded women and glorified the gang lifestyle through the exploitation of hip-hop music and lyrics. She began to organize the community to counteract the negative stereotypical images.

She launched the first Hip-Hop Odyssey International Film Festival in 2002 as a platform for conscientious filmmakers, artists and educators to depict another side of hip-hop culture that sends a message through "edutainment" (education and entertainment) and social justice. What started out as a showcase of just 45 movies has expanded to include more than 100 and has paved the way for Diaz to develop the Hip-Hop Association, H2ONewsreel and the Hip-Hop Education Center.

In 2008, Diaz received the NYU Reynolds Graduate Fellowship in Social Entrepreneurship to study an individualized interdisciplinary master's degree on using hip-hop culture as a tool for human rights and social change. But of all her accomplishments, she says she feels most proud that her 13- and 14-year-old daughters recognize her efforts.

"It's been hard for me to explain to them what I'm doing, but they now know I'm trying to uplift the people."

--Lauren Trapanatto

 

 

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