By Sarah Seltzer
Monday, December 24, 2007
Profiles of seven outstanding leaders dedicated to improving women's lives: Liz Abzug, Lillie Pearl Allen, Iman Belali, Doris Buffett, Johnnetta B. Cole, Theresa Connor and William J. Dean.
Liz Abzug decided that a monument was not enough to honor her mother, pioneering feminist and beloved New York City Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who died in 1998. She wanted a living tribute to continue her work and "pass it on to the next generation."
With a colleague Abzug designed a leadership training institute to give young women and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds the tools "to achieve the dynamic leadership skills of my mother."
Abzug felt there was a lack of outspoken, courageous female voices in the public sector, so the first program of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute was a two-week session for New York City high school girls to learn about political and issue advocacy, debating skills, researching and how to deliver a speech, and not-for-profit management. After two weeks of training, the trainee participants from several different New York City public high schools compete in a city-wide high school debate competition.
The Institute's intense focus on giving back sets it apart from other enrichment and leadership programs and is the first aimed specifically at female teens, Abzug says. Young women return to their schools and communities to hold forums on everything from housing to education policy. "We want to see them follow through as emerging leaders in their own communities as well as in society at large."
The Institute recently launched a mentoring system for the trainees and is developing paid internships for them to build on their new skills.
Many of the young women who enter the Institute know there is something unfair or un-equitable about their lives, Abzug says. Their experiences provide "a concrete idea of what gender discrimination is and that there's triple discrimination against women of color."
In November 2007, Abzug hosted the Freedom on Our Terms conference in New York to mark the 30th anniversary of the original National Women's Conference in 1977. More than 650 women and girls of all ages from 8 to 90 years old, and from all races, religions and backgrounds from 21 different states, attended the two-day conference. Abzug says it was deeply moving to watch young women become inspired and realize how important it is for them to pick up the mantle of leadership as well as to watch older women get excited about reigniting the fight for true gender equality.
"Young women need to assume their roles as the next generation of 21st century leaders," Abzug says. "They should never be afraid to ask for a seat at the table."
While trying out for the majorettes at a Black college in the South, Lillie Pearl Allen was told she wouldn't make it because "my hair was not long and straight, my skin color was not light and I was not tall enough." Although she made the squad, "this moment had an impact on my spirit and I started to shut down without even knowing that it was happening," she says.
Another experience in her journey occurred several years later when Allen was a master's student in public health at a predominantly white university. She could not remember her name as she sat down to take an important exam. "I had over-studied because somewhere deep inside I felt that everyone was smarter than me. I did not trust that I knew what I knew." She went on to take the exam and passed with high marks.
"This was the beginning of me saying to myself: How do I get to know who I am? Not just someone's best friend, caring mother or daughter of migrant farm workers. How do I thrive in this world and not just survive while living in a culture where people make assumptions about who I am based on race, gender or class?"
Nearly 30 years ago, Allen developed the Be Present Empowerment Model based on her belief that enduring progressive change begins with and is sustained by persistent personal growth. It was introduced in 1983 in her "Black and Female: What is the Reality?" workshop at the First National Conference on Black Women's Health Issues at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Her workshop was so popular that over 1,000 Black women attended, "saying that they never had a place just for them, to talk about what it is like to be Black and female in this country," Allen recalls.
In 1992, Allen founded Be Present Inc., which today has evolved into a national movement. The organization, based in Decatur, Ga., is dedicated to building sustainable leadership for social justice by providing training in the model and systems of support to move through barriers, listen to others in a conscious and present state, and build authentic partnerships grounded in trust, mutual responsibility and collective action.
As Allen says, "I am the founder. To me that means I found other people who wanted to thrive and be an active part of creating a fair and just world for all people."
It started with a 2004 trip to deliver 80 bags full of school supplies to Chaouen, Morocco, the birthplace of her grandparents. Iman Belali, then 12 years old and living in Issaquah, Wash., was tired of media stereotypes driven by Sept. 11 terrorist fears and inspired by the young women she met on her journey. In response, she decided to start the American Moroccan International Exchange for young women.
"Some had never been out of the country or their city," Belali, now 15, explains. "I wanted to show them that there's something more. I wanted to show girls that there's nothing different and we're all the same."
The object of the exchange is to use home stays and cross-cultural visits to foster peace and understanding in the next generation of female leaders, encouraging them to reach their full potential and get involved in issues such as math, engineering and science.
There's also a two-week camp that brings an equal number of 14-to-18-year-old teens from each country together for trips, workshops and projects, and Belali, who lives in Issaquah, Wash., joins the campers every day.
On the home stays, the students, chosen for their interest and enthusiasm for the program's mission, visit each other's homes, schools and communities. "One thing they do get excited about is food and going out and seeing what they do for fun," says Belali.
The exchanges create passionate friendships but also open minds and change attitudes. "They have a more understanding perspective on other people," says Belali. "And a lot of girls now do a lot of community service, get more involved in their community."
The Moroccans leave their visits with improved English; the Americans learn some Arabic. And they learn "not to base your opinion on biased media or what other people tell you," Belali says.
Belali, a 10th-grader at Issaquah High School whose favorite subjects are French and Orchestra, is working with her mother, the organization's president, on expanding the program and working to set up classroom Web video chats with Moroccan schools.
"We're constantly coming up with new ideas," she says. "We want to teach girls to think for themselves."
Belali is interested in psychology for her future career plans, but whether she becomes a violinist or chairs a nonprofit, she has only begun to make an impact on her generation.
The first winner of Doris Buffett's college scholarship for domestic violence survivors was stranded at home each morning by her husband, who would confiscate her shoes and her telephone.
Another early scholarship recipient wrote Buffet to say, "A year ago today I had 52 fractures in my face. Today I'm sitting with my children, we are all doing our homework together and they're growing up in a peaceful environment."
Buffett, based in Wilmington, N.C., started her Sunshine Lady Foundation in 1996 and says she's grateful to her father and brother, investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, for helping her endow it. Since then, the foundation has awarded more than $50 million in grants, primarily to grassroots efforts aimed at ending cycles of abuse and poverty, with an emphasis on education, which Buffett says is "the only way up and out."
The women--more than 500 since 1996--who participate in the foundation's Women's Independence Scholarship Program are assisted with every type of expense to help them gain their degrees.
"Books and tuition are the small part. Their cases demand transportation, child care, lock-changing, lawyers," says Buffet. "Every one of them is a hero. When I think of kids who are just going to college, there's no comparison."
The most important thing they gain with their diplomas, Buffett says, is the confidence to move forward and rebuild their lives.
"They've been told that they're worthless," she says, and adds that about two-thirds of the scholarship recipients choose to go into social service fields like counseling and nursing so they can help other women. "It's a win-win."
Other initiatives have spanned the nation and the globe. In Afghanistan, for example, Buffett funded improvements to women's health facilities and a school for 2,000 girls as well as providing scholarships for Afghan women to study in the United States. She hopes when they graduate, they will return home and help institute reforms.
Buffett says her philanthropy gives her joy and it has expanded her own life. But the desire to help woman comes from her belief that around the world they get the short end of the stick.
"We're just leveling the playing field," she says.
In the segregated South of Johnnetta Cole's childhood, hotels were whites-only establishments and her household was a place where traveling Black intellectuals and artists were welcomed to spend the night. Like her college professor mother, these guests became Cole's role models.
"My folks kept explaining to me that getting an education isn't simply about coming to understand the world better," she recalls, "education is also about learning how to make the world better." This lesson laid a foundation for her entire career of educating young African American women and preparing them for leadership.
As a student at Oberlin College, Cole discovered anthropology. "I see the world through one lens as an anthropologist, and through the other lens as an African American woman." The two lenses give her the vision she needed to be a community volunteer and a social activist, she says.
In 1987 after climbing the academic ranks, Cole became the first African American woman to serve as the president of Spelman, a historically Black college for women in Atlanta.
Though she completed a successful capital campaign there, she feels proudest of "helping to put Spelman in closer touch with its own self" as a place to nurture diverse Black women who would go on to be outstanding leaders.
In 1987, Cole retired from Spelman College; her retirement didn't last long. In 2002 she assumed the presidency of Bennett College for Women, the only other historically Black college for women in the United States. Bennett faced substantial challenges at the time. "How good it feels to have worked with others to turn things around at that ever so special college," she says.
Cole stepped down as Bennett's head in 2007, and now much of her work is connected to chairing the board of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute, founded at Bennett College.
One of the Institute's projects that Cole is particularly excited about is Power Girls, a magazine, Web site and summer program that targets female teens and provides them with leadership training.
"I believe so much in girls and women," Cole says. "When I see a young woman who has chosen to soar toward the height of her possibilities, the effect is far-reaching. She will become a role model; she will inspire others."
In 1982, Theresa Connor was a promising journalist at CNN in Los Angeles when she discovered she was pregnant.
She was a single mother on an entry-level salary with no family nearby to help care for an infant. "I was faced with a tough choice: keep the child or keep the position," she recalls.
Connor chose to return to her home state of Washington to have her child and assumed her experience and education would make it easy to find a job.
She underestimated the biases facing pregnant women. Jobless and with no prenatal care, she soon headed to the welfare office.
"I was angered by the way poor women were treated by welfare workers and others," Connor says. "I remember sitting in the reception area, turning to a woman next to me and saying, 'This is outrageous!'"
When her son turned 1, she became politically active. As president of the local chapter of the Women's Political Caucus, Connor advocated for child care and lobbied the city to adopt a "limited duty policy" rather than force pregnant police officers and firefighters to take unpaid leave during pregnancy.
Working late nights at the Washington State Senate, she often picked up her son from daycare and returned to her office where he stayed by her desk. She soon joined the state employees union to help others struggling with child care. She helped draft child-care legislation and set up a hotline for child-care referrals.
Connor longed to vigorously push for the women's issues that mattered to her when she opened the paper and saw a lobbying position for Planned Parenthood. She persuaded them to make the job full-time and ramp up their campaigns. "I had this vision of what it would take to move the organization to the next level in terms of political presence. It's taken 15 years but we've done that."
Connor and her associates beat back anti-choice legislation and took the offensive, fighting for wider access to maternity care and contraception. She also initiated the legal research and regulatory strategies that led to the 2001 Erickson v. Bartell case that required employers' insurance plans to cover prescription birth control under anti-discrimination laws.
Connor was inspired by the case to change directions: She just received a law degree from the University of Washington. Her next step is sitting for the bar, and she plans to continue using the law to advance women's rights.
The number of female inmates in prisons and jails in the United States has grown at double the rate for men since 1980. William J. Dean, at the helm of a volunteer organization providing pro bono civil legal services to low-income people in New York City on a range of issues, took note and acted.
Dean and his colleagues launched the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project of Volunteers of Legal Service. In 2006, 142 incarcerated mothers received legal counseling on child custody and visiting issues in the project, and 193 women participated in legal information sessions on these issues.
The goal of the project is to help mothers maintain a continuing relationship with their children during the period of incarceration by counseling them on their legal rights and responsibilities as to their children. Volunteer lawyers work at the Rikers Island jail in New York City, where women first enter the penal system after being arrested or after being convicted of a misdemeanor; Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., where women serve felony sentences; and Bayview Correctional Facility, a prison on Manhattan's West Side where mothers transition out of the prison system.
Entering these facilities is eye-opening. "It's extremely critical that lawyers become aware of prisons and jails and conditions there, because as lawyers we are so much a part of the justice system," Dean, a graduate of Harvard College and Columbia Law School, says. "It's important for the legal profession to know about problems faced by prisoners and also by poor people; it being too easy for lawyers to live in a golden ghetto."
Lawyers are matched by Volunteers of Legal Service to help mothers work out problems relating to child custody arrangements and visits from their families. Lawyers also follow up with social services agencies and help locate children in the foster care system. These services give mothers a sense of hope, Dean says.
The project relies on lawyers at large law firms in New York City who donate their services. "Mothers are delighted to have professional legal counseling on these difficult, sensitive issues," he says. "Even on the outside, this kind of service is difficult to find."
"When the decision is made between incarcerating a mother and considering an alternative sentence, an important consideration should be what the impact is going to be on children," Dean says. "That is done infrequently now."
Sarah Seltzer is a writer for Women's eNews in New York City.
Bella Abzug Leadership Institute:
Be Present Inc.:
American Moroccan International Exchange:
The Sunshine Lady Foundation:
Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute:
Planned Parenthood VOTES! Washington:
Volunteers of Legal Service:
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