21 Leaders for the 21st Century

(WOMENSENEWS)–Pushing, pushing, pushing, resting and pushing again, for the improvement of women’s lives is the heart of the work of 20 women and one man selected as Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century for 2008.

One is a sports executive who wrested $11.5 million from one of the powerful pro basketball franchises, the New York Knicks, for tolerating the sexual harassment of her and her co-workers; another trains indigenous women to become paid reporters for her news services in Mexico and Nepal. Yet another energizes historically black women’s colleges in the United States and organized women to topple a brutal African dictator. These leaders and the 17 others Women’s eNews names today share a vision of a better world for women.

The Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century reflect the Women’s eNews global readership: One lives in Liberia, another in Vietnam; others work and seek change in U.S. cities from Chicago to Biloxi, Miss., and many points in between.

Choosing the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century was especially difficult this year because of the overwhelming response by readers, contributors and Women’s eNews freelance writers. The Women’s eNews staff and board members carefully considered each nomination and were inspired by all of the nominees’ personal commitments, strategies and victories. Sometimes during the process the selection committee was so torn by the need to limit the honorees to only 21 that the only resolution was to open a new file and begin the nomination process for 2009.

"I continue to be surprised, amazed, heartened and humbled by those nominated to be a Women’s eNews 21 Leader," says Rita Henley Jensen, editor in chief of Women’s eNews. "Their often unnoticed initiatives are enormously significant in the worldwide efforts to ensure women take their place in all aspects of daily life, from the equitable distribution of food to ending tyranny and all that is required to accomplish both."

Women’s eNews invites its readers to be amazed too by the work of the following 21 Leaders for the 21st Century for 2008.

Training Others to Triumph

Liz Abzug, a third-generation New Yorker, founded the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, named after her mother, a former member of Congress and international women’s rights activist. This generation’s Abzug guides female teens as they study political advocacy and develop strategies to impact their communities. In November, Abzug brought together hundreds of women from all generations to commemorate the 1977 National Women’s Conference organized by her mother. Abzug’s goal is to ignite the flames of the next wave of women’s rights movement.

While visiting a school in her grandparents’ village of Chaouen, Morocco, the then-12-year-old Iman Belali from Issaquah, Wash., was inspired to create the American Moroccan International Exchange to expand the connections between the young women of Chaouen and Issaquah. The exchange uses 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.

As a world-renowned educator, Johnnetta B. Cole has infused new vitality into two historically Black women’s colleges, Spelman in Atlanta and Bennett in Greensboro, N.C. In doing so, she has prepared countless young African American women for leadership. Now chair of the board of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute, she guides leadership training for female teens and a national dialogue about diversity.

The winner of this year’s Ida. B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism, Cristi Hegranes, has redefined journalism by training indigenous women in developing regions to write news stories that reflect their lives and issues. So far, her San Francisco-based Press Institute for Women in the Developing World has provided training in Mexico and Nepal and hired the successful trainees as senior reporters for its Internet-based news service.

Battling for Women’s Health

Lillie Pearl Allen‘s own process of self-discovery led her to found Be Present Inc., a national movement to improve Black women’s health that is dedicated to building sustainable leadership for social justice. Be Present, based in Decatur, Ga., focuses on building authentic partnerships grounded in trust, mutual responsibility and collective action.

When Rebekah Kiser journeyed from Colorado Springs to Ethiopia, she encountered a woman whose body was ripped during childbirth. The condition, known as fistula, is rare in the United States but not in Ethiopia. Kiser found care for the woman and then went to work to help others maimed by fistula, raising the funds and building a place for the women to stay as they await the surgery that will restore them to health.

Doris Buffett started her Sunshine Lady Foundation in 1996 to level the playing field for women. Based in Wilmington, N.C., the foundation has awarded more than $50 million in grants, providing scholarships for women to escape domestic violence through education. The more than 500 recipients are assisted with every type of expense to help them gain their degrees: transportation, child care, lock-changing, lawyers. In her global giving, Buffett has funded in Afghanistan improvements to women’s health facilities and a school for 2,000 girls. She has also provided scholarships for Afghan women to study in the United States.

As a radio reporter in Hanoi, Nguyen Van Ahn heard many women describe lives diminished by domestic abuse. Realizing that the women had no place to go for assistance, Nguyen began the region’s first telephone hotline to provide psychological and emotional counseling. Now working across Vietnam, Nguyen’s organization operates in 22 cities and handles 5,000 calls a day. Her organization also provides training that addresses gender violence and reproductive health.

Pummeling Poverty

As head of New York City’s Volunteers of Legal Service, William J. Dean launched the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project that provides attorneys to mothers in prison who need legal counseling on child custody and visitation. The project’s goal is to assist imprisoned mothers in retaining their connection with their children.

After Hurricane Katrina, Sharon Hanshaw, the owner of a destroyed hair salon in Biloxi, Miss., joined a group of women meeting at a local funeral home. Soon, a group was formed called Coastal Women for Change and Hanshaw was asked to lead its rebuilding efforts. Representing a community that was often ignored after the storms, Hanshaw and several other members now have gained seats on the mayor’s subcommittees, assuring they will be heard.

Joan Holmes, a hunger activist since the 1970s, had a wakeup call in the mid-1990s. During a trip to Bangladesh, she read a report that helped her realize that child malnutrition was deeply rooted in gender inequality. As head of The Hunger Project, she transformed its programs to focus on enabling women to become the key change agents to end hunger in their lives and within their communities.

Innovator Lekha Singh uses her gift for photography to create dramatic images that raise awareness of global crises, with a particular focus on poverty and its effect on women. The Dallas resident also tapped her understanding of technology to found Aidmatrix, an international organization that uses technology to facilitate the efficient delivery of aid such as cash, food, clothing, building, medical and educational supplies. Through Aidmatrix partnerships, food aid is distributed each year to more than 25 million Americans, 67 percent of whom are women. To date, Aidmatrix has distributed more than $50 million dollars’ worth of aid to over 1 billion people around the world.

Building Peace and Connections

As executive director of the Center for Muslim Advancement, Daisy Kahn created the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity, known as WISE, and convened more than 175 women to launch a global Muslim women’s network and movement. WISE plans to establish a global Shura Council comprised of Muslim female scholars and activists to initiate dialogues, debate and collaborations on issues of Muslim women’s rights and responsibilities.

Thinking inside, outside and around the box is the purpose of the Lorraine Drammer Serena project that has helped thousands of women explore the meaning of being female by transforming plain wooden boxes into artistic expressions. Based in Santa Barbara, Calif., Serena and her collaborators spread the boxes and the concept through word of mouth. Women Beyond Borders now has 5,000 contributors from 50 nations. In Kenya, Women Beyond Borders had the first all-woman exhibition in the national museum’s history.

Leymah Gbowee came of age during the two decades of brutal war that convulsed her nation of Liberia. In 2002, Gbowee brought together several dozen women determined to have peace. Using sit-ins and blockades, they compelled dictator Charles Taylor to meet with them and enter peace talks. After seven weeks of talks with no cease-fire agreement, the women surrounded the building, locked their arms and informed the men that they would be held hostage until a deal was struck. After Taylor was toppled, Gbowee led efforts to elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president, the first elected female head of state in Africa.

Fighting for Equality

Civil rights attorney Kate Kendell found her lifelong calling in 1994 when she began her work for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. Under her direction during the past decade, the center has taken on some of the most pivotal cases advancing the rights of lesbians and increasing society’s acceptance of nontraditional families and relationships.

Rosita Romero‘s passions for gender equality motivated her to start the Dominican Women’s Development Center in Washington Heights, New York’s center of Dominican immigration. The decade-old organization lobbies on women-specific issues such as domestic violence, reproductive justice and child care; provides the basics for new arrivals, such as English classes and job training; and also advocates for amnesty for undocumented workers, health care and issues that impact recent immigrants.

As the head of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Washington, D.C., office, Sammie Moshenberg leads the BenchMark and Plan A national initiatives, providing information, training and forums for its membership and other organizations about the nomination of anti-choice federal judges and strategies to secure and protect U.S. women’s access to contraception.

Working for Women on the Job

Sports executive Anucha Browne Sanders scored a major victory when she spoke up about being sexually harassed at work by the powerful New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas. She was fired; then she sued and endured a highly publicized trial that exposed the team’s tolerance to sexual harassment by management and team members. The jury believed Sanders and the team settled with her for $11.5 million. The former college basketball star at Northwestern University says she hopes her victory brings the day closer when all women can enjoy a workplace free of discrimination.

Clean-energy advocate Susan Nickey is a true believer that women can help power the solar industry and actively recruits and mentors young women into the world of alternative energy. She hopes her pioneering work can persuade women that the all-boys-club image of Big Coal and Big Oil is no longer accurate. She regularly speaks to female college students and women in business schools, trying to recruit and mentor them and encouraging them to take a stake in their environment.

Early in her career, Theresa Connor, was a broadcast journalist and single mother who had to choose between work and caring for her baby. Without a job or child care, Connor and her child subsisted on welfare until she began landing jobs in state government. Eventually joining Planned Parenthood as a lobbyist in her home state of Washington, 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, which required employers’ insurance plans to cover prescription birth control under anti-discrimination laws.

These 21 Leaders for the 21st Century have waged and won significant battles on behalf of women and girls. Women’s eNews cheers the commitments and visions of these accomplished advocates, and hopes women worldwide will bask in their triumphs. During the following three days, Women’s eNews will publish expanded profiles of these remarkable leaders. Women’s eNews will honor them on May 21 in New York City.

Alexus Jones is development associate at Women’s eNews.

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