Meet Three Powerhouses Who Dismantle Racial Divides
For the first time, Women’s eNews is honoring a non-journalist with the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism. The high-ranking executive at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has been a powerful source of support for media that confronts health disparities, particularly among black women and infants.
Gail Christopher got the first taste of her power to produce change as a teen in Ohio. At the time, Cleveland’s school board intended to close the college preparatory school in Christopher’s mostly African American neighborhood and turn it into a technical school. As one of her neighbors began to organize people to protest the plan, Christopher caught the bug. She mobilized other high school students and local residents for a mass community protest and rally, filling the school gymnasium with 700 to 800 community members activated to take a stand for their community. The plan was thwarted.
"That was a very big deal. You begin to see that you can make change happen," Christopher said.
That moment set Christopher’s life on a change trajectory. Christopher is nationally recognized for her pioneering approach of infusing holistic health into public programming and policy.
"Everything is connected — people, systems and environment," she said. Her impact on policy and communities in need has been recognized by multiple public health organizations, including the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, which awarded Christopher its John C. MacQueen Lecture Award for her innovation and leadership in the field of maternal and child health.
Today she uses her activist roots, her clinical nutritionist and holistic health training and her personal experience to serve as vice president for policy and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations. Rare among many of the largest foundations, Kellogg, under her watch, has funded nonprofit media to carry these goals forward.
"I believe that narrative change is critical to effective social change and social justice work," she said.
In addition to supporting Women’s eNews‘ extensive coverage of African-American maternal health and available support for breastfeeding, Kellogg has funded influential documentary films such as "Unnatural Causes" and "Slavery by Another Name." Kellogg has also supported journalists of color and their associations, as well as journals of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine and the American Public Health Association.
"We have used strategic investments to address key health issues for women and to foster a more inclusive and catalytic narrative towards health and racial equity," she said.
These days, Christopher is laser focused on designing and leading a comprehensive multi-sector approach to racial healing for the United States.
"This will be a healing effort for the country. You can’t have impactful policy change if you don’t change the consciousness of the people," she said.
"My mother was one of 14 children and she was the only one to go to college. Watching her determination inspired me."
By Stephanie Yacenda
For over a decade, Kathryn Finney has been working in the tech industry. For her, tech "is the underpinning of everything we do. We don’t have a choice as to whether we want to be a part of it or not."
Finney is the founder of digitalundivided, a social enterprise that finds, trains and supports urban tech entrepreneurs. In addition, digitalundivided runs the FOCUS Fellows Program, a rigorous accelerator program for black female founders of tech-enabled companies.
"Our goal is not to diversify tech, though that’s a great byproduct. Our focus is on entrepreneurship and economic development through technology."
While issues of race and gender have always been important to Finney, a career-shaping moment came in 2006 when she participated in a high-profile incubator where she experienced deep sexism and racism from the mentors and investors in the program.
"They bypassed me several times — they didn’t think I had anything to pitch," Finney recalled. "It was alarming to me to be treated as if I were invisible . . . How can you not see this big hair, these glasses?"
Through digitalundivided, Finney aims to create an environment where women do not experience the systematic exclusion that has blocked women of color in the tech space. Since its founding in 2012, digitalundivided has had great success: Over 40 percent of the black women entrepreneurs who have raised funding have come from her network; they have raised five times more than the average black woman entrepreneur raises on her own.
From 2012 to 2014, Finney served as an editor-at-large of BlogHer. She was a pioneering lifestyle blogger and the CEO of TBF Group, LLC, the parent company of The Budget Fashionista brand. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in women’s studies and politics and a Master of Public Health from Yale University.
Finney grew up in Minnesota, where her father introduced her to technology. "I never grew up thinking I couldn’t do anything, which was very important as a young woman and as a young black girl."
She has been widely recognized for her work, with honors ranging from a 2016 Eisenhower Fellowship to being named a White House Champion of Change for Tech Inclusion in 2013.
Finney serves as an adviser to black women-led startups and organizations as she expands digitalundivided to new urban communities and college campuses. She is the executive producer of #ReWritetheCode, a Kickstarter-funded documentary that will tell the stories of black women who are founders of tech companies.
"There’s a saying by Marianne Williamson that goes, ‘When you let your light shine, you give others permission to shine as well." By being myself and embracing who I am, I’ve given that to others in an industry where being someone like me — a bold smart black woman — isn’t exactly cherished."
Cynthia Yung didn’t hesitate when she was offered the chance to focus on helping women and children in need. She immediately made the switch from a high-paying corporate job to working for The Boone Family Foundation in Texas.
"I had no experience. We just said, ‘We’re going to learn this.’ It was like this amazing gift fell into my lap," she said. A friend had recommended her to the Boone family at a time when the family wanted to start a foundation, and since this was a new venture for both parties, they decided to take the leap into the unknown together.
Since 2008, Yung has been the executive director of The Boone Family Foundation in Dallas. In this job, she has helped process at least $20 million in grants for nonprofit organizations that support programs to advance equity for women and girls, improve the quality of life for children, and promote environmental stewardship.
Yung, an alumna of the University of Manitoba, had a sales and finance background from her career with Nortel, the Canadian telecommunications company. But she said she knew that she always wanted to do something else.
"I really got interested in how you can change the world outside of a corporation," she said, adding that it was through her volunteer work that she saw the many problems confronting women and children. The observations confirmed what Yung had experienced while growing up in Canada in a traditional Chinese immigrant family.
Her desire to change the status quo became stronger when she moved to Texas in 1997.
"I was shocked when we moved to Texas at how segregated it is here. I landed in this bubble of total racial segregation," she said. "That’s all that stuck with me. I believed everyone is supposed to have equal opportunity in America."
Professionally and through her personal networks, she’s galvanized other female leaders both on her own and through the foundation to address the race and gender equity gaps. Some of the work she’s most proud of includes supporting domestic violence shelters for women who don’t speak English.
Aside from The Boone Family Foundation, Yung also serves on the advisory boards of the Real Estate Council Community Fund, Texas Women Ventures and Austin GO! Forum Advisory Council, the steering committee of the Commit! Partnership-Leadership Council and the Urban Teachers Dallas Advisory Committee. She is also a founding circle chair of the Orchid Giving Circle Fund of The Dallas Women’s Foundation.
When asked what’s next in her work on behalf of women and girls, Yung answered:
"I think there is a lifetime of" asking myself: "What more can I do to bring more equity into our world?"