Category Archives: Inspirational Women
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, Big Sister would like to conclude the month’s celebration by highlighting a contemporary woman of influence and purpose who is making her mark on the Boston landscape. City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley immediately comes to mind, not only for her political triumph but also for her advocacy for women’s issues.
City Councilor At-Large Pressley is the first woman of color to be elected (in 2009) to serve on the governing board in the council’s 100-year history. In addition, she was the only woman in a field of 15 candidates to have earned one of four “At-Large” spots on the city’s 13- member council, garnering nearly 42,000 votes.
In keeping with her historic win, Councilor At-Large Pressley set out to support those whom she saw as undeserved and thus formed and chaired a new committee, the Committee on Women & Healthy Communities. The committee is dedicated to the causes that are close to her heart: stabilizing families and communities, reducing and preventing violence and trauma, and combating poverty. With a particular emphasis on girls and women, the committee focuses on adequate delivery of city services and programming for youth, families, seniors, and new Bostonians. The committee does not shy away from tackling the tougher issues ranging from domestic and sexual violence, child abuse and neglect, bullying, substance abuse to mentoring, poverty, and homelessness.
Councilor At-Large Pressley goes beyond government work to hold leadership positions with community organizations such as the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus and the Young Professionals Preventing Child Abuse of the Children’s Trust Fund. She also serves on the Boards of UMass Boston Community Development, Inc., and the Young Black Women’s Society.
What makes Big Sister most proud of City Councilor Pressley’s advocacy for women is the special role she plays with our organization. Despite her busy schedule, she has found the time to join Big Sister Association of Greater Boston by becoming an active Big Sister mentor. Not only is she proud of her mentoring role, but she is just as proud to be considered a part of her Little Sister’s family. As an advocate for mentoring, Councilor At-Large Pressley recently spoke at Big Sister’s Rise & Inspire event in which she concluded, “I’m a Big Sister who happens to be a City Councilor.” Councilor At-Large Pressley launched a personal campaign, which she called ABC – Ayanna’s BIG Challenge – a yearlong initiative to recruit mentors for children living in the Boston neighborhoods with the longest waiting for Big Sisters. Now, that’s walking the talk.
Forty-eight years before women won the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president of the United States. The year was 1872. Woodhull was nominated by a party she herself formed called the Equal Rights Party. The party was also the first to select a black man as her running mate, none other than Frederick Douglass. Their mission was to defeat President Ulysses S. Grant.
To think that a 19th century woman would even dare to imagine that she had a shot at the presidency was outrageous, but to actually launch a bid for the presidency was inconceivable. Yet, that’s exactly what Woodhull did: she took to the campaign trail, raised money, and delivered powerful speeches about social justice issues to a growing following. Although Woodhull never made it to the White House, she was an indomitable force of nature who was a woman of many firsts.
She was the first female stockbroker who amassed a personal fortune that she estimated at $700,000 (more than $6 million in today’s dollars). She was the first woman to testify before Congress on suffrage. As a pioneering and shrewd businesswoman, she founded a widely read daily newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which cleverly served as an outlet for her to publically express her opinions that challenged the status quo. In short, Woodhull defied the prescribed social and gender restrictions of her time and became the master of her own destiny. A woman of humble beginnings and low socio-economic status, she broke into high society, hobnobbing with powerful and influential people, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, then the richest man in America.
In the spirit of Women’s History Month, Big Sister searched the archives of strong and powerful women who have slipped into obscurity because we think it’s important to rediscover and sing the praises of forgotten pioneers who did so much to further women’s rights. Woodhull also fits one of Big Sister’s mottoes, “every girl, a masterpiece.” In looking for positive role models whom we can share with our Little Sisters, Woodhull is someone we can hold up as an example of a woman who dared to reach her full potential against all odds.
Do you have a forgotten or unsung woman leader whom you like to share with us?
Suggested Reading: The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull, by Lois Beachy Underhill
Big in Boston: Former Little Sister Lianne Hughes speaks at Big Sister’s 60th Anniversary Party [Video]
Former Little Sister Lianne Hughes brought the crowd to their feet at our 60th anniversary party, Big in Boston, with her inspiring words on the power of human interconnectedness and mentoring to change lives and communities.
I am beyond grateful, yet humble to be standing here in front of you today to share, recapture, and paint my story as I re-explore the creation of my masterpiece as a former Little Sister of the Big Sister Association.
Growing up in the projects of Boston, my mother was a single parent learning how to navigate her way to the American Dream. My mother struggled to maintain like many single urban parents. What was important to her was food, shelter and survival. So she did her best to raise my brother and I so we wouldn’t fall victim to the streets. She understood because of her circumstances and situation that she alone could not provide us with the resources and opportunities that we needed. So she reached out to the Department of Social Services who then connected us with the Big Sister Association.
As I shared in the video, I was nine years old and nervous the day my Big Sister and I were matched. She was white; I was black. Her name, Maja Milenkovic, sounded like a witch spell from the Disney Channel. We had so many cultural differences! I knew at nine I was socially constructed because a lot of my perceptions about white people came from watching television shows like Feed the Children on B.E.T. All I could think about was, I didn’t want someone to “save me”; I wanted a friend, someone I could relate too, and someone that was going to believe in me.
As we bridged the gap, Maja was just normal. She was nothing I expected. She liked dance; I liked dance. She loved hip-hop music; I loved hip-hop music. She was impatient in malls; I never had any patience in malls. We just had a lot of things in common. Even when it came to principles and perspective, she always mixed the old school with the new school. She never was the type of person to say, “I’m older, so I know better.” It was all about positive youth development and finding common ground.
From Maja I embraced the concept of Ubuntu, “I am because you are, humanity, human inter-connectedness”. It was from her that I learned not to judge people by their skin color, but more by their principles, character and dignity. It’s really hard when you grow up in a society where everything is so black and white. You get all these different mixed messages about people, so automatically you become programmed to judge. But I learned from my Big Sister through all the confusion and illusions, the common denominator remains the same within people. We’re human. Despite our differences, were one in the same and we should celebrate those differences.
Two years ago before I graduated from Wheelock College, I didn’t have the money to go back to school. I was short $5,000. And I remember painfully crying to Maja that, “It’s wasn’t fair that I didn’t have the money to go back.” Her simple reply of “It’s OK, Lianne. I’ll co-sign your loan” provoked the most overwhelming feeling of affirmation in my life. She affirmed that my aspiration for college was not merely a choice, but a task my heart so eagerly needed to complete. I knew it was more than just signing my loans. I knew this implied that she was inspired by my dreams, trusted my judgment and ready to join me on my quest toward self-accomplishment. This didn’t mean she paid for my college, this means she signed her name on a paper that could merit me my dreams.
With that being said, my wish for Big Sister over the next 60 years is that it grows and keeps producing Big Sisters from all different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. Diversity within race, as well within ideas is important in the world we live in. Just being culturally competent, relatable, and interpersonal touches people from the heart; it’s human interaction at its purest.
I mean, I’m glad I and we have Big Sister, and it provides the services that it does. Because I know without having my Big Sister in my life, as cliché as it sounds, I wouldn’t have the mind set or perspective on the world that I have now.
So I challenge Boston as well as everyone in the room to think collaboratively. Envision the best possible Boston, community, and world. Let me give you an alternative way to think about it. In school, I learned about Bronfenvrenners Ecological Systems Theory. In short, it speaks to the ideology that every institution on a micro to macro level is connected. For a society that’s thriving, everybody has to be involved, but most importantly everybody has to be on the same page. Not just communities and local organizations, but governments too. I feel that when everybody is listening to the mission, negotiating, or has some type of common interest, it serves the betterment of society, and young kids are able to strive. And when we’re not, we fail, our systems fail and we fail our communities and kids.
According to Wednesday’s Boston Globe, “Poverty Worsening in Hub, Study Says”, 85 percent of families in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury are headed by a single parent, mainly mothers and at least 20% of the adults have no high school diploma. These are the broken communities I live within. And every day when I walk though my community I see the impact and reflection of those statistics. I see young girls without fathers and mothers. I see young girls pregnant, and not enrolled into high school or on a pathway to a preferred future into college. I see young girls without that positive role model or Big Sister.
So if you BELIEVE IN GIRLS (B.I.G) and that every girl in this room is a MASTERPIECE, you’re not just believing in the organization; you’re believing in a better individual, community, society and world as a whole. Because Big Sister is not just about the “neighborhood girl from around the way”, it’s about every young girl all over the world. Thank you.
Big Sister Amanda Martinez and Little Sister Mickaella share why they believe in the power of mentoring. Amanda, a former Little Sister herself, was named a 2011 Ignite Award winner at Youth Mentoring Day at the State House. Thanks so much to Mass Mentoring Partnership and Conover Tuttle Pace for creating this piece and helping us highlight the impact mentoring can have on a young girl’s life.
Big Sister Amanda Martinez was named the Patriots Difference Maker of the Week by the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation.
Amanda Martinez had a Big Sister when she was younger and always wanted to return the favor. When she moved to Boston she became a Big Sister and has been matched with Mickaella, a middle school student, since January 2008. They enjoy doing arts and crafts, learning about new cultures, meeting new people or trying new foods and being active in the summer rock climbing, rollerblading, bike riding, and swimming.
Amanda loves being a Big Sister because “it gives me the opportunity to have a positive impact in a young girl’s life and to learn about other people’s life experiences.” She also believes that “it is important for girls today to have positive female mentors because there is a lot of negative messaging that is pinpointed towards girls and having a mentor gives a young girl an opportunity to concentrate on what she has to offer on the inside.”
Mickaella loves having a Big Sister because “it is like having an automatic friend. Without my Big Sister I would not know how much fun it is to eat Indian food or that I am smarter than I think I am. Amanda has also helped me learn that there is more to life if you look at it from a different point of view.”
Boston residents have known Liz Walker’s warm and dynamic style since 1980, when she first became an evening news anchor at WBZ-TV, the first woman of color to do so on any station in the Boston market. She started her career in television journalism in 1973, “after Watergate, after the civil rights movement, when women and African-Americans were just starting to break into the news industry.” She was drawn to the field simply because it would enable her to do something significant and “make a difference in the world.” By shedding light on important stories of the time, she could have a positive impact.
But as her career progressed and she experienced success after success, winning two Emmy Awards, she began to feel constrained by the limits of journalism. She was no longer satisfied to shine her spotlight on events. The professional distance and objectivity required as a reporter were at odds with her need to act, to not only show events unfolding, but also to directly influence their outcome.
In 2001, she went on a life-changing trip to Sudan with Reverend Dr. Gloria White-Hammond and together they co-founded My Sister’s Keeper, a faith-inspired, multi-racial collective of women who aid other communities of women throughout the world. Liz has always been attracted to causes that champion women’s issues, particularly those where women, “who have found their way, help other women find theirs.” It is one of the many reasons why she has been a long-time supporter of Big Sister.
“You want to support things that work and Big Sister just works,” she says.
Liz, who has been involved with Big Sister since 1981, is moved by the idea that you can help a family or give a mother extra support by being a mentor to her daughter. She thinks back to the old adage “It takes a village to raise a child.”
“It’s cliché because it’s true!” she says. “I’ve seen the matches over the years. I’ve seen the best parts of them. I’ve seen girls succeed because they have had extra support. I’ve seen moms happier. It just works.”
When comparing what she sees in her global work as opposed to Boston, she notes the powerful, positive effect of supporting women and girls.
“When you support a woman or a girl, you support a community because of the reach that women have. When you mentor a little girl, you are giving her permission to be the best that she can be. She will in turn mentor someone else.” Either here or abroad, she sees mentoring as an investment in our future.
To women who are considering whether or not they should become Big Sisters, Liz says “You have no idea of the impact you can have on a person’s life just by giving a little time or something extra… If you can help just one person, you can change the world.”
Evelyn Reyes of Boston Latino TV writes about being a cancer survivor and her choice to become a Big Sister
Evelyn Reyes, Boston Latino TV host, writes about how being a cancer survivor changed her perspective on her life and pushed her to prioritize volunteerism. In 2011, she will become a Big Sister.
Cancer is a six letter word that can wreak havoc in your life. It also changes you as a person. Most of the cancer survivors I know all say the same thing: “Cancer changed me.” I am going to have to agree on this. I have always tried to be helpful in my community and to help other people; however, cancer gave me that extra motivation to go forward with my desires and put them into action.
When the year 2011 came around, it found me reflective and thoughtful. Reflective about what I was doing with my life and who were the people in my life who truly meant something to me and were really supportive of me. Thoughtful about what direction I wanted my life to go in and where it was right now.
I found myself thinking that I wanted to do things that had a lasting impression in the hearts and minds of people. I’ve been refocusing my efforts to find what those things could be.
I know that girls these days can use as much guidance as they can get. After having been an influential presence in the lives of my nieces (Kathyria, Yasirya and Yerika) I thought it would be a fulfilling activity for me to be a big sister to a young girl. I have already had my interview with the Big Sister Social worker. Soon I will take a two day orientation and then I wait for a match. Once I am matched, then I get to meet my Little Sister and her family and see if we all like each other. I can’t wait to share my love of laughter, arts, music, food, dance, reading and traveling with my little sister. I am sure we will be a positive influence on each other.
Washington based writer Gabrielle Nomura recounts meeting her role model, journalist Jenni Hogan, and the importance of a good female role model for every girl…
“What hit me then was the importance of role models.
Every girl, whether she wants to be a journalist, a professional athlete or a full-time world traveler should have a woman role model they can emulate, see a bit of themselves in, and be inspired by.
All girls should get an experience like I did at least once in their lives, to be able to sit down at a table with their own version of Jenni Hogan.
It’s not always easy to find a role model, as our society’s way of choosing which women to pay attention to is often skewed. As Faizon Love put it, why is it that Kim Kardashian makes the news, while masses of women who are actually doing newsworthy things, female doctors, researchers, teachers, activists, scholars, business owners and mothers, go unnoticed?”
For more of Gabrielle’s piece on Strong Female Mentors: CLICK HERE
To your Little Sister, you are her role model. Thank you Big Sisters, for being that influential woman in a young girl’s life.
At the 12th annual Celebrity Chef event that occurred last night at Radius, former Little Sister Jesse Kwan shared her story of emigrating to the US from Hong Kong as a little girl and the life-changing impact her relationship with her Big Sister Jackie Church had on her life. Here are her words.
Good evening. Not in a million years would I imagine that I would be standing in front of you today to talk about my journey as a Little Sister in a language that was once foreign to me, a language that my mother often referred to as chicken intestines, because that’s what written English looked like to her.
Yesterday was the 22nd anniversary of my immigrating to Boston with my mother. We came in the spring of 1989 to reunite with my father who was already here. In just shy of a year of our arrival when I was 10, my father passed away. My mother and I were devastated. We were left with virtually no family, speaking no English, and knowing little about American Culture. We were very fortunate to have been surrounded by good people and a counselor suggested that I get a mentor through Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. Little did I know then the enormous affect this organization would have on me for the rest of my life.
I still remember that hot summer day extending my neck to the window, peaking out to wait for Helen, my then social worker and Jackie, my new Big Sister, to show up. I remember practicing over and over again in my head how I had to enunciate my imperfect English in hopes that she wouldn’t laugh at me. I don’t think I uttered more than a mere hello that day. This woman who had the biggest smile had no idea the amount of headache and heartache I was about to put her through in the next 20 years, the amount of gray hair I was about to give her, the amount of love that she was going to teach me.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with Jackie or what I was going to say to her because there was oh, a slight language barrier. I started out in bilingual education in school here then, but there were still challenges in communication AND I was extremely shy. But thank goodness for dictionaries and the international language of using our hands.
In every sense of the word, Jackie broadened my horizons. She brought me to my first Halloween party, me dressing up as a robot, her as a pirate. She brought me to my first sleepover at the Museum of Science. Now that was cool for an 11 year old girl! She persuaded my mom to let her only daughter study abroad in France for 3 months while in high school. When I was 20, Jackie surprised me with a trip to Paris to celebrate the Millennium.
Navigating through the educational system with a mom who did not speak English was not easy. Jackie was phenomenal in helping my mom and I review our options of taking entrance exams to the top Boston Public Schools and applying for scholarships to private schools. She helped me with practice tests, especially vocabulary and comprehension, my constant struggle. When I got my acceptance into Boston Latin I remember picking up that phone and calling Jackie at work. “I got in! I got in!” I screamed. “As if I didn’t know that already” was her response.
Jackie encouraged me to try so many different things. She challenged me to challenge myself, to be my own person, to grow out of my shell. When I found one of my true passions in high school, volleyball, she challenged me to look at colleges with volleyball programs that I could compete in. I ended up being recruited to play NCAA Division 3 Volleyball.
To the woman who taught me the importance of wearing socks and gloves in the Boston winter time, who taught me how to slurp my first oyster in Paris, who showed me to stand up for myself, who taught me to take smart risks, who taught me everything good that is in me, that if I work hard enough in life, that I might just accomplish my feats and defeat my innermost insecurities. If it weren’t for her, I would never summon enough courage to talk to you today.
I want you to know what a special place Big Sister holds in my heart, the good that it does for young girls for now and generations. Your donation is not just a small gesture but a profound one that impacts and shapes little girls’ lives, as it had mine, that it gives us the mentoring a little girl needs, so that we can acquire the skills to take on the world on our own, one bite at a time.
This past week I had the privilege of trading in my work flats for stilettos to walk the runway as a guest model for our first annual fashion show to benefit Greater Boston’s girls. The event was a smashing success, raising nearly $9,000 for Big Sister as Boston-based designer Denise Hajjar showcased her Spring and Summer line at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.
The elegant Oval Room was filled with hundreds of new and familiar faces. Among the crowd notable names such as State Representative Smitty Pignatelli, Allyce Najimy from the Foundation to be Named Later, Linda Holliday, and author Elisha Daniels were there to support of Boston’s girls. There was so much love in the room for our organization, our Matches, and our work.
Backstage was a hectic scene that Project Runway reruns did not prepare me for: long racks of beautiful dresses, tables full of accessories of every kind, shoes by local designer Kristina Kozak, as well as makeup and hair stations. I was joined by other guest models from the Big Sister Community: Board member Jane Deery and Big Sister Bernice Osborne.
We had fun chatting with the professional models about fashion show tips, practicing our runway walks, and telling them about Big Sister. They were all interested in our work and I saw a few of them talking to our Recruitment Team after the show. It was great to see the array of different age, race, and size of the models. It was clear that Denise Hajjar values diversity and her designs can be worn by anyone.
The night was a great accomplishment for the entire Big Sister community. Thank you to everyone who attended this fun event, cheered for the nervous guest models, and offered your kind words after the show. Because of all of you we raised nearly $9,000, made some new friends, and will now be holding this event annually. That means I have approximately 52 weeks to practice “smiling with my eyes” and my fierce walk for next year’s show!
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Grace Kelly performs National Anthem at 2009 NBA Playoff Game between the World Champion Boston Celtics and The Orlando Magic.
“Grace Kelly plays with intelligence, wit and feeling. She has a great amount of natural ability and the ability to adapt that is the hallmark of a first-class jazz musician.” -Wynton Marsalis
She’s recorded more albums than Miley Cyrus. She plays more instruments than Taylor Swift. She’s performed with more legends in her musical genre than Britney Spears, but she won’t be starring in the next Disney movie, appearing on lunch boxes, or lending her name to the latest department store clothing line. She’s Grace Kelly, and she is amazing.
On November 12, Grace, the Brookline-based jazz sensation, will be performing at Big Sister Association’s signature event, Big in Boston, held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Not only will she fill the room with musical talent well beyond her years, she will also represent what is at the core of Big Sister’s mission: when someone is there to believe in you and support you, there is no limit to what you can do, become, or achieve.
Grace first picked up a saxophone at the age of 10, and hasn’t put it down since. She became the youngest student ever to complete the four-year Jazz Studies Certificate Program at New England Conservatory Prep School. At age 15, Grace was offered a full scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. She finished her high school requirements and entered Berklee College at age sixteen. She is currently in her sophomore year.
Says Grace of the musical mentors that have helped her on a path to success: I have been very lucky throughout my career in music to have many wonderful mentors. Jazz greats such as Lee Konitz, Frank Morgan, Phil Woods and Wynton Marsalis have taken me under their wing and had me perform with them. However, when I first started in music there was one person in particular who was a significant mentor to me. My elementary music teacher Ken Berman was the first one to discover my talent and help nurture it. When I was in kindergarten he heard me sing and immediately recognized it as real talent. Ken is also a great jazz pianist and wonderful musician. He was the one who stayed after school to work on songs with me, encouraged me to do my first solo performance at school, and later emboldened me to record my first CD at age 12. We all know it’s important to have support from your family and friends, and that of course means a lot, but to have a professional musician who mentors you is irreplaceable. Mr. Berman challenged me, supported me, and believed in me so much. He watched me grow musically and was there throughout the years to help me out. He helped me find my passion and for that I will be forever thankful.
Now just seventeen, Grace has already recorded and performed with many notable musicians including Dave Brubeck, Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Kenny Barron, Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland, Dianne Reeves, James Cotton, and the Boston Pops, among others. She has recorded five CDs and performed around the world.
What makes her a great role model for the girls we serve—and girls everywhere—who want to have a career in music is that she has not had a meteoric rise to fame, though she could have gone that route. Today’s girls are inundated with images of instant fame: the tween set who become their own brand before they’re even old enough to drive, the American Idol hopefuls who need only endure Simon Cowell’s grueling remarks to make it into the national spotlight. Instead, she is taking her time to arrive at the stardom for which she is destined. While Grace’s reputation as an extraordinary musician is growing, she continues to study her craft and to explore new areas of music. Not only is she an accomplished saxophonist, she is also a singer, songwriter, composer, and arranger. She plays the alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, clarinet, flute, drums, and bass. In addition to jazz, she embraces blues, funk, rock and contemporary styles.
We look forward to not only hearing Grace’s inspiring music on November, 12, but also her thoughts on the power of mentoring in helping girls follow their dreams.
Click here to learn more about Grace and Big in Boston.