No matter who you are or where you came from, you probably had some help along the way. At the Women Inspired to Lead event last week at the Pfister, I spoke to several role models of all ages who’ve enjoyed the support of strong women to help them get to where they are now.
The event was a benefit for PEARLS for Teen Girls, a leadership development organization for African-American and Latina girls ages 10-19. Among the 400 guests, there was a panel of diverse women leaders who shared their personal stories of inspiration.
Tawanna Jackson stood out among the crowd. She is affectionately known as the Harriet Tubman of PEARLS. She joined the group as it was taking root in Milwaukee in 2002, when she was a freshman in high school. Since then, she’s worked as a team facilitator and is now the youngest member of the Board of the Directors. Tawanna, 25 years old, is an HR coordinator at US Bank. She was polished, personable and poised in a coral shift dress belted at the waist, blazer and a leopard print scarf neatly tied at her neck. I was even more impressed when she spoke.
Tawanna barely stopped to take a breath once she started extolling all the virtues of PEARLS. “I wouldn’t be where I am without PEARLS. Wherever I am, I am always a part of this organization and I am always representing,” she boasted. “It’s taught me to give back to my community too.” She continued and smiled as she recalled her experience. “I learned how to love myself. I was never a misfit, I was always focused, but PEARLS helped me to stay on that track. I understood how to carry myself as a young lady and be a role model for other young ladies.”
I ran into more smiling faces – PEARLS girls, you could just tell. They were greeting guests at the elevators. Hydia Harris, 17, attends MC2 High School, Shante McKay, 17, goes to Riverside and Jazzlin Jones, 18, is a senior at Hope Christian School. They are all team facilitators who work with younger members of the PEARLS program and serve as role models to the middle school students. Bubbly and attentive, they were eager to answer any question. Through PEARLS, Jazzlin had the opportunity to go on a college tour and begin planning her future. Shante enjoyed the “Making Proud Choices” curriculum that teaches young women about healthy relationships and Hydia attributes her academic success to the “Strive to Achieve” program. All of these young women personified the mission of PEARLS and were excellent spokespeople for what can be achieved through opportunity, guidance and hard work.
Now on to a role model of a different caliber. Margaret Henningsen, Executive Director of the Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee, was a panelist and has been involved in PEARLS since it started. She and PEARLS Executive Director Danae Davis have mentored each other over the years. Margaret knows a thing or two about women and girls. She is the oldest of 10 children in her family, with five sisters who now all have daughters. “It’s been my passion to make sure women and girls are treated equally,” she said. As the owner of the now closed Legacy Bank, Margaret most enjoyed teaching a class to PEARLS girls about managing finances. She too has a role model: “My grandmother instilled in me to get out there and do things.” But surprisingly, she doesn’t consider herself one. “I am really honored to have been selected, but I never really thought of myself as someone who inspires,” she admits.
I stepped aside as the crowd flooded into the ballroom. It quickly became apparent that whether they knew it or not, all of these women affected the life of another. And this culture of community, of enabling success, is exactly what made me proud to be among that crowd.