Kamillia Barton

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2018

COURAGE
For a woman who, facing active opposition, backed an unpopular cause in which she greatly believed:

Kamillia Barton

Kamillia Barton survived a traumatic childhood, found the courage to escape an abusive marriage, and has gone forward to become a fighter in the battle to help others struggling to remove themselves from domestic violence.

When she was nine years old, Kamillia realized that her parents were addicted to drugs. Off and on throughout her childhood she and her siblings lived with various family members. At times the family was homeless. Kamillia would stand outside corner stores asking for money to buy food her siblings and herself. Many nights they went hungry. After she and her sister were held hostage at gunpoint by drug dealers, they entered the foster care system. Kamillia stayed until age 15. She left foster care to live with an aunt. It was another negative environment. She dropped out of school in the ninth grade and by age 17 had moved into a place of her own. She supported herself with jobs in the fast food industry and started seeing a man ten years older.

They married and together had two children, now both teenagers. Her husband became verbally, psychologically and physically abusive. Over the years the abuse continued. She would call the police but he was always gone when they arrived. She was told that because there was no crime, they could do nothing. She never followed up and he was never charged.

But in 2010, her life threatened, she took the children and they left, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. At the time, she worked for a furniture company and her employer gave her free furniture. As it turned out, the gift was not free and soon she was again in an abusive situation and once more found herself and her daughters being threatened. She stayed because she saw it as the way to support her daughters.

But In December, 2012, she fled Memphis and found safe haven with her uncle in Sledge, Mississippi. She wanted to work on her GED and in discussing her plans with supportive family and friends, she decided to return to Memphis and its resources. She made her way to the Family Safety Center and credits Melissa Farrar and Felica Richard for helping her find the strength to work with the Center to keep her family safe and gave her hope.

Since that time Kamillia Barton has transformed her life. She has completed her GED, graduated from Southwest Community College, and is now studying social work at the University of Memphis. She has worked as a victim’s advocate for the Family Safety Center and the YWCA Immigrant Woman Services Blue Print for Safety program.

A tireless volunteer, she has participated in the Rhodes Mentoring Program, the Lemoyne Owen College Domestic Violence Awareness, St. Jude’s Domestic Violence Awareness and the Southwest Community College Violence Awareness programs, to name just a few.

Wanting to increase her effectiveness, Kamillia has participated in numerous trainings and seminars on topics including advocacy training, facilitations skills, nonprofit leadership, representing LGBTQDV victims, teen dating and violence preventions and child sexual abuse prevention and response.

In November, 2016, Kamillia founded and became first executive director of STEPS, Successful Transitions Empowering Permanent Safety, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Through STEPS, she works to help families dealing with domestic violence through situations she has faced and overcome. To achieve maximum effectiveness, STEPS maintains strong external relations with partner organizations, volunteers and other supporters in the community. Her goal is that people seeking to survive and escape abusive relationships do not slip through the cracks. She connects individuals with local resources. For meetings with social services agencies, legal services, medical appointments, the search for housing, or help with finances, she goes with them as is their personal advocate, available 24/7. If for some reason she can’t go, she makes sure they have Uber or Lyft.

Kamillia’s dream is for STEPS to serve the many. She would like to have a facility to house those in need, a safe place to live in a more permanent environment than shelters can provide until lives are stabilized and on track. She understands the importance of being able to deliver promised services so for now information about the program is spread by word of mouth. Though basically a one woman operation, STEPS has already served over 30 clients. As resources grow, services will expand.

As a courageous survivor, she is passionate. Kamillia says, “I believe my entire life has prepared me for advocacy and working with individuals who have faced trauma and adversity…Fortunately, I beat the odds. I am not what studies and statistics said I could be. Therefore, I am confident your past does not determine your future; your life’s challenges and traumatic experiences are not in control of your destiny…My greatest passion now is in advocacy. I love to motivate and inspire victims to become survivors and to have hope. It is my calling, and now my life mission.”

Kamillia Barton stands up and speaks out at every opportunity. And Women of Achievement thank her for having the courage to do so.

Cristina Condori

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2014

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Cristina Condori

Domestic worker, wife and mother, Cristina Condori is an immigrant from Argentina who places her beliefs on the line.

Since moving to Memphis almost a decade ago, she and her family have faced numerous obstacles. Economically, times are hard and they struggle monthly to make ends meet. Her husband lost his job in Memphis and currently works out of town. Her former clients can now only afford help once or twice a month so she constantly hands out cards and flyers seeking opportunities for housekeeping and childcare work. She barely earns $240 per week to help support a household that includes two daughters, a brother and a guest.

Her two daughters are both excellent students involved in many different volunteer activities. And Cristina has also been working to improve her English and takes every opportunity to practice.

Yet, Cristina somehow finds many hours every week to do what she can to bring greater justice to others who have been in situations similar to her own.

She volunteers with Workers Interfaith Network, and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, as well as many other groups dealing with justice issues, women’s issues, and health causes.

Cristina’s convictions are strong, so strong that she was willing to take the fight for freedom and the rights of citizenship in the United States to Washington, D. C. There, on September 12, 2013, she joined women from 20 states to blockade the intersection outside of the House of Representatives to protest the House’s inaction on comprehensive immigration reform to treat women and children fairly.

Cristina and the other women were prepared to be arrested and arrested they were. This historic act of civil disobedience included the largest number of undocumented immigrant women to ever willingly submit to arrest. The 105 women who were arrested wanted to draw attention to the fact that women and children constitute three-quarters of immigrants of the United States and disproportionately bear the burden of the failed immigration system.

On her blog the next day, Cristina said “The decision and oath that we took together was a great action… Women of all ages, professions and immigration status sat in the street under a hot morning sun of Washington, D.C., in front of the Capitol and Senate as part of a civil disobedience for a Comprehensive Immigration Reform that is fair and humane. We were there for the people we love and for all those who suffer from this immigration system that is broken and that continues to divide families. It was about OUR freedom! But also it was about the freedom of all immigrants, of all children who were separated from their parents, of all workers who were and will continue to be deported each and every day….”

One of her nominators, Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp, herself a Woman of Achievement for Determination honoree for seeking fairness for workers, says Cristina Condori is ”one of the most determined, energetic, and brave women that I have ever known…She is truly a leader, inspiring other immigrants to take risks and speak out for greater justice.”

Participating in civil disobedience for a just cause takes courage. It is an intimidating prospect for anyone, but for an immigrant so much more is at risk than for a citizen.

Cristina Condori truly deserves to be honored for her commitment to work on behalf of immigration reform and her courage to stand up for her beliefs.

June Mann Averyt

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2006

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

June Mann Averyt

An individual sleeping in a doorway or bumming a cigarette in a church parking lot or pushing a beat-up grocery cart toward an abandoned building prompts most of us to shake our heads at the overwhelming problem of homelessness. We wonder about the person’s plight and debate whether we should do something.

June Averyt looks past the questions and just sees a potential friend.

A true advocate for people living on the street, her work goes beyond advocacy: She pursues personal relationships with people most of the rest of us fear or shun.

Pat Morgan, executive director of Partners for the Homeless and a social services colleague, put it this way: “June Averyt has her Ph.D. in social welfare, but it should really read as a doctorate of philosophy in homelessness as this has been her major focus for years. June does more than study homelessness and homeless people. She literally devotes her life to developing relationships with street-dwelling people with severe and persistent mental illness, chronic substance abuse problems, and/or dual diagnoses of mental illness and substance abuse. She uses trust to persuade them to accept housing and non-traditional services.”

June’s postgraduate work began at the University of Georgia, where she obtained a Master of Social Work in 1993. As she worked toward her doctorate, she amassed a variety of educational and work experiences in Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York and Tennessee. Internships with the Georgia legislature and Jewish Federation of Atlanta put her in a position to affect legislation and allocate grants. A four-year fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychiatry provided the opportunity to study mental health policies and to do ground-breaking research. She has taught, performed research, published articles and made many professional presentations. Her career took her to Manhattan where she worked for The Samaritans of New York, including three years as executive director. From 2000 to 2002, she worked as director of social services for the Salvation Army in Memphis, starting four new programs in 18 months.

Winning her doctorate degree came at the same time that June decided to fully pursue her interest in the homeless. She joined an ad-hoc movement among Midtown churches seeking to help the homeless. After two years of study the coalition launched a new nonprofit called Door of Hope and hired June as executive director.

Door of Hope’s mission is to provide a welcoming place where people on the streets can learn healthy living skills and build positive relationships. June calls it servanthood in action. That, according to Pat Morgan, describes June to a “T.”

“She puts people in her car, takes them to appointments, to apply for housing or just to their favorite haunts. When the people she has befriended become too ill to sleep outdoors in freezing weather, she has been known to open her home to some of the most fragile.” That’s true, says June’s husband Murray McKay, who married June two years ago on Valentine’s Day. “Taking someone in may be unusual, but it doesn’t seem extraordinary to us. We focus on
the fact that the person needs help.”

Murray says June’s work amounts to a religious calling. He adds that June had perfect models in her parents, both of whom spent time and fortune helping the needy and the mentally ill.

June Averyt left Door of Hope in 2011 and founded Outreach, Housing & Community.

Pat Morgan

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2005

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Pat Morgan

In the Memphis area, 6,000 homeless men, women and children are fed and sheltered from local service agencies. We see them on the streets and at intersections wearing ragged dirty clothes that look as if they’ve been slept in. We fear contact with them, thinking they’ll ask us for a handout or worse yet, try to rob us. We don’t want shelters or services in our neighborhoods and organize against them to keep the homeless off “our” streets. We fail to make eye-contact, much less stop to listen to their stories. Pat Morgan, Executive Director of Partners for the Homeless, is a woman with the courage to both listen and act on their behalf.

Pat’s story starts the typical way; a Donna Reed Mom whose marriage falters transforms into the single mother of three, struggling to keep things afloat. Pat was working as a real estate broker when she volunteered to help two hours per week at the Downtown Church Association’s Food Pantry. From there she moved to the Street Ministry and the work became her passion. She listened to stories of untreated addiction, abuse and mental illness and realized that what is needed is a “continuum of care.”  She attended more meetings and became more active. When a friend told her that for someone so smart she was ignorant, she went back to school. She graduated from Rhodes College in 1991, at age 51.

Long active in the Democratic party, she believed that the solutions to homelessness are political. After graduation she interned in Al Gore’s office then survived on a variety of temp jobs. When Clinton announced for president, she quit her job to join the campaign. “Pat’s Excellent Adventure” included time on the bus in New Hampshire and tromping through snow with much younger campaign workers. She became co-director of the Washington Operations Office.

After the election she was appointed Program Analyst at the U.S. Interagency Council on the Homeless. Working closely with Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Special Needs Programs, Pat brought her experiences in front-line service delivery to the table. She spent 6 ½ years working with the White House Domestic Policy Council.

In 1999, Pat returned to Memphis to be closer to her family. She became Executive Director for Partners for the Homeless, a public-private partnership begun in 1995. The group’s mission is to coordinate, develop and implement solutions for homelessness in Memphis and Shelby County. She is now working with representatives from 55 organizations to create a holistic intervention program targeting 20,000 at-risk households. She has secured $5 million from HUD for local Continuum of Care applications. She serves on the state council for creating a plan to end homelessness in Tennessee.

Though she now works primarily in program development, policy and service delivery, Pat has not forgotten the people she met through Calvary’s Street Ministry. She still goes out at 12:30 am looking for people sleeping on the street. She knows their names and histories. She asks questions and really listens to their stories. “I’ve only been mugged twice,” she says, “and not by the homeless.”

It takes courage to walk into the broken lives of these men, women and children and work for holistic solution. Pat Morgan has the passion and the courage to do just that.

Pat Morgan retired in 2011 and published a memoir in 2014 titled The Concrete Killing Fields: One Woman’s Battle to Break the Cycle of Homelessness.

Chelsea Boozer

Women of Achievement
2013

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Chelsea Boozer

Chelsea Boozer was a student journalist and editor in chief of the University of Memphis Helmsman when she began working on stories about unreported rapes on the campus. The resulting struggle for access to public documents and to secure students’ safety led to a battle that threatened the newspaper’s funding and Chelsea’s reputation.

Her steadiness during it all led Candy Justice, faculty advisor of the Helmsman, to say: “Nobody can take her courage away as far as I’ve seen.”

Ironically, Chelsea began her career as a nervous junior high student who liked to write. And she was good. One of her teachers in Marion, Arkansas, even accused her in seventh grade of letting her mom produce a story for her advanced literature class. Her mother had to go attest that the work was actually Chelsea’s!

The journalism bug bit this self-described “news nerd” early – she was editor of the junior high school paper, took a journalism class in high school and edited that newspaper senior year.

She crossed the river to major in journalism at the University of Memphis where she became deeply involved in journalism organizations and the Helmsman while also maintaining strong grades. She was managing editor January to May 2012 and editor in chief May to December 2012 when she graduated first in the College of Communications.

Her drive for the truth led to repeated fights with the university for access to public documents – a right protected by the federal Clery Act which requires universities that receive federal financial aid to disclose information on crimes that occur on or near campus.

She angered faculty and Student Government Association leaders with a three-part series that documented free tuition paid for SGA members and the money-losing football program. Invited to an SGA meeting, she was publicly chastised by the SGA president who got a standing ovation for his remarks, including the dean of students.

But the hostility rose to new levels in March last year when the Helmsman began to write about rape.

First there was a battle for records related to a November assault incident that university officials had not disclosed. Then the student journalists found out about another alleged rape that had happened in March – but again it had not been disclosed. It involved a registered sex offender who was posing as a student and living illegally in university housing.

Chelsea as managing editor and her reporter on the rape story met with campus Police Services and interviewed students at the housing complex – and later faced police reports alleging that they made threats, were rude and hostile, claims Chelsea disputed. In an open letter to Police Services, Chelsea criticized the department for failing to notify students of the March rape.

But when director of residence life and an official from Judicial Affairs met with the newspaper’s faculty advisor, they said there had been discussion of arresting Chelsea. However the Judicial Affairs officer said the police reports – alleging that Chelsea made a scene and refused to leave the campus police office – “didn’t ring true” so there would be no arrest.

The harassment – the pressure brought on Chelsea for doing her job – outraged faculty, alumni and national journalism organizations.

When the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee notified Justice that the Helmsman would receive $50,000 instead of the $75,000 it had the prior year or the $80,000 requested – Helmsman staff and some journalism professors believed it was based on the paper’s critical reporting about the university. She and her faculty advisor alleged the cuts were a First Amendment violation as SGA members retaliated for her work. The allocation committee consists of four university administrators and three students including the SGA president and vice president.

The funding cut infuriated alumni and inspired a website for donations to “Free the Helmsman.”

A university investigation agreed with the Helmsman’s claim and the funding was restored. Last week university President Shirley Raines announced 2013-2014 funding will remain at $75,000.

Chelsea has won numerous awards and was recognized by Memphis Magazine in October 2012 as one of five women who make a difference. She is now is a reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Student Press Law Center director Frank LoMonte called Chelsea “Mike Wallace with molasses syrup – disarming but deadly.” She says her courage came easily “because I knew we were on the truth side and doing something important and really right.”

Deb Whalen Word

Women of Achievement
2011

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Deb Whalen Word

Deb Word is a courageous woman.

A cradle Catholic, she consistently confronts the church hierarchy on its homophobia, communicating with church leaders to insist that her gay son – and other LGBT youth and young adults – be accepted and celebrated by the church.

An active voice and champion for LGBT youth, Deb challenges herself and others to live their faith deeply through her ministry with parents of LGBT children.

She has been a leader on the Youth Service Committee of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, ceaselessly advocating for “discarded” LGBT youth. Within the last year, she and Steve have provided respite for 8 LGBT teens in their own home, ensuring that abandoned and homeless LGBT kids would find a safe haven. Deb also coordinates food collection from area churches for the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center Youth Services food pantry.

Deb created a postcard that she mailed to every Catholic bishop in the United States, urging them to stop denying gay people Communion, stop fighting efforts to pass marriage equality, stop encouraging communities to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and to open their hearts and minds and build a truly inclusive church. She also created a YouTube video directly challenging the actions of an archbishop who refused to provide communion to congregation members wearing rainbow ribbons in memory of LGBT youth suicides.

Deb started a national “wear a rainbow ribbon every Sunday in Advent” campaign, poignantly stating that wearing a rainbow ribbon “reminds those who would deny my child a place at the table that they don’t own the guest list.” Deb and her husband, Steve, are also active leaders in the monthly LGBT potluck at their church, and with the Parent Support Team for the Diocesan Catholic Ministry with Gay and Lesbian Persons. Deb is also on the national board of directors of Fortunate Families, a ministry with Catholic parents of LGBT children.

Deb’s determined and compassionate activism in the face of entrenched and institutional homophobia is truly inspiring to all who know her. She provides a courageous beacon of love and hope for the LGBT kids for whom she so doggedly advocates, and is an example of how one courageous, dedicated woman can truly make a difference.

Amerah Shabazz-Bridges

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2015

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Amerah Shabazz-Bridges

As a child, Amerah Shabazz-Bridges lived in the dark shadows of incestuous rape, suffering at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, a man who rightfully should have been her protector. Now, years later, she courageously tells her story and uses her experience to help others recover from the trauma of abuse.

Beginning at the age of 8 and continuing until she left home at age 15, Amerah was repeatedly abused. Powerless, she did not know how to express her pain and fear. Her mother was also abused while Amerah lay listening in the next room. When she was finally able to tell other adults that she trusted and loved, including her mother, they refused to believe her.

In order to survive, she learned to mask her pain. As a 13-year old she needed validations and wanted to hear someone say, “I believe you,” and “It wasn’t your fault.” Instead she was told “He said he didn’t do it.”

She became a people-pleaser, a manipulator, and was promiscuous. She had learned to survive the best she could.

She finally left home when her abuser cursed and said, in her mother’s presence, that she couldn’t stay if she wouldn’t do what he wanted. She started packing her belongings into empty beer boxes immediately.

As a teenager and young adult she sought peace in the church and at the mosque. Well-meaning people told her to just pray about it; to forgive and forget. She didn’t understand why God had allowed this to happen.

But she continued to search for answers. Amerah says, “My Higher Power heard my moaning and I hesitantly started down the road to recovery.”

She started that journey at the age of 32 when she and her 7 children moved to Chicago.

She moved her family to Washington, DC, in the mid-90s and it was there that Amerah really started telling her story. She found Co-Dependents Anonymous, which led her to Survivors of Incest Anonymous. She volunteered for the Rape Crisis Hotline, consoling women who called the hot line, meeting victims at the hospital, giving speeches aimed at young women, helping them have the courage to face their pain and to heal. Amerah also formed two support groups for women who were victims of incest.

Amerah would read newspaper articles, contact shelters and say, “This is who I am; this is what I do. If I share my story, they may know they can change. We have questions and answers and then healing starts.”

In 1996, Amerah had found enough acceptance to return to Jackson, Mississippi, to care for her mother. She continued her mission of helping others heal and became a court-appointed advocate. She earned a degree at age 66, remarried her first husband the next day and moved to Memphis. Dedicated to the work of healing, she had contacted the Memphis Child Advocacy Center a year before the move. She phoned the center just as soon as she got to town and continued telling her story.

Her work has impacted the lives of countless persons who have been abused, giving them the power to transform their lives. She has won awards for her work in Washington, Jackson and Memphis. And she continues to grow.

She says, “I am like a big onion. I pull off one layer at a time. At first it’s hard and may break but I keep pulling until it becomes so easy that the next layer just slides right off.” That’s how healing works.

Amerah’s openness in telling her story has brought countless rewards to the Child Advocacy Center. She has inspired donors to contribute and has helped police recruits and officers understand family violence in a personal and powerful way. To quote her nominators, “Amerah’s words help us continue to do what we do, to see firsthand the beauty of healing, and to help us remember what is important.”

For her courageous voice – we honor Amerah Shabazz-Bridges.

Lisa Anderson

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2017

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Rev. Lisa Anderson

In 2010, Lisa Anderson, pastor of Colonial Cumberland Presbyterian Church, asked the congregation if they would open their doors to shelter the homeless. They said “yes” and Room in the Inn-Memphis was born. The program has grown from one church open one night per week to thirty-six churches, offering at least one location for shelter seven nights a week, November through April.

Lisa comes from a family of pastors, married a pastor and is a pastor herself. She was participating in a Bible study group that wanted to take their study from the page into an active service ministry. Due to her connection to the Burrito Ministry and the Urban Bicycle Ministry, she recognized the need for a free shelter for the homeless. She asked her church members to open the doors one night a week during the winter to those less fortunate, to feed them a home-cooked meal and to provide a safe place to sleep in unused classrooms upstairs. Based on a program in Nashville, visitors were to be treated as honored guests with congregation members preparing and sharing the meal and spending the night.

After two successful seasons, Lisa and the Colonial congregation decided they needed to recruit more faith communities to be a part of this important ministry. Peace Lutheran joined the effort in 2012. Five more congregations became Room in the Inn-Memphis sites in 2013.

Among those was Trinity United Methodist. Due to its location, the City Council ruled that opening the doors to the homeless would be a code violation.

According to Peace and Justice Center archives, “The City Planning Office is helping Trinity UMC to craft language to change the size of the property requirement in the code. It will go to the Land Use Board and then to the City Council and County Commission for three readings each, giving the public chances to object. However, this process begins in December and will last at least a couple of months. Our immediate need is to get started in November without the fear of a church being cited for this violation. This code is ignored for all other groups, the only reason it is coming up for Trinity now is the prejudice against the guests being homeless.”

Lisa went into action, giving many interviews standing on the steps of the church, speaking at a town hall meeting and appearing before the City Council. Her passionate explanations were heard and the program at Trinity went ahead.

Since that time, over twenty more congregations have joined.

Rev. Lisa, as she is affectionately known to her congregation, says that the biggest barrier to expanding the program is combating the many stereotypes surrounding homelessness: They’re lazy and don’t want to work. They’re crazy and not taking their medication. They’re drug addicts and not to be trusted. And, they’re dangerous. It’s not safe to be around them.

Some congregations have to be convinced that the homeless are people just like us and deserve to be recognized as such. Lisa Anderson’s explanations help allay these fears and bring support to the program.

Room in the Inn is not an attempt to resolve all the issues of homelessness. It is not a social service agency. Room in the Inn-Memphis is about changing people, guests and hosts alike. It creates an environment and an opportunity for the guests to learn that there are people who care and for the hosts to come to understand that the faceless figure on the street corner is more than a statistic. It is about serving without prejudice or pride. It is about accepting everyone. Room in the Inn-Memphis is about people of religion putting the tenets of their faith into practice. It is a ministry of love.

To quote her nominator, “Though small in stature, Rev. Lisa is tall in spirit.” She fearlessly fights to improve the lives of the homeless and to change the lives of those who help.

Vanessa Luellen

Women of Achievement
2012

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Vanessa Luellen

Vanessa Luellen’s neighborhood was being taken over by drug dealers, vandals and prostitutes. Vanessa experienced that and knew someone had to do something about it.

Vanessa knows the troubles on the streets well – she has had two sons in prison, one for murder. She was raised right, but she says, “I was a hard-headed child. I had the best parents. My parents prayed for me and told me right from wrong. But when I got grown, I chose the path I went down. I lived the street life.” In 1992, she herself briefly served time on drug-related charges. The day before her arrest, she prayed to God for help. Of her time in jail she says, “It gave me time to get my life together. That’s where God spoke to me and let me know it was time to get it right.” She has stayed clean ever since.

In 1999, she bought her current home on Pope Street in the Mitchell Heights neighborhood. Originally valued at $55,000, the home’s value dropped to considerably. As property values were declining, so was the neighborhood. Property owners lost their homes and those homes became the property of absentee landlords and the county and city. Grass grew up and trash marred the neighborhood.

As unemployment rose, there were an increasing number of young men out of work and out on the streets with nothing productive to do. There was more drinking, more drugs, more fights. And you couldn’t sleep for the gunfire. In December 2004, her cousin was staying with her, trying to get his life back together. He was shot near her home because of an argument that took place months earlier and he died before she could get there. It was this violent death that lead her to start walking the streets of Mitchell Heights, meeting neighbors and talking about their mutual concerns. Vanessa Luellen made sense and the neighbors listened.

She revived the old Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association. She has spoken to mayors and City Council meetings and code enforcement and police officials. She photographs vacant buildings and pushes for repairs by absent owners. She recalls a meeting with Mayor Wharton, who walked through the neighborhood with her despite the rain. She’s very persuasive and that very day, crews were there to cut the grass and bushes on the vacant lots. In 2009, she organized a Christmas parade, a first in the area’s history.

And most telling of all perhaps — the Perfect Grocery, where alcohol and cigarettes were sold to minors and drugs were available to anyone with the money, was closed down by law officials. It reopened as All Good Grocery with new owners who marched in the parade and joined the association. Those owners are still trying to do the right thing.

There are still young men out there looking for work and with little to do, but now they know her. She says 75% of them want to work but can’t find jobs because of their records, which Vanessa says is a problem. She treats them with respect and when she sees them engaging in inappropriate behavior, she’ll tell them “you gotta move that on down.” She provides encouragement and hope for the future.

The challenges and the work continue. Now Mitchell Heights is joining with Brinkley Heights, Highland Heights, Grahamwood Heights and several other groups. The new Corner of the Heights hopes that together they can move all of their neighborhoods forward. It may take a long time and a whole lot of work, but Vanessa Luellen believes that effort and consistency will make it happen. She says, “It’s a struggle, but Glory Be to God.”

Vanessa Luellen’s courage has allowed her to confront the negative forces at work in her neighborhood, forces that have the potential to be vicious when their terrain is policed. Her willingness to offer leadership, to work vigorously with law enforcement and political leaders, shows a strong spirit, true grit, an ability to use her own bad choices to rebuild her community. Vanessa’s work earns recognition by Women of Achievement.

Teri Craven

Women of Achievement
2010

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Teri Craven

From big deputies in rural Mississippi to big security guards in Wal-Mart parking lots and gunfire on picket lines, Teri Craven has repeatedly faced big opposition in her years as a union organizer and political action director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1529.

She has sweated and spent some sleepless nights – and smoked some packs of cigarettes – but she has not quit, she has not backed down and she has never lost courage for the job of getting America’s working people the rights they are due.

Teri grew up in a union house. Her father was longtime president of UFCW Local 1529, representing workers in Mississippi, West Tennessee and east Arkansas. Teri heard his stories of the fights and the arguments and the abuses and the needs of the people – all people.

She started her union career as secretary for the local in 1980 while earning an associate’s degree in business and raising a young son. She grew to love the work.

Two years later she joined the union’s staff, representing workers at 18 Kroger groceries in Mississippi. In 1990 she was dispatched to Indianola, MS, where she ended up in a three-month strike at Delta Pride’s catfish processing plant, facing bullet fire on the picket line and community pressure to force workers back to the plant. Workers stood firm.

Craven later took on the Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign, battling the giant retailer for its abuse of worker hours and pay. She joined the Living Wage coalition in Memphis and rallied union support for the votes in City Hall and County Commission to secure improved wages for local government employees and contractors.

Still a regular work week could find her on a lonely back road in Mississippi, headed north after a political campaign meeting, being pulled over by deputies who know her car and want to harass her, being put into their back seat for a while, just because they know her work and because they can.

Teri Craven has courageously stood up for and stood with ordinary working people in the fight for just wages, safe working conditions and decent hours – things that too many employers still notoriously try to avoid and will go to great lengths to dodge.

She loves the cause and loves the work, but she laughs at herself because sometimes, on a plane, asked what she does, she answers, “’I’m a housewife.’ You see, sometimes, when you bring up unions, people get ugly!”

Teri has championed the cause of workers, especially women, whose labor is often forgotten, whether they work as a nursing home aide or on a catfish farm. She also campaigns tirelessly in electoral campaigns for candidates she believes are the best voice for working people, even in parts of Mississippi and Tennessee where the likelihood of success was not always great.

Beyond her courage, perhaps her greatest trait is that, even if a cause does not seem to have a great chance of success at the outset, this does not stop her from organizing with all her energy if she believes it could improve conditions for workers.

For her career of courageous service, we honor Teri Craven with the 2010 Women of Achievement Courage award.