Jenny Odle Madden

Women of Achievement
2011

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Jenny Odle Madden

Jenny Odle Madden was in her first play with a speaking part in third grade – a Thanksgiving program at a Florida elementary school. She began then to find her voice in the theater and – lucky for Memphis – she never quit.

In junior high in Texas and then at White Station High School, Jenny sought out the competitive speech and drama clubs. With her BFA in performance from the University of Memphis, Jenny joined the Playhouse on the Square resident company and won awards for her acting. She also served in development jobs, did voice-over work and has worked a bit in film.

A narrative theater piece by University of Memphis professor Gloria Baxter and her students inspired Jenny to look at Southern women’s writing as a source for a stage piece that might win her and a friend a spot at the Fringe Festival in Scotland. The students had used Eudora Welty’s often-humorous stories.

Jenny says, “I’m a comedian by nature. I said, ‘hey why don’t we find a couple of short stories and go to Edinburgh?’” They worked from May 1995 using stories by Welty and Bobbie Ann Mason and raising money under Jackie Nichols and the Playhouse on the Square. When they needed to name their enterprise for a grant application, they came up with Voices of the South. In August 1996 they made the trip to Scotland for two weeks.

“The company is now 16 years old,” Jenny says, “and now it means all kinds of voices. At the time it was two girls who wanted to go to Scotland! My whole thing was – I want to perform.”

After enduring her parents’ divorce when she was very young, she saw her mother persevere and stand strong. Compared to that, she says, “a theater company is easy. Why can’t we do this? I just kept on. If I heard ‘no’ I turned it around to ‘why not?’”

In 1998, she applied for non-profit status and she became executive producer, a post she held until December last year while also performing regularly.

Voices of the South got a big break in 1999 when Gloria Baxter was asked to create a piece from the journals of Wyoming environmentalists Olauf and Mardy Murie. She collected some of her former students who all became part of the Voices of the South for the Wyoming project, which was performed in 2000 and 2002. During those years the company galvanized into a bigger group, adapting original texts with Southern flare.

The company has done 30 to 40 original scripts since then, including a commissioned piece that they toured across Alaska in December 2010.

One of the most popular shows is Sister Myotis’s Bible Camp, which in June 2010 became the first Memphis theater production to perform off-Broadway in a four-week run at the Abingdon Theater. Jenny performs as Sister Ima Lone in the Sister Myotis stories which are actually three full-length shows featuring a devout and over-the-top church lady who cautions Christians against the evils of thong underwear – among other gospel lessons!

Jenny’s world changed last April when she had surgery for lung cancer. She made the decision in December to step down as executive producer, remain a company member and have more time for her two children and to maintain her part-time job as theater director at St. Mary’s School.

“What a great testament to me and to them that Southern Voices can survive,” Jenny says. Anyone with a project can come incubate their work. “It’s for everybody.”

Accolades continue to come. Cicada, written by Voices of the South artistic director Jerre Dye, is the winner of the 2011 Bryan Family Foundation Award for Drama from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Set in rural Mississippi, this coming-of-age ghost story is deeply rooted in the life of a small Southern family on the verge of transformation.

Voices of the South began as a creative way to launch a fun trip and it has persevered and thrived as an ever changing, growing enterprise that showcases excellent talent and entertainment.

Jenny Odle Madden is a gifted performer, whose talent could have taken her to New York or Hollywood, but she is committed to doing this art in Memphis.
Thanks to her – and her artistic and business skills – we have a robust and ever-surprising theater company especially attuned to Southern voices.

Sonia Louden Walker

Women of Achievement
2010

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Sonia Louden Walker

If ever a life story defined initiative – it is the story of Sonia Louden Walker.
Teacher, social worker, TV personality, community activist, nonprofit executive and now ordained minister – Sonia Walker has built and rebuilt herself in distinct careers that make perfect blended sense within the basic deeply held values that define her.

Community healer, bridge builder, connector and encourager – these too describe this remarkable, vivacious and gifted woman. It doesn’t really matter to Sonia Walker what the job title is – she will make it into what it needs to be in order to be of good purpose.

Her good friend Nancy Bogatin wrote: “Her persona incorporates a sensitivity which transcends her ambition and yes, a spirituality which, without imposing it upon others, she shares, often soothing, always smoothing the way for so many who come within her aegis.”

When Sonia Walker arrived in Memphis in 1974, mother of three sons and wife of the new president of LeMoyne-Owen College, she had already had a career as an educator and social worker in school, hospital and agency settings. And she had enjoyed three years that she described on her resume as “home administrator. . .not gainfully employed” but engaged in “family launching.”

In Memphis, she took a job as director of community relations at WHBQ-TV, beginning a 16-year term as manager of public affairs programming and community service projects for the ABC affiliate. She served on public boards, hosted “A Closer Look” and delivered editorials, effectively addressing social issues and solutions. Sonia was not just another pretty face on TV — her fingerprints are on innovations from Adopt-A-School to Food for Families as she used that job to lead community solutions across the spectrum.

In 1990 and 1991, she coordinated the Black Family Reunion Celebration in a nine-state area. Seeing another need among the 7,000 members of her church, she created a spiritually based, culturally sensitive counseling program at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church that within a year had a building of its own. Out of a lifelong commitment to education and children, she staffed and equipped the first office of Partners in Public Education and continued to lead the non-profit school reform and funding program for five years.

Along the way Sonia served on numerous community boards and advisory committees – from the Chamber of Commerce to the Literacy Foundation to the Memphis Jobs Conference and the National Conference of Christians and Jews and beyond. She is a founding board member of Leadership Memphis and was the first woman and the first person of color to chair it. She is an honorary trustee of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

She did all this while supporting the independence of her husband, Walter, who was diagnosed with MS just three years after the family moved to Memphis from Chicago.

Having flirted with the idea of religion studies for years, in 2002 she entered Memphis Theological Seminary part-time, vowing to complete her studies slowly, with no student loans — but before she turned 80!

Two years ago, she graduated from Memphis Theological Seminary and was ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This daughter of a minister in Columbus, Ohio, finally fully assumed the ministry she had felt and lived since childhood.

Her Memphis journey had flowed from first Memphis Kwanzaa Queen, in 1976, to graduation cum laude and with the Hoyt Hickman award for Excellence in Liturgical Scholarship from Memphis Theological Seminary in 2008.

Sonia has excelled in a half-dozen fields and in all she found ways to use her unique talents and skills for the benefit of others. For her unending, passionate, discerning, gracious service to our community, we salute Sonia Walker, 2010 Woman of Achievement for Initiative.

Ruth Lomo

Women of Achievement
2008

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Ruth Lomo

From her birthplace in Sudan, to her adopted home in Memphis, Ruth Lomo has taken the initiative to use her gifts and skills to improve the lives of the women and children around her.

Ruth was born in Sudan in 1970. Coming from a family that understood the value of education, she attended high school and then had the unusual opportunity to participate in vocational training. She considered the three options, looked around, recognized a need and enrolled in the carpentry program, where she was the only woman.

In 1993, during Ruth’s 23rd year, violence erupted between the Sudanese government and rebel forces. Fearing for their lives, Ruth took her own five children, her sister’s six children and one other child and walked for five days to the border with Zaire. From there they crossed into Uganda where they reached the relative safety of a refugee camp. In 1995, her homeland still unsafe, Ruth searched for other options for herself and the children. Discovering better opportunities and services, they journeyed to another camp in Kenya.

The intent of refugee camps is to provide housing on a short-term basis, but due to the on-going violence in Sudan, Ruth’s family stayed six years, until 2001 when their situation was evaluated by the United Nations. Clearly it was not safe to return to their home, so Ruth and the children came to the United States under the auspices of the Associated Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement program.

Arriving in Memphis, she and the children were provided with a social worker and a place to live. She found work as a carpenter and quickly learned to use the power tools now available to her.

Shorty after getting settled, she managed to enroll all the children in her care into parochial schools. Having had little opportunity for education in the camps and speaking little English, they were nonetheless placed in grades more equivalent with their age than their level of learning. Recognizing this, Ruth found them tutors through a program at Second Presbyterian Church. Seeing the difference this made in the lives of her own children, she started arranging tutoring for other refugee children.

Fluent in several languages, Ruth also helped other women from Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia learn the skills they needed in their new home – how to drive, enroll in English language classes, navigate a new culture, help their children succeed in school.

Ruth’s experiences had given her a clear vision of what women needed – an organization to support and teach refugees how to advocate for themselves and their children. She created the International Community of Refugee Women and Children out of her own dogged determination that it needed to exist, and with support from organizations such as Catholic Charities, the United Methodist Neighborhood Centers and her own church community.

Eventually Ruth left the carpentry business to create her own home-cleaning business. She still devotes much of her time to the ICRWC, continuing to oversee the organization’s after-school tutoring program for children.

Each morning Ruth takes her children to school, does home cleaning in the day and industrial cleaning at night. Four afternoons a week, she goes to the tutoring center to babysit so that mothers can attend English classes. She gets home at midnight or later and then gets up the next day and does it all again.

She continues to network with other refugee coalitions in other areas, learning and sharing with other women what she has learned. The refugee women in Ruth’s program wanted to tell us about Ruth. Using their growing English skills, they spoke with shining eyes and they had a lot to say. They described her as a mother, a sister.

“You meet her and you feel like you’ve always known her. She talks with us about everything and she takes care of us. We can always find her and she can always find us.”

“She’s lovely. I’m standing with her forever.”

Ruth Lomo is building new lives for her family and for many others. She is in every way a Woman of Achievement for Initiative.

Nancy Hale Lawhead

Women of Achievement
2007

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Nancy Hale Lawhead

Nancy Lawhead left her native Kentucky in the late 1960s determined to see some places and help some people.

In 1970, after a few years spent working in New York, Nancy found her way to Memphis. And lucky for us she did. She has used her University of Kentucky social work degree and eventually two master’s degrees to help our most vulnerable citizens.

Her decision to put service over self has, for the past 35 years, helped create a better future for thousands of men, women and children – from troubled, delinquent teenage girls in Brooklyn to homeless mentally ill people in Midtown Memphis, to neglected, abused and at-risk children, to the tiniest of newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit of the Med.

She says, “I wanted to be in a helping profession. I saw the plight of the mentally ill as a young social worker in the mid 70s, because of the stigma of mental illness. People, if they get cancer, can get treatment, but not if they are mentally ill, homeless, walking the streets hearing voices.”

She joined the United Way of Grater Memphis as a planning and research assistant for child welfare, juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy programs. Five years later, Nancy moved to the University of Tennessee Mental Health Center, in charge of program development and grant writing. In 1978 she was named executive director of the UT Mental Health Center. This was the era when mental patients were being “deinstitutionalized” and put out of facilities such as Western State Mental Hospital to fend for themselves.

Nancy passionately believed patients needed a community mental health center that would connect them to medications, housing, transportation, and whatever else they needed to have a normal life.

Dissatisfied with services being provided to poor Memphians, Nancy in 1980 located a school building on 2 ½ acres at the corner of Danny Thomas and Pontotoc, raised the needed money and founded Midtown Mental Health Center. Renovation of the old school alone cost $400,000.

She followed that feat with development of an on-site, 24/7 Crisis Stabilization Unit for people in serious psychiatric crisis.

For 7 years, working virtually around the clock, Nancy led the Center as executive director.

After a two-year break in the private sector, she returned to public service in 1990 as executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Community Health Agency. For five years, she worked to improve access to primary care for poor people.

In 1995, Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris tapped Nancy to become special advisor to the mayor for health policy at national, state and local levels. She worked on release plans for Shelby County Jail inmates who were mentally ill or had substance abuse problems while grappling with what she saw as the criminalization of the mentally ill by managed care health systems.

In 1998, Nancy brokered the joint venture between the Memphis Shelby County Health Department and The Med. The agreement linked their clinics into a primary care network called the Health Loop, a $15 million operation and the largest primary care provider in Shelby County.

Now serving her third mayor, Mayor A C Wharton, Nancy earlier this year moved into the Urban Child Institute where she will head the county’s efforts to address early childhood and infant mortality issues. She will advocate for more funding and new policies and coordinate local efforts to stop the high rate of infant deaths.

Nancy Lawhead’s passion for helping the helpless led her to a career of service that has made thousands of lives healthier and happier and has made Memphis a better place to live.

Susan Stephenson

Women of Achievement
2006

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Susan Stephenson

When Susan Stephenson was a second-grader in Chattanooga, she told her teacher she wanted to be a doctor.

Her teacher suggested that Susan was mistaken. What she meant was that she wanted to be a nurse. When Susan told the story at the dinner table that night, her father decided it was a time for a lesson about choosing her future.

The next day, he accompanied Susan to her classroom where he diplomatically explained to her teacher in the hallway that Susan could be a doctor, a nurse or whatever profession she chose. He made sure that Susan heard what he said.

That lesson about confidence and possibilities would guide Susan for the rest of her life.

She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee with a major in history and English. Her goal? To attend law school and become the first woman justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Sandra Day O’Connor would beat her to the bench, but Susan found another way to be the first woman in an influential spot.

The year before O’Connor joined the court, Susan moved to Memphis as the young wife of a student. She had spent half a school year teaching in Chattanooga, but couldn’t find a mid-year teaching job in Memphis. A friend suggested she try banking and sent her resume to First Tennessee Bank. The bank saw executive potential in the young college graduate and invited her to join the bank’s management training program.

That was in 1980. She more than realized her potential. Fifteen years later after being hired as a management trainee, Susan was named chairman, president, and chief executive officer of what was then Boatman’s Bank of Tennessee. She was the first woman to serve as CEO of a Memphis bank. That was in 1995. Just three years later, in a climate of mergers and acquisitions, Susan and Chip Dudley took a chance at organizing a new, independent bank – appropriately called Independent Bank. The bank is thriving today and offers special programs for women.

That reflection of personal values in the workplace is typical of Susan, said Ruby Bright, president of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis where Susan is chair-elect of the board.

“Susan stands on her beliefs and she walks her talk,” Ruby said. “She led her corporate board of directors to the decision over a year ago to be committed to paying a living wage to all of its employees.”

“She has broken many glass ceilings in a male-dominated field,” Ruby added. “She has certainly earned this recognition.”

Susan has worked with other community groups – from arts organizations to the American Cancer Society to Junior Achievement and the Leadership Academy – and she also takes time to share her experiences with other women. She emphasizes the power of confidence:

“Confidence is the steady assurance that something you want or need to happen will happen,” she once told a group of women.

“. . . You can change your life and the lives of people around you if you act with confidence.”

Deanie Parker

Women of Achievement
2004

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Deanie Parker

Deanie Parker’s life has been filled with music. As a child she listened to Memphis radio station WDIA. Her days brimmed over with gospel, R&B and contemporary jazz, hosted by now-legendary DJs such as Nat D. Williams and Rufus Thomas. Her grandmother always had records on the old Victrola and Deanie listened and dreamed. Always imaginative, a broomstick was her microphone. When her family moved north, she missed the music and tuned in to Nashville’s WLAC to hear the voices of the Delta. She studied piano only to be whacked on the hands for playing B.B. King, Chuck Jackson and other popular music by ear!

The family returned to Memphis from southern Ohio in 1961. While attending Hamilton High School, Deanie formed a group called the Valadors and entered a talent contest at the Old Daisy Theatre on Beale. First prize: an audition at Stax. Advice from Stax founder Jim Stewart: “You have to have your own material.” With that, Deanie went home and started writing, first “My Imaginary Guy,’’ a regional success. Deanie’s career in the music business was underway.

She worked most of her senior year at the then-Satellite Record Shop. After graduation she spent a year as a DJ for WLOK before returning to Stax in 1964 to become its first publicist. One of only two office employees, she learned on the job while continuing to write for artists such as Carla Thomas, Albert King and the Staple Singers. One of the first female publicists in the music business, she gained new skills and used her salary to pay her university tuition. She credits the late Estelle Axton as a role model.

With the closing of Stax, Deanie went on to be promotions director for WPTY-TV, marketing director for Memphis in May and vice president of communications and marketing for The Med. But through the years, music remained her passion.

When offered the job of executive director for Soulsville, USA, a then-risky proposition, she jumped at the chance. Under her leadership the organization has thrived. People with mission and spirit that reflect that of the original Stax have collected priceless memorabilia for Memphis and the world to study and enjoy in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, thus fulfilling Deanie’s lifelong dream of celebrating Memphis’ iconic status in American contemporary music. The Stax Music Academy reaches out to young musicians and brings them along while helping stabilize the community.

Through Deanie Parker’s initiative, the heart and soul of Stax – an essential and historic part of Memphis’ heart – lives on.

Hazel Moore

Women of Achievement
2003

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Hazel Moore

Throughout Hazel Moore’s life, the need to express beauty both inside and out has guided her initiative. Remember sea-grass dolls? Well, Hazel does. From the time she was old enough to walk, she carried a soft-drink bottle with sisal attached for hair. Hazel’s hands braided, curled, parted, plaited and ponytailed anything that stood still long enough for her to do so. Long after other girls had put away their dolls, Hazel Moore was still shaping “hair life” out of every female relative in her vicinity.

Her hands found more to do. Hazel Moore’s family felt that she should become a nurse but Hazel felt otherwise. Instead she completed cosmetology college and became a licensed instructor. She had a lucrative practice at The Peabody Hotel, moved to Goldsmith’s and then on to another shop, but she wanted more. In 1973, she opened her first shop in Whitehaven. A second shop followed in 1984. Organizer of the first Tennessee Beautician’s Trade Show, Hazel has a loyal customer base. Mothers, daughters and now granddaughters come to her for the latest and best in hair fashions.

With her husband Jayne and their four daughters at the center of her life, Hazel Moore found still more work for her hands to do, this time in her community. And a grateful community has bestowed a bevy of unofficial titles including “Mayor of Whitehaven.”

She’s provided hands-on leadership in combating drugs, teen pregnancy and illiteracy. And she’s used her talents to promote community pride, encouraging citizens to participate and have fun. The Whitehaven Holiday Festival and the Community Health Fair are good examples.

A highly regarded speaker, Hazel was once asked by students after one of her talks, “Why can’t we have more things like this?” She responded, “You can!” So in 1993 she founded the Academy of Youth Empowerment. The organization works to help teens develop social skills, manage stress, and improve study habits, a Hazel Moore recipe for success.

Her hands have led to so many accomplishments and awards that a complete list would fill volumes. Some that best exemplify the handiwork of Hazel Moore include the Pioneer Memphis Business Award (1996), the American Heart Association Outstanding Volunteer Award (1998, 2001), the Black Business Association’s Benny Award (2002) and past presidency of the Friends of Whitehaven Branch Library.

Joyce Cobb

Women of Achievement
2002

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Joyce Cobb

Joyce Cobb is one of the best known and most-loved of performing Memphis musicians. She is an essential part of our musical fabric, contributing blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, folk and just plain good music to our community. Her name brings to mind a big smile, huge voice, quality in musicianship and depth in delivery. She’s carved out her place in the music profession as a performer, teacher and donator of her talent.

Joyce first performed in her grandmother’s church in Okmulgee, Oklahoma – and she never forgot the warm response she received from the audience. She grew up listening to her parents’ excellent collection of jazz and classical music. But it was in her high school’s girls’ choir that she got her real start. Director Sister Mary de Lassis uncovered in Joyce a passion for singing that continues today.

In Nashville, Joyce worked for WSM radio and TV for six years and opened at the Opry. She came to Memphis in 1976, lured by a contract with a Stax Records subsidiary but Stax folded shortly after her arrival. She worked for a month at the Holiday Inn and there met Wayne Crook and Warren Wagner. In talking with them she realized that her dream included songwriting, so she signed with their company, Shoe Productions. Her first song, “Dig the Gold,” was about the poorly paid black gold miners of South Africa. The song earned a number 42 spot in Billboard magazine.

Joyce has run her own Beale Street jazz club and has toured nationally. She has won four Premier Player Awards for Best Female Singer from the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She has recorded on several labels including RCA and Cream Records. In 1997 she hosted Beale Street Caravan, a nationally syndicated radio program highlighting the music of the Delta. She received Memphis Arts Council funding for the dynamic live program Beale Street Saturday Night, focusing on Memphis music. She has taught at the University of Memphis and the Community Music School.

Joyce has volunteered with WEVL radio for more than 20 years. She has served on the program committee, currently serves on the board and hosts several shows. All this time, she’s been writing songs, sometimes spending as much as 12-15 hours a day in the studio. She now has 30 to 40 songs to her credit.

Her biggest challenge has been to continue writing and performing her own material, but she has begun producing a CD on which she sings her own songs. Throughout her career, Joyce Cobb has shown initiative in music, business and education.

Cordell Jackson

Women of Achievement
2001

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Cordell Jackson

“I consider myself an inventor,” says internationally acclaimed rock ’n’ roll guitarist Cordell Jackson. “I’m just richly blessed with ideas … I have now more than ever. If I think of it, I do it.” Initiative has been the driving force behind this colorful music pioneer since her childhood in Pontotoc, Mississippi. Inspired by her musical father, Cordell began learning at age 12 to play piano, bass, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and the guitar. “When I picked up the guitar, I could see it in their eyes, ‘Little girls don’t play guitar,’ they thought. I looked right at ’em and said, ‘I do.’”

And play she did. In 1943, she graduated from high school and moved to Memphis. In 1946, she purchased her own recording equipment. During this same period of time she met and married William Jackson Jr. and went on to become the country’s first female recording engineer. She was the first woman to write, sing, accompany, record, engineer, produce and manufacture her first record. Cordell also became one
of the first women to start her own record label, Moon Records, in 1956.

During the next few decades, Cordell continued to pursue her love of music and to distribute her Moon Records products to 48 states and 35 countries. One night during the 1960s, Cordell was in the audience at a fundraiser where Alex Chilton and Tav Falco were playing. To Cordell’s surprise, they were playing her music instrumentally. When Falco later told her it was “new wave from London,” she informed him it was hers and invited him to hear her recordings.

But it was writer-producer Celia McRee who truly cast the spotlight on Cordell. In 1985, Celia brought Cordell to New York for the New Music Seminar. While there, she joined old friend Tav Falco on stage at the Lone Star Club. “I started playing, and they stood up in one swoop, like a gust of wind,” says Cordell. History was being made again, and Cordell was a star.

Soon after, Cordell had an award-winning video in the New York Film Festival and on MTV, and then was featured in New York’s Interview magazine. And things haven’t slowed down. She’s been named Memphis Musician of the Year, Memphis Songwriter of the Year, honored by Who’s Who of World Women, and been included in the Smithsonian Institution, the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum in Memphis, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Cordell also has made numerous television appearances, including 1992’s award-winning Budweiser commercial with famed guitarist Brian Setzer. She’s currently writing a book, The Brighter Sides and My Music, and recently completed work on a movie, Wayne County Rambling, which will feature one of her songs, “Jazz Fried.” In addition to her ongoing recording career, she found new success as an accomplished artist and has sold paintings to collectors in London, Japan, Stockholm and across the U.S. In Memphis, her work can be seen in Jay Etkins’ Gallery.

Rachel Shankman

Women of Achievement
2000

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Rachel Shankman

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Rachel Fromer Shankman was born in a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany, in 1946. The family came to the United States and settled in Nashville, where Rachel was raised. Like many Holocaust survivors, her parents didn’t talk much about their experience. But in 1960, they were interviewed by a Nashville reporter, and Rachel began asking questions. She was told stories of beatings, hunger, deprivation and death. She was told stories of small acts of courage and love that helped people in an untenable situation survive one more day. Afterward, she no longer took life for granted.

In the late 1980s, she and her husband saw a short documentary about a Canadian high school teacher who had been challenging the reality of the Holocaust in his classroom. Rachel was incredulous and outraged. Knowing that survivors and witnesses will not always be alive to tell their stories and aware that young people might have to choose between conflicting versions of history, Rachel started to look for solutions.

In 1976, former Memphian Margo Stern Strom cofounded Facing History and Ourselves. The program was designed to teach students critical thinking skills. Using the Holocaust and the events of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s as a case study, students learned that history is a result of a series of small decisions, many of them made by individuals.

In 1987, Facing History and Ourselves began a pilot program in six Memphis City Schools and Rachel volunteered. Rachel had previously served as the regional director for B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and director of Memphis State University’s Jewish Student Union. When Facing History and Ourselves opened a Memphis office in 1992, Rachel’s many years of experience in working with youth and her passion for the organization made her an obvious choice for executive director.

Under Rachel’s leadership, Facing History and Ourselves has worked with more than 300 educators in the Memphis area. Teachers learn an interactive process that includes readings, videos, group discussions and exercises. They then return to their schools and use the program in the way that is most effective for their setting. As a result, more than 30,000 students have learned that history is about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

Under Rachel’s direction, Facing History and Ourselves has moved into the larger community. In 1996, the office initiated a coalition called Cultures United. The group developed Memphis Building Community, a guide for schools and area clergy to use to discuss the history of Memphis. This guide became a model for other cities, including Chicago and New York. Always interested in coalitions and alliances, Rachel’s most recent project involves training young attorneys to go into the classroom to discuss issues surrounding law, morality and hate crimes.