Cherisse Scott

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2018

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Cherisse Scott

28 years old.

Singing the lead in a national touring company production.

Pregnant.

Home to Chicago and to an abortion clinic.

Only it wasn’t. It was a crisis pregnancy clinic where Cherisse Scott was convinced to stay pregnant and sent home with a onesie. She went back to her pre-musical job as a paralegal, delivered her son and seven months later was unemployed, on food stamps and getting nothing from the crisis clinic to sustain the life, health and well-being of her child.

For six years, and through three pregnancies that were terminated by abortion, Cherisse worked temp jobs and performing gigs. She says, “I didn’t understand my body. I had no information. After the third time, I ran into a reproductive justice advocate who finally taught me how to understand my fertility.”

The power of understanding her body – fertility, pregnancy and how to prevent it – made her passionate about sex education. She knows full well how life changes positively when a woman is empowered with access and information about her reproductive and sexual health.

She began volunteering with her new friend’s group – Black Women for Reproductive Justice – and soon joined the board and then the staff.

In 2011 Cherisse moved to Memphis where her mother lives and where she had spent part of her childhood. Her mother saw the need for what Cherisse was doing in Chicago to be black-woman led on behalf of black women, Cherisse says.

With her mother and grandmother as honorary co-founders, she launched SisterReach, a nonprofit whose mission is focused on empowering women and girls of color through a broad interpretation of reproductive justice.

SisterReach defines reproductive justice as “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.”

SisterReach provides comprehensive sexuality education, sexual communication training and outreach to women and girls, men and boys, families and LGBTQI individuals at churches, schools, community centers and through local, state, regional and national collaboratives such as Memphis Teen Vision, Free Condoms Memphis, Choose2Wait, Healthy and Free Tennessee, Advocates for Youth, Trust Black Women and Raising Women’s Voices. Outreach efforts and classes cover healthy relationships, anatomy, birth control, consent and risky behavior.

Women in higher poverty areas are at greater risk of unwanted pregnancy, dropping out of school and other things related to sexual health so SisterReach strives to guide women and girls to resources for pap smears, emergency contraception, testing and treatment.

Cherisse and SisterReach produced a 2015 report on the need for comprehensive sexuality education for Southern youth of color; opposed anti-abortion billboards in Memphis targeting black men, trained clergy and faith leaders on social justice issues; and presented to the United Nations Working Group on the Issue of Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice on the impact of fetal assault legislation on Tennessee women. SisterReach’s work and state and national partners led to defeat of the fetal assault bill which in 2016 criminalized women struggling with drug addiction.

Cherisse is a 2016 Rockwood Institute Fellow, Reproductive Justice and Faith Fellow with the Center for American Progress and has been featured in New York magazine, O magazine, NBC News #31DaysofFeminism Campaign and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. A recent push for meetings in Washington are aimed at talking to decision-makers about the kind of support black women need.

And on top of all that, Cherisse has returned to her music, singing jazz/soul/R&B fusion. She will release a third album this year and wants to create a one-woman show that incorporates her social justice passion and her music.

In a social and political atmosphere which scapegoats and stereotypes young women of color for their sexuality, Cherisse instead teaches, supports and advocates for them in claiming control over their bodies and their reproductive decisions.

“I’m a bisexual black woman who is also a Christian and a minister,’ Cherisse says. “I hope SisterReach is a space for black and brown women to feel community.”

Elaine Blanchard

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2014

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Elaine Blanchard

Elaine Blanchard is a writer, mother, minister, nurse, hospice counselor and actor. But most of all she is a storyteller. Elaine believes in the power of story to help us share our humanity and understand the deeper meaning of our lives.

She knows through her own experience that understanding our own story and sharing that story with others connects us to ourselves and our humanity. That knowledge has led her to a vision of using storytelling to bring self-understanding and hope to women in prison.

Elaine grew up in a rigidly religious and misogynistic Southern household. She married, became a minister, and gave birth to a daughter. She left that marriage after realizing that she is a lesbian. She became a nurse, and then a hospice nurse. She returned to the ministry, she found love and formed a life-partnership with Anna Neal. In 2000, she graduated from Memphis Theological Seminary.

While presenting the Children’s Sermon, at First Congregational Church, she began telling stories of her childhood. And people listened.

During this time her understanding of the power of story grew and she took it to other areas of her life. Having a mother with Alzheimer’s, dying in a care facility, Elaine recognized that giving voice to her mother’s story could help caregivers see her mother as a person, She created a brief story narrative of her mother’s life to “introduce” her mother to caregivers. This was hung over her mother’s bed, along with pictures from her mother’s life and caregivers began to interact with her mother in a more humanized way. This led to the work of “I Am” Stories, which helps provide narratives for families to honor loved ones at the end of life.

In 2010, she gathered childhood experiences with racism, sexism, abuse and dogmatic religion and turned them into a play. The critically acclaimed For Goodness Sake has toured extensively. Her second play, Skin and Bones, is an exploration of the shame, power and beauty of the human body.

Since 2010, Elaine has been working behind bars with women inmates to produce Prison Stories, a story listening/story telling process that gives voice to the stories of the lives of the women.

Why? Elaine grew up in a home with three brothers and a father. For Elaine, it was a “rigid, judgmental and misogynist environment….I grew up feeling like I was invisible.”

This led Elaine to a vision of using story as a way to help women adapt to life behind bars and learn to avoid the behaviors that put them there. “My inspiration to go to the prison and listen to women’s stories comes from the pain of being dismissed, neglected and forgotten.”

Each series of Prison Stories includes 12 volunteer inmates who sit in a circle two days a week for 16 weeks and talk about themselves and issues. Each group reads two books: coming-of-age story Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Zen writer’s guide, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. As they discuss the books, the women open up about themselves. At night they keep a diary. Themes tend to repeat with each group – body image, food, mothers, unintended pregnancies, life in prison and violence. At the end of the series, a readers’ theatre piece is created and performed by actors. There is a prison performance as well as performances on the outside.

The prison system hopes to reduce repeat offenses. Women who have shared their stories say the experience helps them understand their pasts and to feel like their lives matter.

Next, Elaine will work with clients of Friends for Life, to help people living with HIV tell their stories.

Judy Wimmer

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2013

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Judy Wimmer

 

Judy Wimmer has long had the vision of a peaceful and loving community free of prejudice and with respect for all. This vision has led her to bring her creative and enlightened leadership to many projects and initiatives designed to improve the lives of women and children in Memphis and Shelby County.

Judy has always been very sensitive. Even the nuns at school told her so. She’s always been an activist, ever willing to take on a new challenge. She began taking dance classes at age 3 and started her own dance school right after high school, teaching ballet, tap and jazz in her own studio in Whitehaven while attending college. She only became a stay-at-home mom with the birth of Dana. But even then she didn’t stay home.

In the spring of 1968, Judy participated in the first Rearing Children of Good Will Workshop, a program that brought black and white mothers together to hear speakers on civil rights, child development and community needs and then to promote dialog across racial lines. Inspired by the experience, that summer she organized a second workshop in the Whitehaven community.

That same year, she became a founding member of the Memphis Panel of American Women, organized locally by Jocelyn Wurzburg. This group brought together ethnically and religiously diverse women to speak at service organizations, schools, etc. about their personal experiences with exclusion and discrimination.

In 1969 she chaired the Public Affairs committee of the Concerned Women of Memphis and Shelby County. Their primary goal was to help AFSCME avoid another sanitation workers’ strike.

Being a family who talked the talk and walked the walk, Judy, her husband Fred, and their three children purposefully moved to the integrated Vollintine-Evergreen community. The children were then enrolled in public schools, much to the dismay of the grandparents.

She next became one of the key organizers and volunteers of IMPACT (Involved Memphis Parents Assisting Children and Teachers), a group that supported the court-ordered public school busing which took place in 1972. She often ran the office and served as the group’s spokeswoman. Once busing began she organized volunteers at every bus stop to insure a peaceful process. J. Mac Holladay, director of IMPACT, recalls that “her dedication to public education and to the future of the City of Memphis was a shining light in a time of crisis.”

Continuing to pursue her vision for women, from 1974-1976 Judy was a VISTA volunteer, working at MIFA as co-director of Mother to Mother, a program that paired church volunteers and mothers on welfare to help them navigate the social service system. Pairing these mothers from different backgrounds had the additional impact of dispelling myths on both sides.

In 1981, the Memphis Public Library received a National Endowment for the Humanities’ Women in the Community grant administered through Radcliff College. A small committee planned a series of public programs called “Memphis Women: From Yellow Fever to 2001.” Judy was a member of the committee as well being a program chair.

Judy says that one of the best things that ever happened to her was returning to the University of Memphis to complete her degree. She says that Maya Angelou and Women of Achievement Heritage recipient Myra Dreifus are to blame. Judy had gone to hear Ms. Angelou speak and along with a few others went out on the lawn in the rain to continue the conversation. Myra was there, invited her to lunch, and after two hours of exchanging confidences, told Judy to go finish school. Undecided until that conversation, she did, completing her degree in 1982.

Of course Judy was there – on the planning committee – when Women of Achievement began in 1984. Our goal of recognizing the unheralded achievements of women is right up her alley.

In 1968 Judy wrote: “These are times of soul-searching throughout our community, our country, our world. As never before, concerned people are seeking ways to live in fellowship, harmony, understanding, and love with all persons everywhere.” These words still inform her vision.

Donna Fortson

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2007

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Donna Fortson

In the early 1980s, downtown minister Jesse Garner saw Donna Fortson as a woman with the ideal characteristics to lead the First Presbyterian Church soup kitchen.

He recalls: “Something about Donna struck me as a person who had the savvy to run something, and also as a person who had a great deal of compassion.’’

Donna, a Sunday School teacher and municipal bond underwriter, hadn’t thought about volunteering in the soup kitchen, but she agreed to take the job leading the church’s outreach committee. “I thought it was somewhere that I could help,” she said.

About 25 men began to show up for meals every Sunday afternoon, and the regular group grew to about 100 by the late 1980s. With the growing numbers of people, Donna began to notice a heartbreaking change in the patrons.

“When women and children started coming to the soup kitchen, that upset me,” Donna said.

Some of the families were homeless. Others were struggling to make ends meet in nearby Lauderdale Courts. Some of the women had been abused. Donna did what she could through the soup kitchen. She and the volunteers set up special tables for children and served them milk and Spaghetti-o’s instead of the adult food. But there just wasn’t much she could do to help the families on a Sunday afternoon. Donna wanted to do more and began to envision a shelter for women and children — something that wasn’t available in Memphis then.

She started making connections, attending meetings and learning all that she could about ways to address the problems the women were facing. By 1992, her vision began to manifest, and Memphis Family Shelter was incorporated. Two years later, Donna left her investment banking career to make her vision a reality. The first shelter, which housed four families, opened in 1996 with Donna as the first executive director.

Even as the shelter opened in a Midtown foursquare, Donna and her board knew they needed a larger facility if they wanted to make a real difference. They began to plan for a larger shelter that would house four times as many families. The new $1.7 million shelter opened in December 2000, providing food, shelter and safety for 16 women and their children.

Families can stay in the shelter for up to two years; the average stay is between six and nine months. While there, they have access to counseling, budgeting help, and tutoring for their children and rental assistance programs to help the families make the move from the shelter to apartments.

More than 250 families had found temporary homes in the shelter in its first 10 years. As she begins the second decade, Donna is looking to the future. She is challenged by decreases in federal funding, but encouraged that there are now other agencies offering transitional housing for families.

“I think this is what I was supposed to do,” she said.

Rev. Garner calls the results “spectacular” and says his suggestion of Donna for the outreach committee exceeded his greatest expectations.

“I don’t remember the particular logic, though I would call it divine inspiration,” he said. “I have always described that as the single smartest thing I have ever done in my life.”

Women of Achievement agrees! Donna Fortson turned the suffering she saw in the soup line into inspiration for helping homeless women.

Donna’s vision of a home for women who have no home, of a safe place where mothers and children can heal and renew their lives, has come true.

Ruby Bright

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2005

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Ruby Bright

Ruby learned early in life that if she could imagine something, she could make it happen.

As a teenager growing up in Byhalia, Mississippi, Ruby took a walk with her father one Saturday afternoon and was saddened to see poor chidden in her community whose toys were sticks, tin cans and old car tires. She told her father: “I wish we could build a park for them.”

His response: “Why don’t you? You can do anything you want to do.” He offered her a small piece of land he owned for a park.

Many children hear “you can do anything you want to do” from parents and teachers. Some act on it. Many would look at an overgrown lot and think “that’s too big for me.” Not Ruby. She acted on her father’s encouragement with the energy and optimism that she has brought to projects through her career.

Ruby went to church the next morning and found others who would join her. Within a few months, the community had a new park built on the donated land with $5,000 in contributions.

Ruby was sensitive to the children in her community and envisioned a park. She made it a reality. Now she knew that she could truly change the world — or at least her part of it. She combines her vision with passion and practicality. And she excels.

When she got a job at a printing company, she learned everything about it and became its executive director. When she volunteered for Junior Achievement, the organization recognized her value, and hired her.

When she applied to become executive director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, the board chose her from among 90 candidates across the country. The organization was just five years old then, and searching for its fourth top executive. Each of the first three directors led the organization to another level of accomplishment. Now it was time to find the woman who would lead for the long-term.

“We wanted a visionary director and also somebody who could churn it out day-to-day because an organization can’t run on vision alone,” board member Debbie Binswanger told a reporter after Ruby completed her first year.

The board members found what they wanted. Ruby marks her fifth year with the Women’s Foundation this summer, and the organization marks its 10th anniversary of making Memphis a better place for women and their children.

Most recently Ruby has put her vision for women into action by co-founding the Memphis Area Women’s Council, a new non-profit dedicated to changing policy to open opportunities for women.

We asked her what factor contributed to her success in so many areas — from teenage community volunteer, to printing company executive, to president of Junior Achievement of Middle America. “I’ve always been the one who says, “Why do we have to do it that way?” “ What if we could do this?” she said. “At Junior Achievement, they called me ‘the Why Lady’. ”

As Ruby and the Women’s Foundation look to the future, count on her to keep asking ‘why’ and to accomplish even more for women and their children.

Since 1996, WFGM has awarded $6.6 million to 395 programs, supporting more than 30 local non-profits each year with grant awards of over $600,000. Stated in 2009, the Women’s Foundation Legends Award was created to pay tribute to innovative women whose work embodies the mission of the women’s foundation.

Sonja White

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2009

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Sonja White

Love shouldn’t hurt and Sonja White’s vision is for a world where it never will.

Women struggling to escape domestic violence desperately need the safety and justice that the legal system purports to offer, so nothing makes Sonja White angrier than seeing it fail them.

Her passion has fueled her work in two aspects of domestic violence – as a victim’s advocate and as a legal aid attorney. But she has not only worked her paid job – she also gives hours of her time in various volunteer leadership roles seeking resources and policy change that will rescue women and children from the nightmare epidemic of domestic crime that infects our community.

Sonja grew up in Memphis, graduated from Hamilton High and journeyed to Adelphi University in New York for college in 1981. She did a variety of part-time jobs to get through college and law school, including selling lingerie for Bloomingdale’s. She earned her law degree from Hofstra University 1988 and worked for eight years in the New York City criminal courts.

It was during that time that she realized she could not continue to defend batterers. She could not look into the faces of the injured and traumatized women and then stand up for the men who had hurt them. She came home to Memphis and went to work as director of the Memphis YWCA Abused Women’s Services Court Advocacy Program, helping women navigate the complex system of courts.

From fall of 2001 to spring of 2004 she was an adjunct professor of law in the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Domestic Violence Clinic. She has specialized since then in domestic violence cases as managing attorney of the Memphis Area Legal Services Family Law Unit. Her focus is on utilization of the judicial system to eliminate barriers to violence free lives for victims of domestic violence.

She goes above and beyond the parameters of her job, however, every day.

She writes grants to bring new resources to the community, such as one that created the Opportunity Plus project at Memphis Area Legal Services Family Law Unit. It offers women who have survived domestic violence case management support and assistance with employment, housing, child-rearing and other issues so that they can become independent and self-sustaining and avoid returning to their abuser.

She regularly speaks to civic and professional groups about domestic violence and court reform and has written numerous articles. She has led one plank of the domestic violence strategy for Operation: Safe Community, the coalition of business, elected and law enforcement leaders. Sonja’s initiative seeks to create a Unified Family Court here and she was named to the Shelby County Unified Family Court Task Force last year – a task that took many extra hours of work beyond her case docket.

As president of the Memphis Area Women’s Council since 2006 she leads the council’s DV action team that is pursuing new legislation, new funding and new collaborations to address the high numbers of local domestic crimes, including a record 34 domestic homicides.

As co-chair of the Memphis Shelby County Domestic Violence Council, she will oversee a revamping of its mission to grow from a networking organization to a hub of collaboration to fill gaps and strengthen capacity of essential service agencies.

Sonja White cares fervently for the hundreds of women and children who are damaged by domestic crime. She works tirelessly every day – while raising her own three children – to build a world where they and their friends and all of our children can expect to live in safe, nurturing relationships.

For her vision of a place where women can be safe from denigrating, demeaning and deadly treatment by those who are supposed to love and care for them, for her vision of a world where children can grow up in homes where adults are respectful and nurturing of each other and of them, for her vision that the judicial system can empower women to prosecute their abusers and rescue their children from harm and from generational violence, Sonja White is the 2009 Woman of Achievement for Vision.

Sonja White died in May 2013.

Beverly Greene Bond

Women of Achievement
2012

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Beverly Greene Bond

History is central to a society. History interprets how a society operates and defines the role of people within that society. By looking at how the past has led to the present, history is a means of assessing and even possibly shaping the future.

Dr. Beverly Bond has been a leader in advancing both of those roles for history and for women. Her research and writing exploring the ways 19th century African American women negotiated the boundaries of race, class and gender have led to a new appreciation of the contributions and challenges of women of color in Southern and national society. Her work contributes to the recognition of how women approached and affected social and public policy from their perspectives and on their own terms. Building on that understanding, her current work addresses how women can be leaders in creating positive change for social justice.

The second of five children, Beverly Bond grew up in the 1950s in a strong family with a strong sense of community. Sputnik circled the skies so math and science were encouraged as majors but when she started at Memphis State University in 1963, she remembered her Hamilton High School history teachers Rev. Suggs and Rev. Hawkins. She took a class from the inspirational Marcus Orr and, loving the stories, knew that history was the field for her.

Her family valued education. Her parents quit high school during World War II to marry and raise a family. Later, both parents obtained GEDs and her mother went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree from LeMoyne-Owen. The day Beverly obtained her own Bachelor’s was the day her mother received a Master’s. With several teachers in the family, Beverly joined the family profession. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Memphis, she taught high school history for 14 years in New Jersey and 11 years in Germantown.

Beverly began her academic career in world civilization. She moved to American history, African-American history, and then focused on the history of African-American women. When she started doing research for her dissertation, she was told there was no information on the topics she wanted to explore. But she remembered growing up in a community supported by neighborhood civic clubs and church groups run by women. Time to go to the polls? The civic club would get out the vote. A death in the community? People would organize to go door to door collecting for flowers. There were social clubs, bridge clubs, and children’s clubs, all requiring various levels of organization. Beverly was sure there must be information somewhere. She started to search. The results can be found in her books, book chapters, journal articles and even encyclopedia articles.

Beverly’s impact goes beyond being a thinker and writer. Dr. Bond is a “doer” through her impact as an exceptional teacher affecting future generations. A recipient of 14 local, state and regional teaching awards, her book Memphis in Black and White, coauthored by Women of Achievement honoree Dr. Janann Sherman, was selected as Best Book on Memphis History in 2004 by the Memphis Historical Society. In 2009, she co-edited Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times, with Sarah Wilkerson Freeman. She is now working on volume two. After that, she plans to complete Claiming My Self: African American Women in Memphis, Tennessee, 1820s-early 1900s, in which she will examine what it meant for women to go from slavery to freedom while exploring the meaning of “self.”

Reciting a list of her books and awards, though, does not fully express Dr. Bond’s accomplishments. In the best sense of effective history, Dr. Bond’s recognition and documentation of the role of women as political actors and movers in the advance of civil rights in the United States have contributed to the template for advocacy for women’s rights today. Moreover, she lives what she teaches, contributing to the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and serving as an advisor to the Center for Research on Women and the Benjamin Hooks Institute for Social Change.

Beverly Greene Bond’s vision has contributed to our knowledge of women in our community and expanded our vision of what our shared futures might be.

Cynthia Grant Tucker

Women of Achievement
2011

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Dr. Cynthia Grant Tucker

Cynthia Tucker is a woman who has long been devoted, in her own words, to “giving abridged or interrupted voices their due.’’ Her primary focus has been on researching, revealing and showcasing the lives and artistic accomplishments of other women, including women marginalized by race or disability. She has been a “behind the scenes” advocate and mentor for many women, devoting much of her life to showcasing women’s experiences through written and visual expression.

Cynthia came to feminism naturally. She was born in New York City and raised in a nearby New Jersey suburb. Her mother, an underpaid bilingual stenographer, was a lifelong card-carrying member of NOW who gave her daughters inaugural subscriptions to Ms. Magazine. Her father always believed in the abilities of women and treated them with respect.

Like many, Cynthia was motivated to action in the early 1970s by her realization of the need for change in the larger society. She became involved in local politics and served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972, supporting the candidacy of Shirley Chisholm. In Miami, she saw that despite having their own agenda, women were not taken seriously, in some cases not even by themselves. She returned to her faculty position at Memphis State determined to ditch politics and take up feminism – and to do this at an institution where the female faculty members were still expected to make the coffee.

Cynthia became passionate about bringing women’s voices and lives to the forefront. She shifted her professional focus from literary criticism to discovering works written by women authors and validating women’s experiences. Unable to convince departmental administrators of the need to change the then primarily male, white canon of literature taught at the university, she began a very popular “Women’s Writings” course through the Continuing Education Department.

At the same time, Cynthia was energized by changes she perceived in the larger world and continued to use that energy to move her department and the university toward greater inclusiveness of vision. In the mid-1970s, Dr. Tucker was part of a major and successful class action suit on behalf of all female employees at the university. She worked to develop the university’s Comparative Literature program and served as its founding director. She also helped midwife the university’s Women’s Studies program, serving on the steering committee for 10 years.

Cynthia began a lecture series, “Women’s Images through Time,” and continued to press for the inclusion of women, including women of color, in the literature curriculum. She taught a groundbreaking course on women’s literature in the 1970s and repeatedly submitted proposals for such courses until they were finally accepted into the standard literature curriculum in the mid-1980s.

She become passionately interested in women’s biographical writing and shifted entirely toward documenting women’s lives. “I wanted to write so that women would see themselves and men would remember that their mothers and sister had full lives.”

It was in a class that Cynthia taught on “Women’s Voices as Writers and Artists” that she met student Patricia Cline, a talented quilter, a woman at midlife living with a severe disability. Already a seasoned biographer, Tucker realized the importance of Cline’s written and fabric work and eventually assembled Cline’s writings and photographs of her work into a wonderful biography, Spirited Threads: A Fabric Artist’s Passion for Life – The Art and Writings of Patricia Roberts Cline which was published shortly after Cline’s death.

Cynthia became interested in the autobiographical and political messages in the visual arts by women and produced several programs and exhibitions on women and art and women artists. Eventually she took up the needle herself and assembled an interracial group of women artists and quilters to complete Pat Cline’s unfinished quilts.

She has authored five biographies of creative and risk-taking women and has lectured, written and taught about many more. Her most recent book is No Silent Witness which details the lives of activist Unitarian Universalist women in the late 19th and early 20th century. That title received the 2010 Frederick C. Melcher Award for Significant Contribution to Religious Liberalism.

In a description of Pat Cline, Cynthia describes “her rage for truth-telling, her stubborn refusal to honor divisive boundaries and her heresy of acknowledging that the personal and the political are cut from the very same cloth.” These words might well be used to describe Cynthia herself. Cynthia Tucker has taken up the torch of ensuring that the courageous lives of women who have gone before us and who live among us, shall not be overlooked or forgotten. This Woman of Achievement’s vision continues to expand our own.

Melvena Leake

Women of Achievement
2010

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Melvena Leake

Always highly motivated, Melvena Leake taught school for 30 years, worked as a volunteer probation officer, and sold real estate on the side. She planned to travel when she retired but instead fate and a vision of making a difference in the lives of women just released from prison led her on a different journey.

After retiring, Melvena Leake began visiting women in prison as part of her church’s ministry. She found that many of the women were not first-time offenders but had returned to prison after being released. She listened to their stories and asked questions of her own.

“How many times have you been here? Why do you keep coming back?” she asked. And she started researching recidivism. She found that having a place to go upon release was essential in staying out of jail. And she dreamed of a halfway house that could be that place.

Melvena and her husband postponed their travel plans and she looked for funding to create that house. On December 7, 1999, Karat Place, Inc., a grassroots, non-profit residential rehabilitation program for homeless women ex-offenders, was chartered. It received its 501(c)(3) status in May 2000 and Melvena began accepting in-kind donations and planning operating procedures. In January 2001, Karat Place became an official service provider.

Karat Place is more than a residential facility. Its goal is to prepare women for living-wage employment and to help improve parenting skills so that these women may be successfully reunited with their children. Melvena helps them access medical care and teaches job interviewing and life skills so that they learn to share a vision of a life of their own. The program is called START, Special Transitional Actions to Restore Talents.

Once employed, the women contribute 30% of their wages to the program and save 30%. They apply for food stamps to cover the costs of food. They shop, plan and prepare balanced meals, and do the cleaning. Coming from chaotic past lives, some residents have never before made so much as a grocery list. Children visit on weekends.

Most participants are self-sufficient within the first six months but can stay up to two years.

Karat Place started with 4 beds. The second location had 12, and the current facility has 16.

Karat Place is proud of its first 10 years. Over 200 women have been reunited with their families, have found good jobs, and have stayed out of jail. The hotel industry has been especially helpful, providing jobs in housekeeping. Karat Place “graduates” are supervisors at both the Marriott and the Madison Hotel.

Funding continues to be a challenge. Melvena puts together money from churches, foundations, corporations, individuals, and her own savings. (Remember those travel plans?) She takes no salary for herself.

Hers is a purpose-driven life. The program isn’t faith-based, but that’s how she made it. “What God ordains, he maintains,” she says. She’s quick to point out that she couldn’t do this all alone. It is the work of many hands; volunteers, board members, those who donate both in-kind and in cash.

Asked how she achieves her high success rate, she says that the women know that she believes in them. She’s strict. She knows that some may laugh at her ways, but they all know she cares. Many have returned to thank her.

The age-old measure of value is gold, and thus the name Karat Place. Melvena’s belief in these women and her vision of transforming broken lives into something of beauty and value has become a glowing reality.

Phyllis Betts

Women of Achievement
2008

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Dr. Phyllis Betts

No matter which of her community hats Dr. Phyllis Betts may be wearing, she is forever and always vigilant to the rights and needs of women.

A sociologist by training, Phyllis has advocated for women consistently as associate director of the Center for Research on Women and as director of the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis.

Phyllis was a founder of the Memphis Area Women’s Council where she co-organized the initial action team to address domestic violence with a volunteer court watch. She is the Women’s Council’s leader on its Workforce Action Collaborative which is seeking to identify primary barriers keeping unemployed and underemployed women from good-paying jobs.

Thanks in large measure to Phyllis, the Operation: Safe Community initiative included domestic violence as one of its 15 key issues and action steps to address crime in our community. She says, “Many things that aren’t defined as women’s issues really are and if you strengthen and prepare women to deal with life issues, you’ve gone a long way to prepare our whole community.”

Her multi-layered connections in local grassroots community activism, politics and academia give her constant opportunities to speak up for women’s needs — and she always does. Her commitment is to always “drill down” into the data to find out what it really means to women and to find ways to address the root causes of circumstances that limit women’s equity.

Phyllis grew up in Springfield in central Illinois where state government is the main industry. She attended Southern Illinois University where she found her way into sociology because “it’s about everything and I can’t imagine not being able to think the way I think. Lots of perspectives are important in problem solving.”

With a bachelors’ degree in sociology from Southern Illinois, she completed a Master’s in sociology and then in 1978 earned her PhD from the University of Chicago where she concentrated on social inequality, social policy and urban sociology.

She taught sociology at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. She also founded and directed the UNC Asheville University Honors Program from 1985 to 1990 while also working as associate director of the undergraduate research program.

In 1990, she moved to the University of Memphis where she founded an undergraduate research program and directed the university honors program until 1995. Today, in addition to her research activities, she is associate professor in the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. She is a research fellow with the Urban Child Institute and chairs the Shelby County Infant Mortality Initiative Data Committee.

Her work with CROW focuses on poverty, welfare policy and workforce development for women. Unlike many traditional academics, she uses research to drive action – and it is that link that came to life with creation of the Memphis Area Women’s Council. Phyllis and others from CROW, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, the University of Tennessee and other activists created the not-for-profit Women’s Council with a mission to change local policy and practices by taking action based on data and research that explain the root causes of problems. The Women’s Council has organized a court watch of domestic violence cases, initiated a girls’ activism project called Girls for Change to address sexual harassment in schools, targeted barriers to good jobs for women through a Workforce Action Collaborative and fought to ban corporal punishment in city schools.

“It’s the rubber meeting the road issues that have always engaged me,” Phyllis says. “Women’s issues can be defined pretty narrowly at times – yet when you look at social and economic issues women are disproportionately affected. So much of what happens in society works its way through women’s lives.”

As long as Phyllis Betts is on watch, women’s rights and women’s needs will be at the table whether the immediate issue is violence, bankruptcy, neighborhood rebirth, poverty or jobs. Her vision of positive social change and problem solving – linking research with action – makes our community better for all.