Very early yesterday morning, the New York Women’s Foundation took the time to honor four women whose words and deeds have helped women turn their lives around by promoting and advocating economic security for women and girls.
But with all the finery of the awards and the famous names that appeared on the stage, the two most powerful speakers were not the honorees, or the elected officials, but two women who moved some of the 2,000 men and women at the breakfast to tears.
Here’s my disclaimer: I was born under the sign skeptic, and admit that I thought, “NYWF is bringing out someone to pull at the heartstrings to get the donations flowing.” And I guess it worked because now I’m a believer. I got to hear firsthand how this women’s group – and others like it – help better lives.
Shaquana Blount is a 19 year old woman with a strong and powerful story for her short time on earth. She’s now a college student at Borough Manhattan Community College, but just three short years ago, at the age of 16, she was beaten up by a client and left by the side of the road. She was a commercial sex worker and had been since the age of fourteen.
What helped her turn her life around was GEMS, a Harlem-based organization that works with girls 12-21 who have been sexually exploited or work in the commercial sex industry.
We spoke after the awards, and every few moments people politely interrupted us to give her a hug, tell her how much her story moved them, and offer words of praise and encouragement.
She told me that she had a normal childhood, but met a fellow who lied about his age and made her into a prostitute. She thought he was 17 and wanted to be her boyfriend. He was 25 and a pimp.
In addition to being a freshman at BMCC she is also an outreach counselor with GEMS and speaks of her experience to other young women who might also be at risk. Her message: What happened to her happens a lot here in New York. When you’re young, people prey on you. Be aware of the language people use to manipulate you, and most importantly: tell someone if you are being forced into something you don’t want to do.
My other honoree is Leslie Campbell, a fellow with College and Community Fellowship Inc., which works with women who have been in prison.
The mother of Chloe, 13, will be graduating from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a degree in forensic studies and a minor in addiction studies. In the fall she will begin a Masters program in forensic mental health counseling.
However, eleven years ago, Campbell’s future didn’t look as bright because in 1998 the former drug addict served two years in prison, forcing her to leave her then two-year-old daughter in the care of her mother.
Despite her hardships, she told me that she wouldn’t change her life because her uniqueness and experience make her who she is.
As her daughter bounced around, Campbell took conventional wisdom to task. She completely disagrees with the notion that you can’t always change a person. She says you can, and said “if given the opportunity to turn over a new leaf [anyone] has the ability to change.”