2007 Most Inspiring Women

11 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women
ESSENCE.COM Aug, 27, 2008

1 of 11 Mark Lidell

Jada Pinkett Smith
Actress, wife, mother, activist, rock star.

Beauty isn’t about looks. It’s a light that shines when it’s shared with the world. The 25 women selected for our second annual tribute are stunning, to be sure. But their real beauty lies in the acts of courage they perform daily, the ways they give back to their communities, their depth of dedication to the causes they serve, and their fearless refusal to accept the status quo. As the old saying goes, Beauty is as beauty does.

2 of 11 Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

For being an ambassador of hope to women and children When supermodel Liya Kebede speaks, she reveals a heart more beautiful than her face, which has graced countless magazine covers and won her a coveted spot as the Estée Lauder cosmetics brand’s first Black spokesmodel.

Last year the World Health Organization named Kebede, 27, its goodwill ambassador for maternal, newborn and child health. Now she is bringing much-needed attention to the plight of millions of African women who, each year, die or are severely injured during childbirth.

Because their access to medical care is limited, they frequently go into labor without receiving the proper care. The cause hit close to home for Kebede, who was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “When you find out that mothers are dying as they’re giving birth, and babies are dying from preventable causes, it’s unacceptable,” says Kebede. “I’m humbled to be in a position to make a difference.” —robin givhan

3 of 11 Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

For giving kids a window to the world North Philly native Jill Scott, 34, wants the children from her old stomping grounds to have even more opportunities than she did growing up. That’s why in 2002 she started the Blues Babe Foundation to provide financial and academic support to lower-income students in the Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, areas. “I see the libraries closing and hear about the community centers that need computers. We just try to help where we can,” Scott says.

Last year, the foundation raised $60,000 to benefit schools like the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Camden. Next up: Scott wants to start a summer camp where kids can experience nature, and she hopes to one day start a school of her own. —w.l.w.

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For GIVING HOPE—AND HOMES—TO KATRINA SURVIVORS When those first disturbing images of a storm-ravaged Gulf Coast hit the news, the talk-show queen said she found herself in the same position as a lot of folks—sitting at home, feeling frustrated and useless. But then she did what the government hasn’t quite done: pledged that she would not forget the evacuees, and mean it. Winfrey, 52, partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build a neighborhood in Houston for 65 families displaced by the hurricane. She even created an online registry so viewers could help furnish the houses being built. In February the first wave of families moved into their new homes. She plans to provide housing for more than 250 families in total and has committed $10 million of her own money to help rebuild Katrina survivors’ lives. “Everybody has to do what they can,” she told CNN. —n.s.

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FOR STANDING BY HER MAN AND BEING HER OWN WOMAN This devoted mother of two young girls, vice-president of community and external affairs for University of Chicago Hospitals, active board member of several organizations, and let’s not forget, leading supporter of her husband, Senator Barack Obama, has got her hands full. But the 42-year-old refuses to accept the crown of superwoman. “I know I can’t do it alone,” Obama insists. Losing her father and a best friend in the same year led the Harvard Law School grad to wrestle with her sense of purpose—and eventually leave her high-paying job at a prestigious Chicago law firm. Obama founded Public Allies Chicago, which urges young people to be active in social issues, and she works with various other programs. “The earlier you realize you can build a career that affects the community, the easier it becomes to shape it.” —n.h.

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For BEING A RESCUE HERO On a bitterly cold night in January 2000, Dana Christmas-McCain, then a senior and resident assistant at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, performed an amazing act of selflessness. As a fire blazed through her dormitory floor, she ran through the hallways to alert her fellow students. In the end, three people died and 62 were hurt. But without her courageous act, the losses could have been even greater. Christmas-McCain, now 28, was left with burns over more than 60 percent of her body, and spent almost two months in an induced coma. Six years and more than 16 corrective surgeries later, her spirit remains indomitable. “I don’t dwell on what happened to me,” she says. “I just had to move forward with my life.” A $10,000 award, the Dana Christmas Scholarship for Heroism, has been established in her honor. —w.l.w.

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For caring about our communities Mayisha Akbar (left), 53, founded the Junior Posse at her Compton compound to teach inner-city kids ages 5 to 18 how to ride and care for horses, along with practical life skills. “Our children don’t value life because there is a disconnect with Mother Nature,” she says. “Being around God’s creatures gives them a different perspective.” Kathy Henderson (middle), 44, fought the drug trade in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood, rallying residents to attend her monthly strategy meetings. When the drug dealers retaliated against her—with death threats, slashed tires and hurled rocks—she stayed the course. Retired Microsoft manager Trish Millines Dziko (right) 48, is working to increase technological literacy among children of color. “Education is our civil-rights issue,” she says. In 1996 she created Seattle’s Technology Access Foundation, an after-school math and technology program that provides college scholarships and internships to participating youth.

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For promoting girl power as the star and producer of the hit Disney show That’s So Raven, the 20-year-old actress and singer is a multimedia mogul. In the game since age 3, she’s recorded three albums, launched a makeup line, and inspired an empire of That’s So Raven merchandise. Between projects, the Atlanta native promotes fitness and diabetes prevention with the American Diabetes Association and disaster preparedness for the American Red Cross. “I want to be recognized not just as a kid star, but as someone who makes a difference,” she says. —c.g

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For EMBRACING HER UNIQUE BEAUTY As an interior designer, Sheila Bridges, 41, has led a highly visible life, producing spaces for such A-listers as former president Bill Clinton. Then in 2004 her dermatologist diagnosed her with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease; she lost all her hair in just over a year. Bridges refused to don irritating wigs to hide her condition. “My self-esteem was not wrapped up in my hair,” she says. Today she’s a passionate advocate, working with the National Alopecia Areata Foundation and organizations like Bold Is Beautiful (boldisbeautiful.com). —w.l.w.

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For BLAZING NEW TRAILS IN MEDICINE As Belize’s first and only female surgeon, Lisa Johnson, M.D., 36, is saving lives every day. The good doctor is a general and vascular surgeon at the Universal Health Services Medical Arts and SurgiCenter, where she has fought to break through the old boys’ network. “I didn’t plan to be some grand savior when I started practicing medicine,” Johnson says. “In Belize, medicine is male-dominated, and changing those boundaries is a slow process.” Rather than get caught up in the drama, Johnson concentrates on taking her expertise to remote areas of the country where they’re needed most, providing free medical services to the poor and underserved. —n.h.

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For daring to speak up for Muslim women Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not the kind of woman you’d think would inspire death threats. But she’s also not the kind to hold her tongue. A Somali native raised in a devout Muslim family, Ali, 36, fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage, and found work as a translator for social-service agencies. There she heard troubling stories from Muslim women enduring abuse at the hands of their husbands, and realized she couldn’t remain quiet about their plight. In 2003 she won a seat in the Dutch parliament and championed measures to protect Muslim women. She even made the short film Submission, which condemns the treatment of women in Islamic societies. Death threats soon followed, and the director of the film was murdered. But she continues to speak out. “We have to be able to examine our religion as a way to embrace that which leads to progress,” she says. —n.s.

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