How One Organization In Washington Is Ensuring The Bright Future Of African-American Women And Their Families
Lisa Helfert

Juanita King has known hard times: addiction, prison, and a diagnosis of HIV. Yet with a helping hand from supporters, the 50-year-old has found the inner strength and perseverance to change the trajectory of her life.

“I am an overcomer,” said the D.C. resident, speaking on Wednesday at the annual leadership luncheon of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation (WAWF). “The definition of the word overcomer is to beat, to defeat, to conquer, and to gain the victory of. And I have done all of that.”

King is a beneficiary of the mission that WAWF has undertaken in the nation’s capital since 1998, mobilizing the community to aid economically vulnerable women and girls in the Washington region.  To date, the group has provided upwards of $11 million in grants to some 170 community-based organizations, many of which work to lift African-American women and their families out of poverty.

King was among the diverse roster of women who shared their stories and gathered for an afternoon of lively entertainment, sisterly networking and fundraising at the Marriott Marquis hotel. By the end of the day, organizers reported nearly $900,000 had been pledged towards the foundation’s programs.  

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Anchorwoman Lesli Foster of WUSA9 in D.C. served as emcee for the yearly gathering, which featured a keynote address from Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Jarrett received an enthusiastic welcome from the audience, comprised of nearly 1,000 women and a smattering of men. She touted the Obama Administration’s initiatives geared towards uplifting women and families—be they babies in day care, victims of sex trafficking, or college co-eds fighting to change incidences of rape on campus.

Invoking the president’s personal experiences via his grandmother– who often trained men in the banking industry but saw them bypass her in the workplace–Jarrett noted that the very first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

The federal legislation makes it easier for women to dispute salaries that pay them less than male counterparts performing the same job.

“Things seem absolutely impossible, until they’re inevitable,” Jarrett said. “With your help, the future of our young girls will be bright. Let’s make that inevitable.”

Last year, the President and First Lady Michelle Obama launched `Let Girls Learn,’ which aims to increase educational opportunities for the estimated 62 million adolescent girls around the world who are not in school. “We’re investing in our young people because we value them,” said Jarrett.

Mobilizing the community to come together around issues of economic security, greater opportunities and racial equality for women and families are core values of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Its strategic plan, Together We Thrive, is designed to create consistent economic stability for women and girls in the D.C. region. Over the next five years, foundation leaders say they will push to quintuple its grant-making and urge the entire community to collectively invest an additional $100 million.

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, president and CEO of WAWF, received a standing ovation for a speech in which she acknowledged her “privilege” as a white woman in America. She made a public pledge to break down the barriers of systemic racism both personally and professionally.

“We’re committed to advancing equity for women and girls of color and tackling racism head on so that we can truly advance our mission and ensure that all women and girls in our community have the opportunity to thrive,” said Lockwood-Shabat.

To that end, the group will be part of a broader collective effort with women’s foundations across the country and join forces with the White House Council on Women and Girls called Prosperity Together.

Moreover, the foundation will launch a Young Women’s Initiative in the coming months. Program officer Storme Gray will lead the effort to push policymakers, business and community leaders and philanthropists to develop and invest in programs that address and eliminate racial and gender disparities that can help lift women out of poverty.

As a first step to launching the Young Women’s Initiative, the foundation has kicked off a listening tour, to hear firsthand from young women and girls about the concerns and challenges they face. 

“I hope people will stand with us as we work together to understand the root causes of inequality in our city, and develop plans, together, to create change,” said  Lockwood-Shabat.

Indeed, Juanita King said the foundation was key to her gaining “the victory over my past.”  Post-incarceration, she received job training from Goodwill Industries of Greater Washington and was hired by Marriott Hotels.

She has earned promotions and now has a viable career in the hospitality industry.

“Today, I can smile again.”

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