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Sisters Who Give Back to Move Us Forward

Sisters who are shaping the world

Just call them the A-list—the activists, advocates and articulators of noble causes, ideals and goals. While some complain about what’s wrong in the world, our A-listers believe that each of us has the passion and the power to make things right. Committed, driven and focused, they seek cures for illness, create housing, remind us where we came from, and work to secure a more promising future. Through protest signs and songs, legal challenges and medical breakthroughs, these women—ages 21 to 71, from London to Seattle, Toronto to Trinidad—put themselves on the line to change the world.’

College Presidents
Educating the next generation of leaders
Perhaps no group of women is charged with greater responsibility for our race than the African-American women heading 29 of this country’s 105 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). While HBCUs make up only 2.5 percent of all schools of higher education, they enroll 263,000 undergraduate and 36,000 graduate students each year, and bestow 21 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans. In July, nine of these “sister presidents” gathered with their male peers to discuss the challenges facing them and their institutions at the annual National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education seminar in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “College presidents have the opportunity to affect how people think,” explains Thelma B. Thompson, president of the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. “That’s an awesome responsibility.”

Credit: Bill Phelps
Cheryl L. Dorsey

Cheryl l. Dorsey, M.D.
Sowing seed money to harvest social change
Distressed by the infant-mortality problem gripping poor Boston neighborhoods, Cheryl L. Dorsey, who was studying public-health policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, used a four-year fellowship to tackle the issue by starting a mobile medical center. On Martin Luther King’s birthday in 1992, she and a medical team began traveling on what was dubbed the Family Van to communities most affected. Still in operation, the van serves more than 7,000 annually.

In 2002, Dorsey, a Harvard-trained pediatrician, was tapped to head Echoing Green—the same social-venture fund where she’d been a fellow and gotten the seed money for her mobile clinic. Says Dorsey, 42, “Echoing Green is an incredible community of social entrepreneurism.”

Credit: Don Chambers
Wendy Fitzwilliam

Wendy Fitzwilliam
Championing Caribbean children orphaned by HIV/aids
Former Miss Universe Wendy Fitzwilliam has put her popularity to work as an outspoken advocate for people in the Caribbean living with HIV/AIDS. While competing in the Miss Trinidad and Tobago pageant in 1997, she visited the Cyril Ross Nursery, which cares for children living with the disease, and it touched her heart.

Fitzwilliam went on to become Miss Universe but gave up her title in 1999 to found The Hibiscus Foundation, a nonprofit that has raised millions of dollars for other organizations that care for HIV-positive kids. Now a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund, Fitzwilliam, 32, hasn’t forgotten the institution that inspired her activism: With her help, in September the Cyril Ross Nursery will begin an expansion plan to treat more children.

“These kids are a part of my life. I am very aware of their struggle, and I’m in it for the long haul.”

Credit: Bill Phelps
Monifa Akinwole Bandele

Monifa Akinwole Bandele
Policing the police to ensure civil rights
The daughter of an ex–Black Panther, Monifa Akinwole Bandele, 34, was born to be an activist. As national field director of the Right to Vote Campaign, she works to restore voting rights for those who’ve served time for felonies. Feeling it was time for her generation to become active, Bandele was a founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).

The 1999 shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo propelled MXGM to create a community patrol, Cop Watch. With a coalition of other groups, MXGM filed a lawsuit against the NYC Police Department that resulted in the disbanding of its Street Crimes unit last year. A 2004 recipient of the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award, Bandele has launched a new effort: petitioning the Justice Department to remove Assata Shakur from the Domestic Terrorist Watch List.

“You don’t have to be in a human-rights organization, but you should be active in the areas that affect you, your family and your community.”

Credit: Bill Phelps
Sheena Wright

Sheena Wright
Renovating Harlem block by block
Trading in her high-priced lawyer’s digs for an uptown office in Harlem suits attorney and activist Sheena Wright just fine. When Wright, now 35, was asked to take over the community-development not-for-profit Abyssinian Development Corp. (ADC), she saw a chance to give back to the community where she was raised.

With a staff of 100 and assets of more than $70 million, ADC is helping change Harlem block by block. Wright’s conviction comes, she explains, “because I grew up with a mother who said that our lives were about service. ”

In her three years as CEO, Wright has completed construction of the first new high school in Harlem in 50 years, the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change. Next she’ll oversee the development of 300 housing units for people with a diverse range of income, and hopes to ready another 100 townhomes.

To read the entire article “Making Change: 25 Sisters Who Give Back to Move Us Forward,” pick up the October issue of ESSENCE.