Uniting Communities — Women of Color Empowered share memories of inclusion

By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly

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From left to right: Jane Nishita, Manuelita Ybarra, Nikki Gane, Yoshiko Harden, Michelle Nitz-Weiss, Natasha Burrows, Ellen Ferguson, Sharon Parker, Debbie Bird, Pearl Leung, and Vivian Lee. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

“I didn’t know I was breaking down barriers. I didn’t know I was creating new paths,” said Dr. Sharon Parker, the Assistant Chancellor for Equity and Diversity of the University of Washington at Tacoma. “All I could see was that there were women called minority women, and they had no voice.”

Parker and the 10 other honorees are bridge builders, people who work to unite communities and to create a more inclusive society. They were honored for their work at the tri-annual Women of Color Empowered luncheon hosted at the New Hong Kong Restaurant on Thursday, Jan. 31. The luncheon was hosted by Natasha Burrows of Highline Community College and honored Carmen Aguiar, Debbie Bird, Ellen Ferguson, Vivian Lee, Pearl Leung, Jane Nishita, Nikki Gane, Yoshiko Harden, Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, Washington Women in Need, Sharon Parker, and Manuelita Ybarra.

Their endeavors have brought people together, creating a more inclusive and friendlier Seattle.

Bridges across time

Many of the bridge builders honored Thursday had drawn strength from their past.

Yoshiko Harden, the Vice President of Diversity in the Office of Equity and Pluralism at Bellevue College was inspired by the sacrifices of her grandmother.

“I just want to share some things,” Yoshiko Harden said. “The first one is the first bridge builder in my life: my grandmother. She left school in the 3rd grade to become a sharecropper. She spent the last 50 years of her life working as a maid in the homes of affluent families, but she always told me to go to school, to get my education. I thought of her when my daughter entered third grade — this is when grandma stopped going to school.”

With her grandmother’s words in mind, Harden co-developed a parents of color group at the Seattle Girls’ School, which her 11-year-old daughter Leila attends. The group provides support for parents of color, helping them build a community, and support to better integrate into the “SGS” parent experience.

Bride building is also a personal experience for Nikki Gane, who is the founder of Dignity for Divas, an organization that provides basic hygiene items to homeless women.

She founded the organization after leaving a difficult marriage in 2006 and finding herself 3,000 miles away from any family or support. Eventually, she moved to Seattle and got her life back on track, but she never forgot the difficulties she faced and vowed to support any woman in a similar position.

Others found the inspiration to build bridges from experiences in their youth.

“My first time coming to a Women of Color event was about nine years ago,” said Pearl Leung, community relations manager at Vulcan, Inc. “It was so eye opening in my early 20’s seeing all the dynamic women in the room. It was just inspiring.”

Pearl would go on to leave Seattle to pursue a Master’s in Urban Planning, but would eventually return to the Pacific Northwest.

Building community

If there is one thing that is most important to bridge builders, it is inclusion. Builders foster inclusion, recognizing the talent and worth of all communities.

As a program analyst for the Women’s Bureau, Manuelita Ybarra has been a driving force in coordinating Department of Labor events in the Northwest, focusing on older workers. Her work on “Workplace Flexibility” is an ongoing effort to promote and improve business practices and policies that provide a better work–life balance and work place flexibility.

Carmen Aguiar, CEO of the Aguiar group, has seen both sides of inclusion.

“I was able to start my business because of the community I was involved with,” she said. “I moved from New York 23 years ago and knew no one. I became involved in the state society of CPAs and it was through those efforts that colleagues gave me referrals to grow my practice.”

Like Aguiar, Ellen Ferguson of the Burke Museum has seen the benefits of bridge building, and has tried to give back as much as she can.

“It was the Wing that invited me into this community over 35 years ago,” Ferguson said.

In the 35 years since, she has become a part of the community, serving on the Wing board of directors and earning the title of “museum lady” for her work at the Children’s Hospital. However, she still has more to give back.

She continued, “I could never give as much as I have received.” (end)

Charles Lam can be reached at charles@nwasianweekly.com.

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