Empowered women of color overcome challenges and trauma, create positive change in world

By Elizabeth Wang
Northwest Asian Weekly

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From left: Blanca Santander, emcee Mary Knell, Mary Devlin, Valerie Segrest, Susan G. Komen Foundation representative Cheryl Shaw, Bookda Gheisar, Jerilyn Brusseau, Pamela Banks, Carol Simmons, Martha Yallup, Winona Hollins Hague, Tammy Pitre, Anne Levinson, and Stella Leong. Not pictured: Yasmin Chirstopher (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

Thirteen women and the Susan G. Komen Foundation were honored for transforming their traumas into triumphs at a May 17 luncheon at the New Hong Kong Restaurant as part of the Women of Color Empowered program.

Courage was the common theme among the honorees, each having struggled and overcome individual challenges.

Fighting stereotypes

Pamela Banks, CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, and Bookda Gheisar, executive director of Global Washington, both took the stage accompanied by a series of different minority identities.

Banks prided herself on being a “Black and Asian woman,” while Gheisar announced herself as a “lesbian,” “immigrant,” and “Iranian.”

Though both have been judged by their labels, neither have let their labels affect their goal of reforming social justice in Washington.

Growing up in Portland, Banks said her surroundings were mainly Black and white. There weren’t many mixed-race people like her.

One day, Banks accompanied her sister to high school as part of one of the first classes that were bused to the school.

“It was the first time we were ever called ‘the N-word.’ We were called half breeds. We were called all these things,” she said.

But once she came to Seattle to study at the University of Washington, she knew she found a new home without judgment. She saw biracial people: Asian and Black, Filipino and Black, and others.

“It made me feel very comfortable, which is one of the reasons why I chose to stay here,” said Banks.

Now, as the CEO of Urban League, Banks has settled in even more. In less than one year as CEO, she has helped prevent 1,500 people from losing their homes and has helped set up educational classes on expungement proceedings and sealing criminal records for people of color. Making an impact on the community and creating change is what keeps her motivated and gives her the courage to continue her work with the Urban League.

“I always look at challenges as an opportunity, and I’ve done that because I think of our cultural heritage and really just reflected on how fortunate I am to be a first-generation college graduate, and I know that propelled me,” Banks said.

Gheisar has used her perspective as an ethnic minority to better understand the context of the world around her and to  clarify how to handle socially unjust situations.

“I think that my own identity is the lens I wear as I look into the world,” she said. “I think once you have been through a lot of struggle, you have a lot of compassion in life and you relate to struggle and understand it more deeply. To me, that’s really the core of the analysis that’s helped me to understand racism and fight racism.”

Gheisar draws her courage from her mother and daughters. Her mother had always encouraged her not to aspire to marry a doctor, but to be the doctor, to take charge of her life without counting on dependency for others. Her daughters, because they are still young, have an ability to be fearless, she said. They teach her to be more courageous and to try new things.

Through their inspiration, she has been able to lead many social justice organizations. Before joining Global Washington in 2008, Gheisar was the executive director of the Social Justice Fund, which addresses the root causes of social inequities. Before that, she was a part of the Cross Cultural Health Care Program, ensuring undeserved communities full access to culturally and linguistically appropriate, quality health care.

“Social change is not one step. It’s not one day. It’s a long, long, long, long struggle. And we’re all a part of it,” Gheisar said. “It’s like little stones we put on top of each other. I am and you are and all of these women are. So what I think it means to me today is that I am a part of change and all these women here today are part of change. It’s an acknowledgement of our movement building forward toward equity and equality.”

Anne Levinson echoed the same sentiment, saying that if one could collaborate, that’s good, but if one couldn’t that they shouldn’t stand in the way.

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Over 200 people attended the event, which was held at the New Hong Kong Restaurant. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

Finding strength through family

Stella Leong thought were life was going well. Her children were grown, work was fine, she could relax. That was, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But, through the support of her family who brought her meals every day, she found strength to fight.

Jerilyn Brusseau’s story is similar.

Brusseau lost her brother during the Vietnam War. He was only four weeks into his service as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot when he was shot down and killed. Devastated, Brusseau knew her loss wasn’t the only one felt by victims of the war. While thousands of American families suffered grief and deaths, thousands of families in Vietnam were also going through similar pain.

So in 1995, she and her late husband co-founded PeaceTrees Vietnam, a nonprofit organization that hosts programs in Vietnam to educate the population about unexploded ordnance and reforest areas devastated by the war.

“[We were] always working to melt down the image of the enemy,” she said.

Knowing when to speak up and when to back down

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From left: Co-chairs Carol Cheung and Elizabeth Younger with emcee Mary Knell (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

Spending several years on a farm in America at the age of 4 did not seem out of the ordinary to Bangladesh-native Yasmin Christopher.

It was not until she was much older that she realized what had been done to her and her family.

“When I was growing up, I never really felt like I was struggling,” Christopher said. “I just knew that there were things going on. … When I felt like I had something to compare it to, I didn’t really know that I was struggling.”

For many years, the story of her family and how her father had abused them during their time on the farm remained untold. Her father had paid many relatives nothing, fed them very little, and sexually abused some of the children and beat the adults.

Though Christopher said her father was never convicted of human trafficking, he was sentenced to four years in prison, serving only 18 months. He is currently in Eastern Washington in poor health and suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

“A part of me does get a little bit of satisfaction that, as his daughter, I was able to own the story and try to make amends a little bit for him while he was still alive,” Christopher said.

Recently completing her second year at Seattle University School of Law, Christopher, now 29, had to think twice before revealing her childhood. One of her biggest concerns with coming out with the story was the fear that she would be rejected from the community, which might think she only got to where she is today because of her tragic past.

“Especially as a woman of color in law school, there’s sort of a diversity resentment almost,” she said.
But once her story was out, she said she felt “empowered and even relieved.” Currently, she is spending her time studying the issues, processes, and foundation of immigration laws, as well as involving herself with OneAmerica and Refugee Women’s Alliance, both nonprofit organizations dedicated to working with immigrant communities.

“Everybody comes to terms with their own story and I just had to realize that,” Christopher said. “He’s my dad and I believed in the work that I do and if calling myself out is what it takes … It is what it is. I find it such an honor that people think that the work I’m doing now is worthy of recognition. I’m sort of speechless. ”

Other honorees included Mary Devlin, Anne Levinson, Blanca Santander, Tammy Pitre, Carol Simmons, Winona Hollins Hauge, Martha Yallup, and Valerie Segrest. (end)

For more information about the Women of Color program and to read the stories of the other honorees, visit www.womenofcolorempowered.com.

Elizabeth Wang can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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