Strong Women

MayKao Y. Hang

Refugees are courageous. My mom overcame poverty and cultural and language difficulties. She adjusted to life in Minnesota from Laos. Despite opposition from Hmong elders, she successfully sent all her daughters to college.

At age 5, I saw my mom carrying a 50-pound bag of rice from a bus stop; she was eight months pregnant and it was snowing. During difficult times, I see this image and I can persevere.

Her wisdom? It takes a long time to become a good person, and a moment of weakness to become a bad person. Wealth or poverty has nothing to do with a person’s character. Her views have shaped my own, and her courage inspires me daily.

MayKao Y. Hang is the president and CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of those in the St. Paul and east metro areas.

Nicole M. LaVoi

My mother, Barb LaVoi, is the strongest woman I know. Growing up in the 1950s and pre-Title IX, only my mom’s three brothers were afforded sport participation opportunities and household privilege. I don’t have a memory where I didn’t think of myself as an athlete.

As a forward-thinking young mother during the 1970s women’s rights movement, she wanted to raise a strong, independent, confident daughter. One who would make a difference in the world and had the toughness to do anything and become the woman I wanted to be ― not what society told me to be. She envisioned for to me have opportunities she did not, and she possessed the strength to make it so.

I was among the first wave of girls who benefitted from the passage of Title IX in 1972, played every sport I could, was voted “Most Athletic” in high school and chose to play college tennis at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., where we won the 1990 NCAA Division III Team Championship.

Growing up, before every competition my mom said, “Have fun and do your best!” I would roll my eyes; I only wanted to win. And no matter win or lose, she thought I was the best. I would retort “Oh, Mother!” (and roll my eyes). When I was down, with unwavering positivity she said, “This too shall pass” ― and it always did. When I was uncertain or facing adversity, she instructed me to trust my instincts and told me, “just be yourself.”

The lessons of giving full effort, enjoying what you do, finding your passion, maintaining a positive attitude no matter what and believing in myself in the face of adversity is my foundation. As an adult, my mom still tells me I’m the best, but instead of rolling my eyes, I embrace and appreciate her inner strength, wisdom and unconditional love.

Nicole M. LaVoi is the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Brenda Cassellius

Dr. Carol Johnson taught me what being a great leader means. She believed in my capacity to lead, before I believed in myself. She saw within me qualities that would make me the leader I am today.

When she asked me to be her middle school superintendent in Memphis City Schools, it was in a mess. I was just 35 and had been a school leader for nine years. There were 31 middle schools, and 17 were in such bad shape the state was ready to take them over. Only four were making enough progress to be considered in “good standing.”

Needless to say, I did not feel up to the challenge, but Carol had a way of making me believe that I could do anything.

She gave me a key piece of advice that I take with me every day, and that has made me a better leader: always be humble. Listen deeply to others and their ideas. Validate the importance of your team, and be sure to “feed” their souls daily.

Dr. Johnson helped me grow into the leader I am today and I am so grateful I had such a wonderful role model to emulate. I will forever be grateful for her amazing gift to me. The gift of believing I could, because we all need a little help from time to time in order to see further down the road.

Brenda Cassellius is the Minnesota Commissioner of Education.

Patty Tanji

I thought: “Who is Bonnie Watkins and how did she become so knowledgeable about pay equity?” when I first read about her work on pay equity in an article in the Star Tribune in 2002. I still have the article.

After I reached out, Bonnie revealed to me more about the pay gap between the median wage for men and the median wage for women. On average, women earn about 20 percent less than men regardless of the skill, effort or responsibility level of her job. Bonnie explained to me that if it was women’s work (e.g., clerical, retail, caregiving or teaching), it was paid less than men’s work of comparable work value (e.g., programming, construction or auto repair). She even had the state of Minnesota employee data to prove it!

So when a colleague asked me to testify at the state Legislature the following year, in 2003, on Bonnie’s behalf, how could I say no! With Bonnie’s script in hand, I read her words out loud to a Minnesota House of Representatives local government committee. Almost every year, a state legislator tries to weaken our local government pay equity laws. This despite their success in reducing the gender pay gap in half for public employees.

Bonnie wrote the legislative rules that govern pay equity in Minnesota. All those funny calculations that are made to determine whether a local unit of government meets a certain standard of pay equity or not are the direct result of Bonnie’s hard work in the early 1980s. Back then she was Minnesota’s state pay equity coordinator.

When it comes to pay equity, Bonnie Watkins is the expert and I am honored to call her my mentor.

Patty Tanji is the president of the Pay Equity Coalition of Minnesota, www.womenpayequity.blogspot.com

Robin Phillips

When I was asked to run the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights 20 years ago, it felt like a dream come true. But as I seriously considered the move, I became increasingly nervous about leaving a good job at a large law firm for the relative insecurity of the nonprofit world.

At the time, I was responsible for supporting myself and I had student loan debt. My mother became a widow and single mother of five children when I was a little girl, so I was probably more concerned about security than many young lawyers in my position. I had known from an early age that I wanted to be a lawyer and use my law degree to make the world a better place in whatever way I could. But before moving to a public-interest job, I had envisioned myself in a slightly more secure financial position.

About that time, I had the opportunity to meet with Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death-penalty activist, a Catholic nun and author of the book, “Dead Man Walking.” She asked me about my work. I told her what I was contemplating and explained my concerns. She looked me in the eyes and asked, “Are your motivations pure?”

I was startled by the directness of the question, but certain of my answer. I told her yes, and then she responded, “Well, then you cannot fail, can you!” I took her words to heart and made the leap in my career. I have never questioned my decision.

I will be forever grateful to Sister Helen for helping me see that I should trust my instincts during that moment of insecurity. And I will be forever grateful that I did not pass up the opportunity to pursue my passion for human rights and social justice.

Robin Phillips is the executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights. www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org

Sahra Noor

Dr. Cheryl Robertson is my hero. I met Cheryl in 2005 when I was a student in her immigrant health course at the University of Minnesota. She ultimately became my adviser.

When I decided to travel to Somalia to do primary research for my master’s thesis, Cheryl cheered me on and helped me jump through the hoops I needed to get an Institutional Review Board approval. She thought my research idea was “cool” – a word Cheryl often uses to mean something that is “difficult, but worth the effort.”

The foundation that underpins Cheryl’s work is her belief that we are all a global community of interconnected human beings. She spent over 30 years working in some of the most dangerous places on the planet, including Cambodia, Bosnia, Liberia, Congo and Somalia.

As a former refugee from Somalia, I can attest to how valuable and life-changing her work is – not just to the individuals she helps, but their families and communities as well. Cheryl inspires me to think globally and continue to build connections and relationships that transcend professional boundaries and build trust. She has had a significant influence on my leadership style and public health work.

At a time when humanitarian crises and public health outbreaks are numerous and political, I see bravery and dedication in Cheryl’s response. She is currently in Liberia, responding to the Ebola outbreak and helping to strengthen their public health system, which has been weakened by years of war and civil conflict.

Cheryl is not one to brag, but she is an accomplished educator and researcher, global health nurse, community advocate and a supermom to three amazing children.

Sahra Noor is the chief executive officer at the People’s Center Health Services in Minneapolis. www.peoples-center.org

Sharon Day

My grandmother, Effie Day, was born on the Bois Forte Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota, near Orr, where she lived most of her life.

My grandmother spoke the Ojibwe language. She was the epitome of grace. A tiny, brown-skinned woman who walked with a cane. She never said an unkind word to anyone or about anyone. She was understanding and accepting. She faced many tragedies, but through her faith in our Ojibwe values, she withstood what crossed her path. She raised 10 children and had many, many grandchildren. She told us, “Stay together.” She believed there was safety in numbers. She lost three sons and my grandfather to violence.

As a young woman, my grandmother moved with the seasons. My grandfather built a house in Nett Lake, where they lived in the summer and fall. They fished and harvested wild rice. In the winter, they moved to the west end of the reservation, where game was more plentiful near the jackpine forests. In the spring, they moved to Sugar Bush on Pelican Lake. Here they fished and tapped the maple trees. We were instructed to leave the land better than when we arrived.

I loved my grandmother. When I visited her in the summers, we slept in the same bed. It was warm and cozy tucked into the little room behind curtains hung in the doorway. She had a basin that stood on a washstand in the front room. In the morning, she would get up, wash her face, her hands and her arms, and then pull her night dress down to her waist and wash her breasts and her body. Just like that. She wasn’t ashamed of her body. It was the vessel that held her in this realm. She lived a simple life, in tune with the seasons and the universe. I hope to one day have a little of her grace.

Sharon M. Day is the executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force. She is an artist and activist.

Shá Cage

Regina Marie Williams has a 30-year musical theater background. Although born and raised in Los Angeles, she claims Minneapolis as home. She is a fiery spirit of grit and sweat mixed with talent and sexiness. And if that isn’t enough, her spirit of kindness and most genuine nature lures you in.

Growing into one’s shoes in this community can be a rocky journey for women of color, but a mighty mentor like Regina serves as a reminder that we can be powerful, re-inventive and versatile beyond our wildest imaginations. I’ve watched her grace and stride from afar for years with awe. On several occasions, I received advice and words of wisdom beginning with “Girlllll.”

While I prepared for the role of Josephine in Mixed Blood Theatre’s “Ruined” and tried to make authentic decisions about twisting my hair, Regina told me, “Shá, regardless of what choices we make, we can still be our beautiful selves.” The translation was, “Now you can twist your hair in country twists, but don’t make yourself look beat down and crazy.” That spoke volumes to me. As stage artists who often put things on and take things off, it is essential that the essence of ourselves remains visible.

Regina’s performances are bold and stunning. Most memorable are her roles in “Daughters of Africa” and “Ruined” at Mixed Blood, “Louie & Ophelia” at Penumbra Theatre Company, a starring role as Dinah Washington in “Dinah Was,” and recent performances at the Guthrie Theater in “Othello” and as Lady Capulet in Ten Thousand Things’ “Romeo and Juliet.”

Her stamina, chameleon abilities and kindness make her a true Twin Cities gem. Like many others, I’m happy to have inherited her so many years ago from Los Angeles!

Shá Cage is an actor, writer, curator and creator of new work. She is co-founder of Mama Mosaic Theater for women and the Million Artist Movement.