By Michael Romain
SATURDAY, HILLSIDE — “This is your life. What are you going to do with it?”
Jacqueline Barnes, the founder and president of Seed of Hope Foundation, stood in front of a ballroom of more than fifty women and girls gathered at the organization’s annual Manifesting the Dream Conference at the Hillside Best Western. She was wearing a t-shirt that was fashionably ripped at the sleeves and open at the back.
A few moments earlier, the young women streamed into the ballroom by way of a red carpet experience, replete with interview questions and photo requests. Some stopped by a table opposite the red carpet to get their own t-shirts purposely cut into strips at the hems, ripped at the sleeves, gorgeously tattered—glamorously imperfected—by Seed of Hope’s resident Hope Girls, a small coterie of young women who are enrolled in the organization’s growth and development workshops. The graphic on the front of the shirts featured a silhouetted woman posing above a playful, pink-colored rendering of what would become a constant refrain—ok2b.
“It’s Okay!” Ariane Arlie, one of the event’s facilitators, shouted with anticipation into the microphone.
“To be!” the young women responded enthusiastically.
The exchange was of a piece with a message Mrs. Barnes and her daughter, Gwendolyn Young, have been spreading for five years since starting Seed of Hope in the basement of Mrs. Barnes’s Westchester home.
“It’s always been my mom’s vision to empower women,” Mrs. Young, the organization’s executive director, said in an interview conducted weeks before the conference. “She always wanted to found a program geared toward young women. She saw that I had a special ability to relate to them, so she got me involved. Initially we began focusing on entrepreneurial skills, but to get to that piece, there were so many things [such as self-esteem and emotional health] to address first.
“So that’s where the OK2B factor came into play. We want young women to know that they are perfectly made and unique and there’s no need for them to be anybody else. It’s okay to be you—whether that’s nerdy or different or whatever it is. It is okay to be.”
On the red carpet, the young women, whose ages ranged from 12-18, spotlighted a diversity of ethnicities, cultures, personal backgrounds and organizations. They came from all over Chicago and the Proviso Township area, including Maywood.
Marsha Ballenger had come representing an organization her daughter, Crystal Ballenger founded in 2010. “Hey G.U.R.A.L. stands for Girls Under Reconstruction Accomplishing Life,” said the younger Ms. Ballenger, who started the program in Maywood after a series of personal experiences and realizing that other girls needed help in the area of growth and development.
Hey G.U.R.A.L. has since expanded to offer a variety of services, such as fine arts workshops, an internet life show and various awareness initiatives to girls ages 11-18 from Maywood, Bellwood and Chicago’s West Side.
SuVondal Ellery was an adult volunteer at the conference whose niece also attended. Ms. Ellery said her niece is a darker-skinned girl, implying that the latter is intimate with some of the many emotional and social complexities surrounding pigmentation. “I hope my niece knows its okay to be herself,” she said.
Kai Douglas has been a fixture at Seed of Hope events ever since she and her sister-in-law, Kai Douglas, took advantage of the organization’s mentoring services. In part due to Mrs. Young’s and Mrs. Barnes’s guidance, the two developed Vixen Styles Studio, their own online clothing and accessories boutique.
Estefanio Madrigal attended the conference with Las Caras Lindas, an organization that, according to its youth director, Lisba Romo-Martinez, helps “young women define themselves as women” through leadership development programs.
Ms. Madrigal, a freshman at Harold Washington College with aspirations of going into politics, said she wishes that other young women would become politically active.
“I just want to be a leader in the Latino community, especially on the issue of immigration.”
After Mrs. Barnes’s and Mrs. Youngs’s introductory comments; Ms. Arlie’s motivational chant; and uplifting entertainment from the Proviso Interpretive Praise (PIP) Dance Team, Dr. Tanesha D.H. Pittman delivered a keynote address that merged the painful and the possible. Dr. Pittman is an ordained minister and internationally recognized speaker.
In 2011, she developed a Master of Science in Leadership degree program specifically for women, the first of its kind in the country. She’s spoken for the Federal Bank of Chicago, the Oxford Roundtable at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England and the Solid Rock Church in Kenya, among many other entities. But twenty years ago, she was a single mother working at a Mars Candy factory, pulling 12-hour swing shifts.
“I ended up pregnant at 18 during my first year of college […] My mother told me I should have an abortion and that I’d never be anything,” she said in her address. Her mother’s words added fuel to her drive to succeed.
“I had to be a role model for my daughter, who is now a junior at Oral Roberts University. I finished high school as a teen mother, but I did what I had to do,” she said. With the help of grants and other funding, she blazed her way through the University of Illinois at Chicago, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications, before earning an MBA and eventually a doctorate in Higher Education and Organizational Change.
Dr. Pittman urged the young women to identify something that angers them and leverage that anger into positive action. “What makes you mad?” she asked the crowd, before one young woman, who looked about thirteen, stood up and answered.
“The Trayvon Martin case,” said Star Lewis.
“Why does that make you mad?” Dr. Pittman asked.
“Because they didn’t have to shoot him in the heart,” Ms. Lewis said.
“What can you do? You can take a stand!” said Dr. Pittman. “The stand I was able to take as a woman of courage was to establish an Institute of Global Leadership.” Dr. Pittman said she was angry at women’s portrayal in the media and in the culture, in general.
“I charge each of you to make certain that you authentically love one another; that love is in the soil of your heart,” Dr. Pittman said, before Ebony Archer, an inspirational soloist, recited an original poem and sang a song from her first EP, “The Breakthrough.”
“I’m tired of seeing Hispanic and African American people come into the hospital and they’re doomed,” said Felicia Houston, a community relations specialist for Ingalls Behavioral Healthcare and a systems administrator with the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago. She was speaking in front of a room of about twelve girls during one of the three breakout sessions that were facilitated by Mrs. Houston, Mrs. Barnes and Linda Cole, a professional development expert.
Mrs. Houston had distributed pink handouts to the roomful of young women. “If adolescent girls felt as physically attractive and generally good about themselves as boys their age do, they would not experience so much depression. T or F,” read one query. (The answer is ‘T’—true).
As Mrs. Houston polled the room for the young women’s opinions on each query, she discovered that many had entered the session with some mistaken notions about what exactly depression is and how it affects individuals and families, especially adolescent and teenage girls. This general lack of understanding about depression might be the result of the relative silence—and taboo avoidance—with which the subject is accompanied in many minority households.
“I was doing an event at one place and a lady approached and said, ‘My son needs help—he’s been carrying around a dead cat in his book bag,’” Mrs. Houston said. “So I began assessing the situation, asking the woman questions like, ‘Did he kill the cat? Did you smell the dead cat? Has he been acting strange lately.’ [It turned out] that the woman didn’t ask any of these questions.”
Minority households, Mrs. Houston explained, tend to perceive depression and its ancillary issues, such as suicide and anxiety, as personal or spiritual failings, instead of dynamic conditions brought on by a complex amalgam of environmental, behavioral and psychological factors.
It’s that common misconception that she hopes to change through her community advocacy. “Depression is not your fault. It does Not mean that you are weak or lazy,” read another query on the handout. “It means that you need help. T or F.” For any girl who answered false, there was a contact number for Ingalls Behavioral Health Services printed in bold on the bottom margins.
In an adjacent room, Linda Cole, president and CEO of Linda A. Cole & Associates (LACA), was playing a Mary J. Blige music video on a projector. “No time for moping around, are you kidding? / And no time for negative vibes ‘cause I’m winning.” Blige’s lyrics punctuated Mrs. Cole’s theme of maintaining self-esteem in the corporate workplace. Mrs. Cole, who began her company in 2004, is an expert in business etiquette, goal setting and self-esteem enhancement.
“Looking at me now, would you think I was abused at six years old?” Mrs. Cole asked the room of young women. “But I was,” she said, in a moment that brought home this event’s purpose, which is an outgrowth of the lives of its creators.
Each segment of the day’s event seemed to comprise a partition in the mission of Seed of Hope’s mother-daughter duo, Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Young. The pair has managed to sustain an effective working relationship by having clearly defined roles. If Mrs. Barnes, who’s also an ordained minister, certified life coach and self-published author, is the soul of their growing motivational machine; her daughter, herself a published author on the cusp of obtaining an MBA in Organizational Leadership, is the axle.
While the mother, as the founder and president of Seed of Hope, directs the programming and provides the organization’s mission with its general contour; the daughter manages and operates the growing nonprofit’s day-to-day affairs and guides its overall strategy.
The pair’s dynamism, however, was never a given; rather, it’s the result of years of sweat equity each woman put into healing a relationship that, due to layers of accumulated emotional scarring, was once nearly in tatters.
“I know what’s it like to grow up in an abusive home and to live in a mixed family,” said Mrs. Young, in reference to a past that, instead of hiding or abandoning it, she and her mother keep on display to use as tools for learning. Perceived this way, the purposely torn and tattered t-shirts, the red carpet, the conference motto—all take on much greater significance. Everyone is broken in her own way; indeed, the breaking is part of the beauty of life. There’s no growth without it. So don’t fight your scars, flaunt them. It’s okay to be. VFP