A Day of Inspiration: Hundreds Attend Girls Leadership Summit
Tuesday, October 9, 2012 • 7:41am
PATERSON, NJ – Madeline Gonzalez sometimes worries about her 13-year-old daughter growing up in Paterson. A life-long city resident, Gonzalez has no illusions about the dangers of the city’s streets.
So when Gonzalez heard about a school event designed to inspire Paterson girls with positive role models and workshops to put them toward the path to success, she was immediately on board.
Gonzalez and her daughter, Ashley, were among hundreds of Patersonians who attended Saturday’s second annual Valerie M. Dade Girls Leadership Summit at International High School. The auditorium bustled with energy, motivation and passion befitting a day of inspiration and empowerment. From grades five to 12, ladies of all colors, sizes and backgrounds learned they each had the strength to overcome the challenges of being a young woman in an urban world.
The Girls Leadership Summit came about as an outgrowth of the Boys Leadership Summit held last April. Named in the honor of the late Valerie M. Dade, a longtime educator and community leader in Paterson, City Schools Commissioner Kenneth Simmons presented the Girls Leadership Summit for the first time last year.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly emphasized that the ladies must demonstrate self-respect. He described all of them as jewels, princesses and queens – praise that elicited much cheering and smiles.
Mayor Jeffery Jones also appeared proudly wearing his college fraternity jacket, which served as a symbol of how as a black male, he completed college and returned to his community to make a difference. The mayor said the girls sitting before him were the city’s next leaders.
“You ladies represent all the possibilities,” said Jones. “I just want to share with you, as a Patersonian, how much I am waiting for you all to be the next step.”
Motivational speaker Yvonne Harvey Williams told the girls that those who try to dim their shine with negativity need to put on a pair of shades and deal with their greatness.
“You don’t digress for anybody and if they are envious of you, guess what – when you get to where you need to be, they will become your biggest fans,” said Williams. “Don’t be jealous of anyone else because you’re not a carbon copy. You didn’t come to fit in, you came to take over.”
But the woman in the glittering sky-high heels and crisp Kelly green pantsuit who stood before in the auditorium did not always shine. Like the girls, she was born and raised in Paterson. She said she developed insecurities and emotional problems that plague female "tweens," preteens and teenagers today.
The room became silent as Williams described the tribulations of her life: becoming an alcoholic, being promiscuous, suffering a miscarriage and waking up every day wanting to die, all by the tender age of 14.
She described her childhood home as a “crack house,” often finding her step-father injecting heroin into his arm in the kitchen. That same man would beat her so much her jeans would stick to her legs due to missing skin and blood scabs.
She described the pain of rejection of never knowing her father, who failed at being her “knight in shining armor,” until she was 17 and already a mother.
As Williams continued to recount her sorrows, voices in low tones could be heard murmuring in agreement, shock or empathy.
“That is not your destiny and that is not your lifestyle. As powerful young ladies, we are full of sustenance and we were created to build businesses, to be entrepreneurs and to lead office,” said Williams.
Which is why she made the decision to get her life together, she said. By age 24, she was debt free and became the youngest senior training recruiting manager at the “New York Times.” She is now the author of five books, owns her own clothing line and has claimed the title as the No. 1 motivational speaker in America for eight consecutive years.
Williams’ story of her journey to success ended with a standing ovation. The thunder of clapping and hoots, hollers and whistles went on for several seconds.
“It inspired me to be a good person and respect my parents more,” said Genai Veal, 11. She also said the summit inspired her to “respect God a lot more and go to church more often.”
Her mother, Genea Veal, 39, described the summit as “excellent” and that it “enlightens the girls and makes sure they shine and preserve their dreams.” Veal has been a Patersonian all her life and said she has seen the difficulties single parents face raising children in that particular environment.
Veal added that she identified with having low self-esteem due to being known as the “brown skinned girl with the long hair” in school. However instead of resorting to negative behavior, Veal joined programs similar to the Girls Leadership Summit.
Two 12-year-olds and one 13-year-old, who all sat next to each other in the auditorium, praised Williams’ speech and agreed that it showed they could overcome the challenges of growing up in Paterson and have great opportunities. (PatersonPress.com is not using the names of these three girls because their guardians were not present at the time of the interviews.)
One of the girls said recently, she had experienced a “betrayal” from a girl who she thought was her friend, but that listening to Williams made her “feel better” and “want to do her best to overcome some of the things” that have put her down.
When asked what kind of challenges they face daily, one of the girls cited “living around drugs,” but emphasized she wouldn’t let that get in the way of her dream to become a lawyer.
Patersonian mother Cherry Gooden described the presentation as “awesome,” and said that as a parent she also learned from Williams.
“It’s tougher these days growing up in Paterson, kids are having sex at a younger age and kids are succumbing to peer pressure to prove things to their friends,” she said. Her teenage daughter couldn’t make the summit due to SAT testing, but her other daughter, 10-year-old Shiann was by her side.
When asked if she was inspired by the presentation, Shiann shrugged her shoulders, smiled and shyly replied with a “yeah.”
Not everyone in the crowd was a parent or child. Some folks came simply because they wanted to give back to their hometown community.
Danielle Armstrong, 34, grew up in Paterson and lived in the city for 30 years. With a Bachelor degree in education and a Master’s degree in administration, Armstrong came to the summit because she too wants to teach people, be a leader and “light the fire again” with similar inspiring programs. Armstrong aims to use her education and passion for education to inspire girls.
As the summit came to an end, Paterson seemed to become increasingly brighter as girls of all ages exited the school – embracing their shine—and letting their light freely spill out onto the city’s streets.