Women in Virginia are making history every day
March is Women’s History Month! This observance is a time to reflect on the accomplishments of women all around the world as well as recognize the women making history today. These Virginians are just some of the women in the commonwealth using their talents to make a difference in their world. More inspiring stories on Virginians are available on Instagram @myVPM.
Amanda Eaddy Oliver, founder of BrandNew
I will never forget BrandNew’s 2016 Books Before Boys Pajama Jam. During that event, I saw my mission come to life. I watched a girl who was shy and uncertain about being around girls she didn’t know how to be fully supported, loved on, and encouraged. No one ridiculed her for being emotional and scared. The other teen girl mentors were compassionate and present for her. By the end of the first night, she was participating and laughing. That weekend, I watched girls from all different neighborhoods and schools prove that positive female relationships were possible. That we do get along. That our differences aren’t obstacles. It was the ultimate girl-power experience.”
Ryan Kress, Former Ms. Wheelchair VA winner
I went out for the Ms. Wheelchair VA title on a whim! A photographer friend reached out to me and let me know the competition was being held in my area and encouraged me to go out for the title. At first, I looked at him like he had three heads! I said to him, “Half my head is shaved, I’m covered in tattoos, and I curse like a sailor; do I look like pageant material to you?!” Luckily, he then explained to me that the MWVA is an advocacy-based program. Contestants are judged on their public speaking abilities, interview questions, and ability to develop and speak on a platform that, if crowned, she would then use as the basis for her advocacy work for the rest of the year as a titleholder. I had only been using a wheelchair full time for a little over a year at the time of the competition. I remember being TERRIFIED. I was convinced that I wasn’t “disabled enough” or that I didn’t have enough experience in the world of disability advocacy. But I decided to go for it! What did I have to lose after all? I am so thankful that I decided to make the jump and go for it.
My crowning brought SO many opportunities to my little platform. As the year progressed and COVID-19 was introduced to our lives, I realized just how important my occupation as a registered nurse really is, now more than ever. I hear from my patients time and time again how much they love having a nurse in a wheelchair because I’ve been in their shoes. So I turned my focus to increasing the number of disabled individuals working in healthcare. I was even recently named to the National Organization for Nurses with Disabilities as their social media chair. We are working to do away with the stigmas that revolve around hiring nurses and other healthcare professionals with disabilities. We have so much life experience to bring to our practice, and it’s my goal to show through education and demonstration that disabled individuals can and should help shape the future of healthcare.
Shantelle L. Brown, Pharm. D., Owner and Operator of HOPE Pharmacy, Inc. in the Market on 25th
I believe that I am the first modern African American female to own and operate a pharmacy in the city of Richmond. My pharmacy is called HOPE. HOPE is an acronym for Helping Others Physically Prosper Every day. It is a name that transcends all races, cultures, and genders; a name that brings promise to a community in need of inspiration. The journey of opening Hope Pharmacy in The Market on 25th has been filled with an abundance of blessings. My husband and I have three children, two of which are girls. Hope Pharmacy is my legacy to my girls, my nieces, and all young girls of color who dream.
Aditi Wardhan Singh, Founder of Raising World Children
The more diverse content we consume mindfully, the more self-aware we can be. Even where one’s own culture and heritage is concerned, I believe that the more we understand world cultures and views, the more appreciation we develop for parts of our own identity.
I have created six books so far. And I have seen each book impact people in different ways.
The messages I get from around the world about how the mindful parenting moments I have brought attention to are always nice. The most heartwarming are often the stories of parents, whose children have undergone bullying at school regarding skin color or height. They see the characters who look like them, having faced similar situations, who feel a little better about facing the world. One such amazing moment was when a mother wrote to me saying how happy her child was to have an answer to when another child calls him the color of poop.
As much as I hated to learn that a child would say that to another, it was a humble moment to have created a resource that would fight racism at a level where every child could answer to such thoughtless comments and blind hatred.
Yes, books can be for fun, but I want my books to provide answers to questions we all ask ourselves.
From our conception in 2017, every blog post, caption, and book created caters to raising mindfulness around culture and self to help people discover themselves beyond labels by reading WITH children.
Angela Patton, CEO of Girls for a Change
I’ve been fighting to do this hard work long before the #BlackGirlMagic and #MeToo movements started. I was always put in my place for trying to run programs that were focused on black girls. I was told it was racist and that I couldn’t run programs for just girls. I was also told I needed to get a white woman on board to convince people with money and resources that a black woman should be leading this movement--especially in Richmond.
I stayed in it though, because I kept seeing the gaps. Although we have a long way to go, we’re at the level now where I feel like those acknowledgments have put us in front of people who have the power and skills to support our girls. They can help us open more doors. To be in the room with people who have resources and to be invited to the White House to receive President @BarackObama’s Champion of Change Award after 15 years of sacrifice was amazing. It meant that someone saw my girls and my initiatives and really understood why it is so important.
Jess Burgess, Executive Director of Dogtown Dance Theatre
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at JMU undergrad, I was in a really bad car accident. Doctors weren't even sure if I'd be able to walk again, much less dance. I was determined to prove them all wrong and find a way to still make dance a part of my life, even after my whole upper body was rebuilt with titanium. All dancers struggle with injuries, but most don't break all of the bones in their body at once. I had to re-evaluate what my life meant as a dancer. I jumped into arts administration immediately after moving to Richmond, knowing that learning the intricacies of arts nonprofit work would somehow allow me to remain relevant in the industry. Everything I've built at Dogtown Dance Theatre is a direct result of my coming to Richmond as an independent (and physically disabled) dance artist. I wanted to build a space where dancers can create their work and thrive and because I am creating that environment, I will ALWAYS be a dancer, even when the metal in my body forces me to physically stop dancing. Every day is a gift. And even when days are hard, I've already beaten my hardest day. I am a walking miracle and every day, dance is the thing that keeps me alive.
Taylor Scott, Founder of RVA Community Fridges
I was probably about six when Katrina happened. I remember the day before when my parents were like, “Okay, we're actually going to evacuate.” We stayed in some hotels for a while, and I remember people offering us meals, little toothbrushes, and toothpaste, being there for my parents, and watching me and my brother. That's mutual aid. It wasn't really until I had gotten older when I realized that's what the community is supposed to do when things like this happen. We're supposed to bond together and assist each other.
I came home, and my house was in four feet of water. The roof in my room had caved in, and my window blew in. My trampoline was across the neighborhood in someone else's yard. I just thought, “This is crazy.” Thankfully, my family still lives in that home. It's honestly a miracle to even say because a lot of people didn't have that same situation.
Being where I am now and seeing how the assistance from others allowed me to continue and prosper and essentially be who I am today, I want to be there for others in the same aspect. That's exactly what I want to do in my profession, in my life. I want to be here for people.
Paige Madden, Olympic Swim Team
I wasn’t good at swimming at first. In fact, I was fearful of the water. Then, when I was 8, I started to get good and after that, I was hooked.
I realized I was going to make the Olympics during my race. Around the last 100 I saw where I was and knew that I had it. I was still shocked when I touched the wall because I did not expect to make it in the 400 freestyle. The best part was being able to embrace my teammates after. That's something I’ll never forget.
This Olympic journey has taught me - more than anything - that I’m tough as nails. I’ve overcome a lot. I had covid, I’ve dealt with injuries, swam in freezing cold pools, and I have never once let it hold me back. I hope to use this experience so I can perform to the best of my abilities in Tokyo. I would love to bring home gold for Team USA.
Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures is in a very real way, my origin story. It is both who I am and now it is what I do. My father is a retired atmospheric research scientist and he spent his career at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where I grew up and where this story takes place. He worked with the women that I wrote about in the book and he stood on their shoulders to build a successful career at NASA. My mother is a retired English professor from Hampton University and this is a historically black college that trained the first group of black women who went to work at what was originally called the Langley Laboratory, which was started in 1917. They celebrated their centennial two years ago. My parents met, they got married after college, they moved to Hampton when my dad was a young scientist at NASA and I was born just three months before the moon landing. So you might say that I am as much a NASA product as Apollo. Before they were household names, the four protagonists in my book - Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Jarden - were members of my childhood community and they were less known to us for trajectory analysis or supersonic flight plans than for their commitment to their churches or to their ability to raise scholarship money for needy local students through the civic organizations that they ran. They gave their best in every situation and they let their performance speak for itself. Even as I interviewed them decades later, asking how it felt to break barriers as a woman and as African Americans, their most frequent response was, “I was just doing my job.” For the last three years, it's been my job to make sure that these women and their accomplishments are written into history.
Kelli Lemon, owner of Urban Hang Suite RVA
I’ve always had a bug for hospitality. I knew I wanted to do something that was going to connect people, but I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it. In 2017, I was asked to speak at CreativeMornings, and when it came time for the questions and answers period, someone in the audience asked what was next for me. I said I would love an urban environment where people felt like they could come and hang out. Something comfortable like a hotel suite where you could get a good cup of coffee and have adult conversations and be creative. Then the person in the audience yelled, “Just do it!” I kind of ignored that comment and moved on with my life, but little did I know that well-known Richmond restaurateur Kendra Feather was in the audience. The next week, she gave me a call and said she wanted to meet with me. When Kendra Feather tells you to meet her, you go. She asked me to meet at 304 East Broad Street. I had no idea what I was walking into. The owner, Matthew Bauserman was there, and when he looked at me and I looked at him, we knew we were going to create something special. We never imagined it would become Urban Hang Suite RVA.
Opening up a community social cafe has allowed me to meet more people and has inspired me to dig a little deeper into who I am. I know the black culture that was born here in Jackson Ward is coming through me and through what we do at Urban Hang Suite. It really made me want to fight harder to support and encourage black business ownership within the city. It’s a growing place for people like me to succeed, and that’s what’s filling me up.
In the past, everyone has seen Pocahontas as a cartoon character. But she was real. She was a real person. When I was growing up, we didn’t know very much about her. All we had was the oral history that was passed down through the tribal families. It never occurred to me to really think about who she was until I went to England in 2006. To my great surprise, the people in England love Pocahontas and still consider her to be the mother of America. They believe that she saved the colony and they have documentation on her that we don't have here. So when the elders and I went to England, we saw the documents and we heard the stories and we had a ceremony in St. George's Church. Our elders began to weep because Pocohantas was still so honored in England but not by her own people because the stories about her had been hidden here. The elders were very much grieved about it. So we began to honor her there and it became a ceremony of reconciliation between the tribes. It was so powerful. I felt Pocahontas in the room. I knew that there were people from our past in the room with us, elders who had fought for this and died before ever having seen the victory. I don't think there was a dry eye in the whole delegation. It changed our relationships forever. I wanted to bring that powerful relationship here so that people in American could experience it. The Pocohantas Festival is important to bring her alive again and embrace her for who she really was. Her faith was strong and I believe she was led explicitly by it. That's what caused her to want to feed people, to protect people, to keep them from harm. That's who she was. And I think that's a story that America needs to know.
Elizabeth S. Redford, M.A.Ed, Executive Director & Co-Founder of the Next Move Program with Shelley Lantz, RVA
Next Move has given both me and our students a sense of belonging within the Richmond community. We partner with businesses to create guided internship experiences for young adults with disabilities. Not a single day passes that I do not hear from a past student or parent, reaching out to simply connect or share positive news.
We have had to put our in-person sessions on pause with COVID since March, but we launched our “Cookie Camper.” It is a 1971 camper we use to hold a pop-up on the 2nd and 4th Friday of each month. To keep up with all of the demand for cookies, we have been able to hire two more of our former students, Cheyenne and Christopher, who started in July. Kemani and Haley will start next month. We have a bakery that is still set to open later this year and construction kicks off later this month! When the bakery opens, it will be an internship site and employment site. We will continue to offer the same model and curriculum we do for internships at area businesses; this will just be in our own bakery. All of the interns will be high school youth with diverse abilities.
The most heartwarming experience we have had during COVID is being able to offer employment to a few of our Alums with the expansion of our baking program. They are all amazing people and workers – each having been dedicated to the baking program since it first started in 2017. We are so proud of their efforts and thrilled to have them now officially on the team. That is also a direct result of this community supporting our efforts and ordering our cookies! We love this community.
Keya Wingfield, owner of Candy Valley Cake
I was working as a product trainer for Circuit City in Bombay when I met my now-husband, David. He was a trainer in Richmond and we connected over the company’s internal messenger system. I wanted to come here so we got a fiance visa. We had 90 days to decide whether or not we wanted to get married or I would go back to Bombay. When I arrived in Richmond, I was fired for dating him. They didn’t fire him. They fired me. So he said, “Well since you got fired, I have to marry you now.”
I was really young and when you’re that young, you just don’t worry about stuff like work. Having always been a foodie, I knew I wanted to get into the pastry chef arena of work but I had zero experience. I'd never even seen an oven let alone bake in one. When I moved from Bombay to Richmond, there was an oven in the apartment I was renting with David. I just started playing around with it. Nobody taught me. I’m just a workaholic so I kept going and working until I had a lot of experience. Making cake pops came from my need to make portion-controlled desserts. I would make them in one corner of our teeny little apartment. I never imagined it would be my business but each week I got a few extra orders and it just kinda kept ramping up and ramping up and ramping up all through word of mouth. Even to this day, we have not spent a dollar on advertising. That is the beauty of this town.
I have had my feeding tube my whole life. I spend a lot of time on social media advocating and educating others about feeding tubes. I'm only an expert in myself, but I share things like how if I'm out and about and hungry I can't just grab a snack from a gas station and eat. I have to have my gravity bag and tube extensions with me, and I have to find something that is in thin liquid form to get down the tube. If a headache comes on, I can't just pop a Tylenol in my mouth and keep going. I have to have syringes and tube extensions with me and water to dissolve the pills.
With my job as a Disability Rights Advocate, I am very keen to pick up on issues clients may be having with feeding tubes, and when group homes or hospitals are not treating disabled people with feeding tubes correctly. Oftentimes, I'm the only one at the agency to notice details like that due to my lived experiences.
I really hope that by sharing my lived experiences through my advocacy, work, and social media, I will be able to bring comfort, awareness, and a soft place to land.
Ashley Williams, founder of Bare Soul Yoga
The interconnection and relationships between humans are vital to the greater purpose of our lives. The concept that “Paths are many, Truth is one” encourages my work to live from a place of openness, non-judgment, and empathy for myself and others. During my time as Mentor Program Coordinator at the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, I learned that when you meet incarcerated youth--or anyone for that matter-- where they are in their life, experience or space is vital to transformation of another individual. The ability to release my own self-doubt and self-judgment, and understand the fact that we are all doing the best that we can, has completely changed my work with others. One of the residents, a 16-year-old girl in the program, was preparing for discharge and she wrote me a letter that brought me to tears. In her letter, she said, “Even in my darkness, you saw the light in me.” At that moment, I realized that the work I do and the presence that I hold is bigger than myself. This letter taught me to never underestimate your presence in another person’s life; furthermore, non-judgment and vulnerability are vital to human connection. If we look deeper, we are all connected. Therefore, when one is facing injustice, we are all facing injustice. It has empowered me to create a space of belonging in my own skin, assist with creating a space of belonging for others, and offer tools to assist with creation in the community.
I’ve been working at a Cuban restaurant to cover the costs of my art. All the artwork, all the videos, all the recording, all the traveling I’ve done, I paid for myself. I’ve been working a lot of brunch shifts, picking up extra shifts, and working really hard at the restaurant so I can take a week off and to travel to Maine and open for Phoebe Bridgers or go to New York City and play at Rough Trade with Natalie Prass. I’ve had to play two shows in one night and then wake up at 8:00 am to work the brunch shift. But I do it so I can continue to make my art. I’m proud of how hard I work and how I got to where I am. It means so much to me after all that hard work to see people really care and react to what I’m making and want to see more.
The Deaf community is still educating the world about our language and the necessity of it in our educational system. There is a lot of oppression and ignorance. Often, doctors encourage Deaf kids to learn how to speak instead of learning sign language. The Deaf community knows better. I don’t want to see Deaf children suffering from language deprivation, so I started creating ASL art.
As a Deaf artist, I use my language to create art that I hope will positively represent sign language and deaf culture all over the world. I hope that by focusing my work on positivity, more people will feel confident about learning ASL and feel proud to know it.
Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
I didn't grow up understanding the full range and capacity of what art encompassed. I see it all the time when I walk downstairs [at VMFA], the little ones walking through the museum. That was my life. That was my exposure to it. At the time as a child walking through those museums, you would maybe see some decorative arts, but it was the art that sat in castles. Or the art that well-heeled, very wealthy individuals have the opportunity to enjoy.
And even when I went back and I worked at the contemporary arts museum, which was one of the museums I would get bused to. Even then I didn't see myself reflected, but having those experiences really opened the world for me. And going back to work at that museum as an adult, and as a curator, understanding that people like me at that age would utilize the museum to expand their existence and their understanding of the world, I wanted to create a world in which they felt, all of them would feel very well represented.
Erin Powell, founder, and owner of Ginger Juice
I instantly became a single mom when my husband suddenly passed away. Whenever tragedy strikes, you can either overcome or shut down, and shutting down wasn’t an option. I saw juice bars popping up all across the country and was already juicing at home to increase my then two-year-old son’s food and vegetable intake. So I started my company Ginger Juice, named after my son’s red hair! I said, “Okay. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this for my son, I’m going to do this for myself, and I’m going to do this for the Richmond community.” Since then, people come out daily to support me.
When I lost my husband, I lost my family. What I really wanted to do with Ginger Juice was recreate that sense of family in Richmond. Now I believe this product can pave the way to small business ownership for others. That is why I decided to franchise Ginger Juice. This country is built on the backbone of small business and I’m excited to grow Ginger Juice through the stories of this community and others like ours throughout the country!
Eri Nishihara, dancer with Richmond Ballet
I was raised in Japan. There, you have a set course for life - you do your studies, you get into college, you get a job. Growing up, I never imagined doing anything different. Then I moved to the States and suddenly it seemed as if life could take any course I chose - and all I wanted - was to choose ballet.
I never imagined that I could actually become a professional ballet dancer. It would have been very easy for me to study something else, and pursue another career that was maybe more “practical” or “lucrative.” But dancing professionally was my dream and I couldn’t let go of it without trying my best to see if I could reach it.
When I get to perform for children, it reminds me that I can show them what they are capable of pursuing in a way that wasn’t afforded to me in my childhood. They rarely have seen anything like ballet before and you can see the magic spark in their eyes. They are inspired by what they see and I think the world needs more of that - opportunities for children, or anyone, to be inspired. I think what's so amazing about the culture in this country is that people are encouraged to explore what they are interested in and what they feel passionate about. It just shows how inspiring and uplifting life can be when we are able to connect to others by creating and sharing art.