“A Woman’s Worth”
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Friends called out to each other, and laughter filled the air as many young women of color streamed out the doors and onto the two busses. They were headed to the Young Women of Color Annual Retreat, this year titled “A Woman’s Worth” which was held at Emmanuel College. The 9-year tradition was started by METCO Coordinator Keith Lezama who aimed at providing young women of color with advice, inspiration and the tools they need to succeed as students, women and people.
Upon arrival, those attending ate breakfast in the administration building. The staff had set out muffins, croissants, tea and more sugary treats. Shortly after the breakfast, Lezama directed the students and staff to the Cardinal Cushing Library where the day really began. Headmaster Anthony Meyer stopped by and was warmly received. He spoke briefly and lightened the mood with some jokes before returning to the high school.
Lezama took the reins from thereon, and he discussed the event and its history. The focus of his speech, however, was unity.
“Today will remind you of your responsibility and obligation to help your sisters succeed, and as a community, and as a sisterhood, when we uplift each other, when we love each other, when we respect each other, we succeed,” Lezama said.
Lezama passed the microphone to to METCO Program Coordinator Dr. Suzie Talukdar. After she spoke the “sand ceremony” took place. Students deposited different colors of sand into heart shaped vases containing sand from the last nine years to symbolize diversity.
Upon the conclusion of the sand ceremony, Talukdar called up this year’s panel of four woman. The panel was comprised of Senior Director of Elementary Teaching & Learning Leslie Ryan-Miller, BHS Alum and Harvard student Elizabeth Quiñones, and Steps to Success Program Adviser Adebukola Ajao and entrepreneur Shellee Mendes.
Ryan-Miller talked about her past and the mistakes she made. She shared advice that she learned when she ended up at her second choice for college.
“Don’t let anyone define your worth,” Ryan-Miller said. “Know that God put you where he wants you to be.”
To her right on the panel was Mendes, a very successful woman despite being the only panelists who did not attend college. Mendes chose to pursue her dream of being a stylist. She worked at multiple salons and eventually started her own.
There was an open location on the well known Newbury Street that her agent managed to land. But with the benefits and prestige, came a lot of pressure, and Mendes initially thought not to take it. There had never been a business owner who was a women of color on Newbury Street. Mendes though perhaps she would be better received on some street less prestigious around the block. However, her mind was changed by a loyal customer of hers who had followed her through multiple salons. Mendes would go on to establish Hair Salon Monet as a top-of-the-line salon on Newbury Street.
The youngest on the panel was Quiñonez. She grew up very studious and she credits her academic achievements in life to those who surrounded her and helped push her to fulfil her potential.
“If you surround yourself with people who want to bring you up, who want the best for you, who want to see you succeed, then you will be able to do that.” Quiñonez said.
To her right was the final member of the panel, Ajao. Outside of school she is a freelance writer and co-founding member of We Are The Ones, a coalition of young leaders who strive for change in Boston’s inner urban communities.
Ajao spoke about her past and how she had challenging behavioral issues despite perfect grades, and she shared words about how everybody wants something, and how that means that no one should ever feel unmotivated. They should use their motivation to overcome challenges.
“I have something to fight for. Do you not want to eat? Do you not want to be successful, do you not want to be happy?” Ajao asked. “ I have a young sister who I am working on becoming a legal guardian for. That’s what keeps me going, so when I’m falling off, or an obstacle comes my way, I’m like, ‘Alright obstacle, let’s sit down and figure out how I’m going to beat you’.”
After the panel told their stories and answered questions, the groups split in two: Workshop I: Strength in Areas of Romantic Relationship and Sex and Workshop II: The Real Truth About College.
The workshops wrapped up and the food was served as the caterers arrived. Despite the seriousness of the topics, the students laughed and had fun as they talked about what they learned in their workshops and discussed advice and stories.
After lunch there were two more workshops: Workshop III: Senior Panel, where high school seniors sat in the front of the room and answered their peers’ question about the process of applying to college and how their choices throughout all their years of high school are responsible for where they are now.
With the day coming to an end, students, teachers and staff gathered in the administration building to give their thanks. Heartfelt goodbyes were exchanged, tears met with comforting hugs.
According to Ajao, for nine years this one of a kind event has brought communities closer together and promoted unity and self strength.
“When you’re in that group of people that are not motivating you to do the right thing, that has nothing to do with you. That’s their personal problem. That light inside of you is going to cause people around you in the darkness to go away, or it will light their path because light always overcomes darkness.”
At the panel…
Elizabeth Quinonez, Brookline High School Alumni, Harvard University, Class of 2019:
“If you surround yourself with people who want to bring you up, who want the best for you, who want to see you succeed, then you will be able to do that.”
Shellee Mendes, Owner of Salon Monet:
“I didn’t think I was good enough for Newbury Street because there were no people of color who owned businesses on Newbury Street. My client who had followed me through two different salons; she told me ‘Shelly, no. You are a successful stylist, you will open your business on Newbury Street your address will be such and such Newbury treet. Not on the corner, not on Boylston Street, you are going to open your business on Newbury Street because you are a successful, professional business woman.’”
Leslie Ryan-Miller, Senior Director of Teaching and Learning:
“Don’t let anyone define your worth. Know that god put you where he wants you to be.”
Adebukola Ajao, Freelance Writer ~ Teen Vogue Magazine, Steps Brookline High School:
“I have something to fight for. Do you not want to eat? Do you not want to be successful, do you not want to be happy? I have a young sister, who I am working on becoming a legal guardian for, that’s what keeps me going, so when I’m falling off, or an obstacle comes my way, I’m like alright obstacle, let’s sit down and figure out how I’m going to beat you.”