By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Hilary Stern walked onto the raised stage at China Harbor Restaurant to address a packed audience on Feb. 4 at Northwest Asian Weekly’s Women of Color Empowered awards luncheon. Stern was one of 14 honorees, lauded for her work in bridge-building — the event’s theme — as executive director of Casa Latina, an organization founded in the early 1990s to organize day laborers and activists.
“I started to think of the metaphor of a bridge and building them and what they are and what it’s like to cross one,” Stern said. “A bridge is scary. It’s a very narrow place over an abyss that brings you to unfamiliar territory. The familiar territory is what you are leaving — everything you’ve ever known, your family, your language, your history.”
Stern went on to say, “Most people don’t want to cross bridges. They usually prefer to stay on their island, their own territory. But when we do that, we stay isolated. And — if you’re like most of us — those who are marginalized by society — you also stay really powerless.”
Maria Durham was born in a field in Galicia, Spain. The Second Spanish Republic was declared in 1931 and Spanish general and caudillo (authoritarian leader) of Spain Francisco Franco was in power from 1936 until his death in 1975.
Durham’s family fled Spain when she was still a baby and settled in Argentina. Durham described the early period of her life as “wanting.” She started working at 9 years old. After 10 years of saving her tips from delivering hats, she saved up enough money to own and learn how to play a piano.
Evelyn Yenson was born in South Africa where her family owned and operated a grocery store. “We lived under apartheid,” said Yenson. “By law, we lived in separate areas.”
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation in South Africa that developed post-World War II, in which white minority rule was enforced — though forms of racial segregation in South Africa had roots in the late 18th century, with Dutch colonialism.
Yenson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States and was an urban planner for years, finding success as an executive at various companies and organizations. Known as a bridge builder, particular for the local Chinese American community, Yenson recalls the lessons of her early childhood, of those who reached out to her and her family with their kindness. “We became bridge builders because of the example of others,” said Yenson.
After raising her children, Durham fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse and educator. She graduated with degrees from Harvard University and developed a ground-breaking medical interpreter services program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center before retiring in Seattle in 1997 — which began the period she calls her “third life.”
“Music is the thing that lifts everyone’s spirits,” said Durham. She cofounded the Viva la Musica Club in 2003, which connects Spanish speakers to relevant orchestral performing groups.
Maha Jahshan, policy and program specialist for the office of immigrants and refugees at the City of Seattle, immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s. She spoke of her childhood during her time on stage. “Being an Egyptian, Palestinian, American Christian female, and that’s a mouthful, I always found myself on the margins. I realized bridge-building required creating a collective space where one doesn’t exist.”
Years ago, on March 2, a day after her birthday, Tonya Knox was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, Knox was a single mother to her teenage son, Stedman. She described him as six-foot-three and always smiling.
“He is my pride and joy,” said Knox. “The day that I had to tell him I had cancer is a memory etched in my memory bank forever. I heard a cry from my son that I had never heard before. To this day, it still moves me to tears.”
When Rita Zawaideh walked onto the stage to accept her award and to give her speech, she was in tears. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should probably not be looking at my phone, but when you’re dealing with refugee work, and stuff in Greece right now. …I just got this message that we just lost 20 people today — children — they drowned in the Aegean. I’m sorry I’m crying.”
Hundreds of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar have died fleeing in recent months, trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
Hailing from Jordan, Zawaideh arrived in Pocatello, Ida., in 1956 before moving to Seattle with her family. Among many endeavors, she is the owner and founder of Caravan-Sera Tours, formerly a travel agency to the Middle East and North Africa, now a tour company-turned-relief organization. As violence and war in the areas increased, Zawaideh used her tour resources to aid in humanitarian efforts.
Paula Houston is chief executive officer of Senior Services — though she was quick to point out that her organization is rebranding and is now called Sound Generations. Houston pointed out that diversity should not just be ethnic-based, but also generation- and age-based.
“We needed to change the way our community and society thinks about us as we age. … We’re a very youth-oriented society,” she said. “Always talking about investing in the future and in youth. But [the conversation changes] when we talk about adults, aging issues — and we need to change that message. … We want to bridge that gap between the youth and elders. So people know our community is made up of all ages.”
Anne Nguyen left a job on Wall Street to return to Seattle and work with low-income youth at Hamilton Scholars, a nonprofit that she is executive director of.
“We’ve had students who were first in their family to go to college, students who grew up on less than $25,000 year [for their entire families]. … These students don’t have the same opportunities as their peers, don’t have the same connections and resources.”
“And they overcome unfathomable obstacles,” said Nguyen. “They go out and inspire. I am inspired by them.”
“One of the big challenge that a group like us have, women of color, is really thinking about how we see ourselves,” said Christina Fong, principal lecturer at the University of Washington’s management department. “What inspires me is reaching those students who think of themselves as not a leader because they haven’t seen a role model that looks like them, because they have a ‘traditional’ view of leadership. What keeps me going on a day-to-day basis is reaching those students.”
Knox credits her Christian faith with getting her through cancer. Today, Stedman is a pre-med student at Western Washington University and Knox is an agency recruiter with State Farm Insurance.
“Let me tell you,” said Knox. “I wouldn’t trade one moment of the journey. I would walk through it again. … When your world is changed so dramatically, it’s amazing what faith will do.”
“I was born to be a bridge builder,” added Knox. Each one of you were born to be bridge builders. Because we are more similar than we are different. And in sharing our stories we bless others. And in hearing stories, we received a blessing.”
“This country is a beautiful country,” said Mahnaz Esetu, executive director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance. “The philanthropy in this country is huge, and we’re counting on everybody to work together to make this society and community stronger.”
“I challenge each and every one of you in this room to continue to be who you are,” said Wendy Zheng, multicultural engagement director at Swedish Medical Center. “To live every day empowering those around you.”
“I’ve learned that you have to nurture and sustain the things that you do,” said Leslie Harper-Miles, senior executive project manager for King County. “Fostering respect and relationships are key.” (end)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.