Entries in Black Women (5)

Saturday
Nov262016

Edith Okupa: Helping Survivors of a Dark Reality to Dream Again

Edith Okupa, founder of Restoration Project International, LLC, conducted research to help legislators while working on her master's degree.When she escaped to the U.S. from a domestic violence situation in Nigeria more than 15 years ago, little did she know that she would one day stand with legislators at the state capitol to watch the governor of Colorado sign a bill into law to protect women and children. It was a bill that she helped to research, and a milestone in her personal mission to make a difference. 
Early in her career Edith Okupa set her sights on being a lawyer, helping women who were in similar situations as hers, but the first college she attended in the Maryland area only offered criminal justice classes. She took those classes and continued on that path, eventually moving to Colorado where she completed a master’s at the University of Colorado-Denver in public administration with an emphasis in domestic violence, project management and policy development.

She worked as a non-paid, public policy intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence for her master's capstone project, which required her to identify an information problem in a real-world setting and develop the means to address it. This is when she connected with Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-29), lending her academic research to support legislation, namely the passage of SB 13-227, which protects children conceived in rape from contact with the father and which protects women from their rapist. 

"My ultimate goal was to research laws. Most states had laws to protect women and children, but Colorado didn’t have comprehensive laws," says Okupa, who explains that when these women go to ask for public assistance they must provide proof of a crime, ideally a conviction of the rapist. This can be difficult as many of the rapists are family members or known acquaintances.
She adds, “The women are reluctant to tell."

The bill, Termination of Parental Rights of the Rapist, was co-sponsored by Sen. Carroll, Sen. Evie Hudak (D-19), and State Rep. Lois Landgraf (D-21). In 2014, Sen. Carroll confirmed the bill was taken a step further with HB 1162, which protects rape victims when a child is conceived.Sen. Morgan Carroll and Edith Okupa in 2014 at a Restoration Project International, LLC event. Photo. Canady's Corner.

The subject of co-parenting with your rapist was addressed November 20, 2016 on This is Life with Lisa Ling on CNN.

Venture into Another Dark Reality
Through her studies she also began to learn about the sex and human trafficking industry, eventually creating Restoration Project International, LLC in 2013 to empower survivors to aspire for better life through education and to also raise awareness of the impacts of sexual exploitation. It’s a dark reality that many won't let seep into their minds. But it is a reality.

The International Labour Organization reports that human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry and is tied with drugs for the most profitable criminal endeavor, having passed illegal weapons. According to the U.S. State Department, 300,000 to 600,000 children and women are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Ninety eight percent of commercial sex slaves worldwide are females. The average age of entry into the industry is 12-14.

The numbers speak volumes, but the RPI founder and executive director says if it can happen to one girl, it can happen to any girl. Though programs exist to help those under 18, little exist for those over that age. That's where this nonprofit picks up. In collaboration with other organizations and agencies, and with the help of contributions from donors, RPI provides scholarship opportunities for survivors who aspire for college education. 

The organization works with women in transitional homes, namely those leaving the sex-trade industry, addictions and other destructive lifestyles. It's a tense environment as it is also a recruitment ground for traffickers. It’s one of the reasons the non-profit is working to establish Restoration Housing Project where survivors can have the opportunity for healing over a 12-24 month period. The goal is for the housing to be a place for survivors to move past traumatic experiences to dream again, pursue education, and gradually integrate into society for sustainable restoration. Those interested in supporting can visit the Global Giving Foundation for more information, and also make a donation on Giving Tuesday, November 29, 2016. 

Seeing the Signs of Trafficking
According to Okupa, a lot of women don't believe they are being trafficked because their pimps make them believe they are in a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship. Yet, they are being alienated from family and friends. They don't have control over the money they make or their time. 

From the outside, she says the visual signs can be witnessed in a woman’s provocative attire, possession of multiple cell phones and hotel keychain/key cards, as well as expensive purses, which stands out if they are from low-income households. She adds that many will have scars or their pimp's name tattooed on their body.

Restoration Project International focuses on women who want to come out of that lifestyle, but don't know how. The perception that they are prostitutes does not help, according to Okupa. "They are not prostitutes,” she says. “They're trafficking victims. They need our help."

Perception is something the RPI representatives face when delivering public presentations. A lot of people downplay the industry's relevance to them, believing it's happening somewhere else or only when major conventions, such as the Democratic National Convention or the Republican National Convention, come to the city. For example, she says that religious institutions can sometimes be skeptical of the warning signs. This is interesting to note because a lot of trafficking survivors don't go to these institutions because they are ridiculed or may run into a client.   

Making the public aware of the impact of this industry on individuals, families and society as a whole is a full-time job for Okupa, who also attends monthly and bi-monthly taskforce meetings with various organizations, including the Front Range Anti-Trafficking Coalition (FRAC), Jefferson County Human Trafficking Sub-Committee, and Colorado-Based Human Traffic Council, a nonprofit that facilitates multidisciplinary collaborations, including law enforcement, child welfare, victim advocates, exist through the Colorado Human Trafficking Council.

“When I came to this country, I came for better opportunities and because I saw better human rights protections in place,” says Okupa, whose daughter is a lawyer. “Choosing to work against trafficking— an area that a lot of people choose to sweep under the rug— is a calling that I respect every day."

“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is an online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way. 

 

Monday
May302016

Phoenix Jackson: A Marketing Expert's Message

Listening to your intuition is good business, according to Phoenix Jackson, owner of Phoenix Affect, Inc. Photo: Shanae Simmons. Turning those dime-a-dozen business ideas into competitive ventures in the marketplace requires more than a business plan and funding. It requires that entrepreneurs also be open to listening to their intuition, according to longtime business owner and marketing expert, Phoenix Jackson. 

"Money is not enough of a reason to pursue a business," says the owner of Phoenix Affect, Inc., a marketing and project management firm that she co-founded 11 years ago while earning a business degree at the University of Denver. "You need to know why you are in business.

"Your enthusiasm and aspirations will be necessary to see you through the ups and down of operating a business."

Through her company, formerly known as Nation Marketing Group, Jackson has helped to create the brand and public face of more than 100 individuals and businesses including celebrities, professional athletes, and small and large organizations. The company's services include business consulting, marketing and brand development, website development and event planning. 

Best practices from her career are detailed in her upcoming book, "Spirit of Business." Scheduled for release in the fall, the book offers tactical tools and worksheets on how business professionals can achieve what they want to manifest. 

Just turning the corner into her 30s, when she stands in front of an audience speaking about her upcoming book or marketing services, her successes all appear to have come easy. That perception would be the furthest thing from the truth for the woman who started practicing meditation and yoga at the age of 19. "I work hard to protect my peace and set aside time to listen to my intuition," says the self-proclaimed optimist, who tends to "feel that something good is always about to happen."

Raised by a single father from the age of eight, she experienced a lot of coming of age issues without her mother's guidance. Her father was a blessing, but she did miss a mother's touch. The Arkansas native moved around a bit with her father, who was in the military, and lived in Kentucky before arriving to Denver at the age of 12.  Later in her academic life, she juggled being a mother, a wife, student and entrepreneur. When she experienced divorce and became a single mom she had to adjust her lifestyle while staying on track with her life goals. 

The 2004 Daniels Fund Scholar earned the 2008 Daniels College of Business' Entrepreneur of the Year award for her efforts to start her own marketing firm with a new-born son at the time. Not long after graduating, she used her spare time and a grant from the Denver Foundation to spearhead a dance health initiative - building on African dance -- for women in northeast Denver that included daycare services. Her alma mater noticed and asked her to bring her curriculum to campus. Soon, at the age of 26, she was an adjunct faculty member at the DU Colorado Women's College. 

"Teaching was so fulfilling," says Jackson, who has since served as a guest lecturer at various colleges and universities in the state, and as a speaker at national events outside of academia. "I enjoyed teaching adults to nurture themselves and to love themselves. At the end of each quarter, women were crying about how much they had learned about themselves and their power over their bodies and their mind. I learned at that time that I'm happiest when I'm teaching."

Phoenix Jackson, the director of client relations for Phoenix Affect, Inc., tells women to understand the "why" of their business goals. Photo: Courtesy of Phoenix Jackson.Her teaching experiences have provided a taste of her end-goal to be a professor or professional lecturer, but for now she continues to make strides in the business world. In 2014, she was nominated for Denver Business Journal's Forty Under 40. The prior year, she was nominated for DBJ's Outstanding Business Women Award. These recognitions, among many others, speak to the personal touch she invests in her work with her clients. 

For five years, she has provided marketing services to Carson J Spencer Foundation, a Denver-based organization that works to prevent suicide using innovative methods to address root causes of suicide in schools, homes and businesses. Her company has produced the foundation's promotional collateral and developed their website, helping the organization grow within its brand. Now the organization is international including Australia and Europe.

She has also received mental health certifications to better inform her guiding role as a volunteer educator within the organization and as a board member, formerly serving as its chair of marketing and public relations.
 
Her marketing work with another client, the annual Helping Boys Thrive Summit, is two-fold, educating her as a single mom and informing leaders who work with youth. The annual event, scheduled to happen in Denver on June 9 at Regis High School, is tailored toward adults teaching adults how to deal with young men and boys of all races and socioeconomic level from the classroom to the playground.  

A Void in the Market
Jackson has combined her marketing expertise with her continuing desire to see women healthy internally and externally. In 2014, she created Phitnus, a fitness series offering dance classes led by certified instructors. The series also offers DVDs and multivitamins. With the latter, she specifically honed in on the void in the market as it relates to African American women.

"The market was saturated with soaps and lotions, but there were little to no vitamin bottles with black women on them," says Jackson, who worked with a vitamin company in California to develop ingredients for her products. She began shipping in 2015, and has clients as far as West Africa.

Today, like many women who are starting a new product business, her dining room table has become a mini-factory. The bottles are already full and secure when they come to her, but she likes to put her own special touch on the packaging before shipping them out to customers. Like many entrepreneurs, she says, "At the beginning you are investing more than what you are getting back." 

But she keeps going, because she focuses on her "why."

"I always tell women to seek that inspiration. Look at the why," she says. "Ask yourself 'What do I want?' and be prepared to work towards your goal one step at a time."

Learn more about Jackson's work at Phoenix Affect.
Friday
Apr082016

Dr. Allison Cotton: A Passion for Politics 

Allison Cotton, Ph.D. Photo: Karrie Davis Family Photography. Long before she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D, Allison Cotton was a daddy’s girl. That meant learning to hold her own in a political discussion about local, national and international issues.
She hails from a family of life-long, active Democrats, but it was her father who stirred her passion for politics.  

“My dad was always active, always going to meetings and watching political talk shows,” says Cotton, who officially registered to be a Democrat when she was a sophomore in college, and is currently seeking to be a Hillary Clinton delegate. 

If elected at the convention/assembly on Sunday, April 10, it will mark her second go-round. She served as a Barack Obama delegate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Tears of joy flowed a lot for her during that convention, but no more than at the very moment when she became the second delegate to sign the petition to nominate him for president of the United States. Her name will be forever connected to the first African American president of the United States.
So, how do you top that? Rather, how do you come close?

Perhaps a repeat performance, but this time for the candidate who might stand in history as the first woman president of the United States. As she prepares for the Sunday vote, she is reflecting on her first journey as a national delegate. 

Being her father’s daughter, she naturally duplicated his habit of attending local political meetings, including city candidate forums, on a regular basis. When she saw the opportunity to be a delegate and have a more active role in nominating Obama, she jumped at the chance and was willing to fight for it. But she didn’t know how. She inquired, asking questions all along the way.

The process, lasting a couple of months, required completing lengthy paperwork, successfully passing a background check and attending meetings – some open, some closed. Though the process itself was not a secret, she chose to only tell her father of her mission.

“It was hard on him because he was proud of me and wanted to brag,” says Cotton, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1991, a master’s degree in sociology from Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1995, and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2002. But he respected her wishes, and was a partner in her mission. After every update to him, “he would say ‘Okay, what are we going to do next?’ ”

As a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., she also turned down a number of social and civic engagements. They noticed her absences. But she stayed her course, realizing that she was navigating a new process and really wouldn’t know how to answer their questions about it when asked.

“It is very competitive to run for a national delegate position,” she says of the many levels from caucusing to the actual election to national delegate. “You have to go through the motions.”

Becoming a delegate also required campaigning among other delegates for votes for the coveted position. She recalls, “A lot of people had campaign materials like candy, hats that lit up and all kinds of gimmicks to promote themselves. I just had a poster and handed out fliers.”

She also had years of being politically active. People already knew her. If not from that arena, they knew her as the author of publications ranging in subject from issues related to the death penalty, eye-witness identifications, lethal behavior and expert witnesses to issues around race class gender and crime. Some knew her from her regular attendance at spoken-word sets around the city, soaking up the poetry scene. Or maybe it was seeing her drive by with the windows down, music blasting and top open as she likes to do.

Dr. Allison Cotton at the end of the convention after Barack Obama had officially been nominated by the Democratic party. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Allison Cotton.Long story short, she made it to the congressional district level, where she was elected as a national delegate but then still chose to attend the state convention in Pueblo because she had been elected to serve as a state delegate as well. Each delegate had to give a two-minute speech to hundreds of participants at the congressional district convention. The professor of criminology did a variation of Obama’s slogan “Change We Can Believe In,” the chant “Yes, We Can,” and spelled out her name. She found out the next day that it worked!  Her name appeared on the Colorado Democratic Party’s website as one of the chosen few. 

Her mission was near complete, and now public. A Denver Post article announced the 70 national delegates and included a photo spread. She began receiving emails and calls from everywhere. 
“I was a celebrity for about two weeks,” says Cotton.

Sightings
Once on the floor of the convention, she settled into the fourth row listening to speeches and fielding calls from friends and family, namely her dad, who had told everybody to watch her on TV. He was calling to get updates, and also to report sightings of her on TV. She remembers, “On one call he said, ‘I think I saw your arm.’ ” 

The Second Time Around
Last month, Cotton was elected to serve as a delegate to both the Congressional District Assembly and the State Assembly. On Sunday night, she will know if she has advanced to serve as a national delegate again.

But if she is unsuccessful there, she may also have a chance to be elected at the state convention in Loveland next week. As she prepares for the final vote, she knows that her journey has not been in vain. Though attending political meetings is natural for her, there was a time when she was one of a few black women in attendance. In recent years she has noticed more black women and black men in the room. 

She says, “I feel and I hope that I have contributed to the participation of more Black women in the political process, those who care about the country and government, reflecting our values.”
If she is not elected this time around, she hopes the spot opens up for someone who has not experienced being a delegate so that yet another person can be introduced to a new experience. 

The tenured, full professor of criminology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, didn’t feel equipped to answer questions on the first go-round. “Now I have the answers. Now I know.” 

Her experience has only added to political talk with her father. “We have spirited discussions about the candidates and the issues. But it’s a more mature discussion that we have now,” says the author, who has traveled as a two-time Fulbright scholar to conduct research in both China and Egypt, and holds a packed calendar of speaking engagements on campus and at community events. 
She can certainly hold her own. 
“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way. 
Tuesday
Apr052016

Press Release: Reps. Watson Coleman, Kelly, Clarke, Announce Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls

Congresswomen (l-r) Bonnie Watson Coleman, New Jersey, 12th District; Yvette D. Clarke, New York, 9th District; Robin Kelly, Illinois, 2nd District.
 On March 22, Congresswomen Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12), Robin Kelly (IL-02) and Yvette D. Clarke (NY-09), announced the creation of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, the first caucus devoted to public policy that eliminates the significant barriers and disparities experienced by Black women.

Despite more than 430 registered congressional caucuses and Member organizations, no group on Capitol Hill has sought to make Black women and girls a priority in the policy debates that occur here. The Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls will fill that gap, and provide the same attention for women that President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative has given to Black men and boys.

“From barriers in education, to a gender based pay gap that widens with race, to disparities in both diagnoses and outcomes for many diseases, our society forces Black women to clear many hurdles faced by no other group, and asks them to do it with little assistance,” said Rep. Watson Coleman. “Black women deserve a voice in a policy making process that frequently minimizes, or altogether ignores the systemic challenges they face. This caucus will speak up for them.”

"Black women and girls are disproportionately affected by myriad socioeconomic issues that diminish their quality of life and threaten the wellbeing of their families and communities,” said Rep. Kelly. “The Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls gives Black women a seat at the table for the crucial discussion on the policies that impact them while also providing a framework for creating opportunities and eliminating barriers to success for Black women."

“In many ways, 23.5 million Black women and girls are consistently left out of the national discourse on a variety of policies that will affect their lives,” stated Rep. Clarke. “This caucus will be purposed to ensure that the infrastructure of inclusion fully incorporates the varied and unique needs of Black women. Our experiences must and will inform the direction we take as a nation and we can no longer afford to be excluded from important conversations.  I am proud to stand with my colleagues at the inception of this caucus to be a vehicle for change and look forward to the great work that we will do.”

The Caucus was inspired by the #SheWoke Committee, a collective of seven national women leaders with a shared vision of advocacy, equity, and sisterhood.

"In January, we launched a petition asking our national leaders to create a space that prioritizes Black women and girls, and here we are in March with a platform that will serve as a vehicle towards change,” stated #SheWoke member, Sharon Cooper, biological sister of Sandra Bland.  "We lift up all the Black women and girls who have lost their lives without press coverage, all the Black women and girls who are fighting for our collective liberation, and the Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, who responded in the way all elected officials should: with urgency. #SheWoke looks forward to supporting the efforts of this Caucus, and empowering Black women and girls through policy and advocacy."
                                                                           -30-
“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.  

 

 

Sunday
Mar132016

Lea L. Porter: From Single Mom to the Mrs. Colorado America Stage

Mrs. Denver At-Large 2016, Lea L. Porter. Credit: Brad Harper Photography.The reigning Mrs. Denver At-Large 2016 is poised to make a second consecutive run for Mrs. Colorado America 2016 next month, and this time she truly understands the magnitude of this stage. Lea L. Porter is an accomplished actor, who has appeared on stage, in film and on television. But, 10 years ago, she faced a real-life drama. 
“I was a single parent in every sense of the word. No financial or moral support. Due to abandonment at the time, I was in sub-par living conditions, technically homeless, fighting tooth and nail,” says Porter. “I was very pregnant, in my third trimester. I was working a retail job. My back was hurting. My feet were hurting. One day while I was at work, I just felt very alone.”

At the same time, she realized that she had the next day off.

“I needed to get away. So after work, I got my pregnancy snacks and called my favorite auntie to say, ‘we’re coming to see you.’ I drove the most peaceful drive of my life from Denver to Pueblo. It was a short road trip in Josephine Baker (aka Jo Jo Dancer, the name she gave her 2002 Black Nissan Altima.) “I had my baby in my belly, God and I. I knew then that I was going to be okay. Amazing what a short drive can do.” 

Though the trip did not resolve all of her problems, it changed her perspective to a more optimistic place.

Fast Forward to The Decision 
A little over two years ago, while working at a broadcasting company, Porter unknowingly met Emily Stark, the director of the Mrs. Colorado America Pageant. Stark had actually left the office, but returned a few seconds later and asked Porter if she were married. Porter had been married less than a year at that point. Porter recalls, “She handed me a business card and told me to look at the website. She said, ‘You should think about this. You’re beautiful. You should do it.’”

Less than two weeks later, Porter made her decision. It was then that she looked at the website and learned, to her surprise, that Stark was the director of the pageant. She was also the mother of twin daughters, who were once conjoined. “Her testimony spoke to me. If she can survive, I can overcome. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to put my big-girl panties on and do something.’ ” 

That something entailed a conversation with her husband, who said, “Well, I know when you put your mind to something you’re going to do it all the way.” That was the support she needed.  

Walking onto yet another stage should have been a piece of cake, but it presented a dilemma. 

“The genres are very different. Being a performer, you have a character. When on the pageant stage, it’s just Lea. I’m very vulnerable,” says the graduate of the contemporary dance performance program at the University of the Arts Philadelphia and former dancer with Cirque Du Soleil Dralion. “A lot of people think performers are extroverts. But it was the opposite for me. I didn’t want to talk after the performance. I merely wanted to be Lea.” 

As a pageant delegate, she has had to put herself on the line, do fundraising campaigns and develop a platform. She has chosen to pull from her personal experiences to help single moms to help them overcome labels, stigmas, stereotypes and homelessness often associated with single parenting. Her purpose is to use her platform to encourage, inspire, and empower other single parents through their journey. But she has done more. 

At last year’s pageant, she made an impression on a 13-year-old Black girl who was in attendance to support her auntie – another delegate. Her auntie told me later that when she went home she talked about me, and said, “Look at her. She’s dark. She’s beautiful.” 

Lea L. Porter reading to first graders. Credit: Roy B. Photography. “Her auntie said that she fell in love with herself after that,” says Porter, who has made a number of appearances including at elementary schools to read to first graders. “She went on to compete in her first pageant and won!”

A young woman, also Black, came to support Porter at the competition and was so upset that Porter didn’t advance to the top 10 that she dared to enter her very own first pageant. The young lady reached out to Porter to help her prepare for her pageant. Porter is proud to report, “She took the crown!” 

She has also found a sorority of sorts within the pageant where married women can help to support each other. These are some of the reasons why the mother of four, through a blended family, is still in the pageant world. “You never know who is watching. It’s amazing,” she says.  

The 40th Annual Mrs. Colorado America Pageant will be held at 7p.m. on Saturday, April 16 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex in downtown Denver. The winner of the state competition will receive a prize package valued at more than $30,000 and advance to compete with 49 other state delegates at the national Mrs. America Pageant in Las Vegas in August.

To purchase tickets for the pageant, visit Mrs. Colorado America
To vote for your favorite delegate, visit Fabulous Faces.

“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.