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Queen Latifah, Virginia Women Share Accomplishments, Barriers To Achievement

Queen Latifah hosted the Women's Achieve Summit
Queen Latifah hosted the Women's Achieve Summit, a signature event of the 1619 Commemorations. (Photo: Malcolm Key for VPM)

This story was reported by VPM Intern Malcolm Key.

The Women’s Achieve Summit drew about 1400 people at the Richmond Convention Center for a talk-show style day-long event to share the stories of women who’ve made contributions in Virginia and beyond. Some of the event’s participants included TV host and attorney Eboni Williams, former RPS superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman, and summit host Queen Latifah.

“All year Virginia’s been telling authentic stories of 400 years of democracy, diversity and opportunity in America. Women have not always been invited to participate in that democracy. Oh but we in it now!” said Latifah to a cheering crowd. 

The summit was a signature event of American Evolution, a subagency of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the entity organizing events for the 1619 commemorations. 

“We hope they’ll recognize their value and that after 400 years women have made great achievements and contributions to the Commonwealth and for the next 400, much the same,” said Executive Director Kathy Spangler.

One of panels featured women trailblazers including Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson and Geico VP of Public Affairs Rynthia Rost, who told VPM women don’t need to apologize for their ambitions. 

“I want them to take whatever is inside of them and walk with purpose toward their dreams. And you can ask for forgiveness, but don’t ask for permission, because if you do, (laughs) then you’re giving somebody else the power over you and your future,” said Rost.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner was an honorary co-host of the event. He said having women such as Queen Latifah and Mika Brzezinski representing the summit helps people realize both the high achievements women have accomplished, and that there’s still progress to be made.

“I think some of our greatest assets are the potential and power of women, who need to be more a part of the economy, who need to have their representation in business, in politics,” Warner told reporters covering the event. 

Summit participant Regina Austin writes children’s books about adoption and foster care, after growing up in the system herself. She says she’s inspired by hearing about other women’s experiences.

“Sometimes as women, we need to hear our stories through someone else, things that we've been through, things that we struggle with,” said Austin. “So to hear it from people that have already made it and they are trailblazers, that helps so we can accomplish our goals.”

In an interview with VPM, Queen Latifah said her success has been attained with the help of others, including her parents, her partner Shakim and many women.

“So obviously when I say that I’ve done it, it’s not just me. It’s we,” Latifah said. “But I think that even leads back to the point of us collectively coming together and for the same mission, which is to succeed at whatever it is you’re capable of doing. I don’t want to hold onto the past. I want to remember the past, as to not to repeat the things that shouldn’t be repeated, but I want to look towards the future and I want to support new growth and new ideas and new accomplishments and we can only do that by looking forward and connecting with one another and releasing some of what we saw in the past.” 

Latifah said she defines women’s achievement as fully realizing one’s potential and being valued, personally and by others. 

“And to be respected. For her dreams to be fulfilled. For her to be able to imagine things and know those things are possible and achievable and then to go on and achieve them and not be hindered by a patriarchal sort of idea of what a woman is supposed to be,” said Latifah.

At the Summit, participant Suzanne Holland said she recognizes the work white women need to do to move everyone forward.

“There's going to be obstacles in race, not just gender,” said Holland. “And those are intersectional issues that we need to overcome concurrently because barriers to some groups of women are barriers to all women.”  

The Women’s Achieve Summit was held the day after the partial unveiling of the Women’s Monument on Capitol Square, including statues of Pamunkey Chief Cockacoeske and entrepreneur and seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. The Monument Commission has drawn scrutiny for plans to erect future statues of white women who supported the Confederate army or profited from slavery, including from advocate and racial equity consultant Chelsea Higgs Wise.

“My argument is that we should not have to see our heroes standing next to the same people that fought to enslave them, for those same people whose success meant our oppression,” said Higgs Wise.

Higgs Wise is the founder and host of the radio show Race Capitol. She published a Medium article last Monday examining why holding the women’s summit and the women’s statue unveiling back-to-back was problematic. 

“We're supposed to forget the outrage that we are feeling right now with how the monument is being built? We are forced to celebrate our wins and forget our history with that type of narrative happening the very next day,” said Higgs Wise. 

Higgs Wise says 2019 has been about racial equity, especially following the blackface scandal last February in which both Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface.

“Equity means investing your dollars into your events. And after $24 million was spent, the thing that they could've done differently is to invest in black stories and invest in black events.”

American Evolution’s five year budget for planning and events has a price tag of $23.3 million. The agency says spending for commemoration events during the first six months of 2019 generated about $12.5 million in economic impact in Virginia. American Evolution plans to release an economic impact report on the commemoration events from the second half of 2019 in March.

The budget for the Women’s Achieve Summit was nearly $900,000, including $145,000 in speaking costs for Queen Latifah, $39,000 for Mika Brzezinski, $15,000 for Wendy Lawrence and $12,000 for Eboni Williams. Lunch at the event cost about $120,000 and the price for staging the Summit, including AV equipment, “scenery” and the live stream, cost about $280,000. 

VPM has also requested a breakdown of spending and contractors for all American Evolution signature events. 

1619 Commemoration events continue this Fall, including a month-long “Customs, Cultures, and Cuisine Festival” and the 400th anniversary of the first English Thanksgiving.