Educators, mentors honored
CHAMPAIGN – Members of the local black community honored their own Saturday at the 20th annual Black Women's Achievement Dinner.
Women honored include four educators – Parkland College President Zelema Harris, Urbana High School social worker Grace Mitchell, Urbana High School Dean Polly Washington, and Stratton School teacher Jeanette Osler, who founded the event.
Others recognized included foster parent and mentor Doris Ann Willis Batts, and three young community leaders, Urbana High School senior Jennifer Cook, Centennial High School senior Monique Harris and Parkland College student Wynita Mock.
"She started it in 1986 to celebrate Black History Month," said Minnie Pearson, introducing Osler, who then worked for the YWCA, still sponsor of the event. "She wanted to recognize achievement against the odds, dual discrimination, racism and sexism.
Guests, who numbered about 200, honored the memory of Rosa Parks and Coretta King. Osler led the Parks tribute.
"The power of one woman who on one day on one bus said one word, no," she said. "It affected us all. She proved there's a potential for greatness in all of us. "
Osler said she remembers that lesson in her third grade classroom and tries to teach it to each of her young students.
"I came up with the idea for this dinner 20 years ago because I was tired of academic discussions about Black History Month attended by about 10 people," she said. "I just expected a room full of people who would high five each other, people loving themselves but not hating anyone else. This is so much more than I thought it would be."
Harris, who will retire in June, said she listened to her tribute by Parkland staff member Rita Myles with mixed emotions.
"You hear it, and you know you didn't do it all," she said, adding that many people at Parkland and in the community were a big part of Parkland's success during her tenure.
Harris said her upbringing in the segregated deep South taught her lessons she'll never forget."It made me very sensitive to other people's needs," she said. "We never want anyone to experience what we experiences. The human element connects us all. "
"This is one of the few awards I've received that encompasses the totality of what I am – a black woman."
Mitchell, who also grew up in poverty, has worked with children at UHS for 27 years. She was presented the 2006 Trail Blazer Award by Violet Harris, the 2005 winner.
Washington, who will retire this year after 34 years at UHS, was presented the 2006 Unsung Achievers Award along with Batts, cited for her work with children and with area churches. The presenter was Linda Randall, a 2001 winner.
Cook, Harris and Mock all received 2006 Young Achievers awards presented by Takeya Alamin, who won the award in 2004.
Alamin, a former Parkland student who plans to attend the University of Illinois in the fall, said she treasures the award she won and its significance.
"It gave me a lot of confidence," she said. "It felt like a reward for working hard, for being a woman, for being a black woman."
Dr. Howard School fifth graders and friends Chloe Schreiber and Kaila Simpson sat together at dinner and watched the action.
"I really like this because they're trying to stop racism" Kaila said. "I'd like to be a winner some day.
Chloe agreed. "It's fun to hear about what people can achieve," she said.
Washington School Principal Sherry Alimi, a guest, said she thinks that's a valuable lesson for young people, and it's one she cultivates in the spirit at her school.
"I hope I have future winners at Washington," Alimi said. "It's always positive to look at people who have contributed, those who are our movers and shakers."