Nearly 800 community members, the largest crowd yet, came together for this year’s What Matters to learn about how women continue to face significant challenges as it relates to health, housing, employment, and education. The Raleigh Convention Center was packed with both women and men from all walks of life. In our current times, the racially diverse group of people of all ages coming together from a myriad of socio-economic backgrounds was a powerful sight.

The day began with opening sessions led by many issue-area experts who discussed leadership, empowerment, activating personal values, and engaging in collective networks. Throughout all of the sessions there were recurring themes such as the importance of local organizing, collective impact, and the intentional uplifting of marginalized voices. One speaker discussed the difference between equity and equality, dispelling the myth that people all begin from the same place. Another conversation focused on collective impact, with one speaker explaining, “When you harness the energy of a collective group, you can move to heal others.”

The main event began at lunch with a powerful video full of local women reading data points that illustrated the disproportionate opportunities and challenges facing women in our community. Each speaker asked a poignant question, “So what? Why does this matter,” as the video continued on. As the music faded away, the spotlight appeared on Foundation President and CEO Lori O’Keefe at the podium to answer that question.

“Unless we talk about and use the data effectively to tell the story of why the numbers look the way they do, they are only numbers. It is imperative that we start a dialogue about why the data matter before we start talking about how we can change it. Because the voices and faces behind it? They really do matter. The barriers and challenges facing our region’s women and girls are real, just as the strengths, assets, and successes are,” she said.

The highlight of the afternoon was undoubtedly Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole’s keynote address. Dr. Cole is the former Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. She was the first female Black president of Spelman College, and also served as president of Bennett College. She is an anthropologist, an author, and an advocate, to name only a few of her roles.

As she was introduced, attendees murmured in excitement; evidence that Dr. Cole’s reputation precedes her. When she finally graced the stage, people burst out of their seats and into applause. She gestured humbly and began her speech by paying homage to several famous “s-heroes.”

Dr. Cole quoted Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation; Michele Ruis, an accomplished Latina business woman; Janet Mock, an author and transgender rights activist, along with an array of other successful women. Her keynote to the audience addressed gender inequality, specifically how it comes to exist and how we can combat it. Dr. Cole noted that it all begins with an unconscious bias. “We all have unconscious bias, including gender bias, and it is our responsibility to acknowledge it and mitigate against it so our biases do not roll into systemic discrimination, called sexism,” she said. “We must never see ourselves simply as victims,” Dr. Cole emphasized. “We women-folk have always managed to make do when don’t wants to prevail.”

She went on to point towards the responsibility to “help girls believe in who they are, to help girls grow into young women who come to believe that they can fly.” The theme of service emerged during Dr. Cole’s address. She reiterated how there was one phrase she heard from her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, minister, Girl Scout leader, and Brownie leader that shaped her view of the world: “Doing for others is just the rent you gotta pay for your room on earth.”

Dr. Cole told stories of Mary McLeod Bethune Cookman, founder of the Negro Women’s Club movement, and an unofficial advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Go on, succeed, rise to the top, climb as far as you can get, but remember you must lift others as you climb,” Cookman would say to her club-members.

Dr. Cole concluded her anecdote with, “Women believe in service like the devil believes in sin”. The crowd met her with laughter and applause. “Indeed, they do,” an attendee loudly agreed.

To be in the service of this struggle for women’s equality requires three things, according to Dr. Cole. First, we must acknowledge that women are not being granted equality. “Certainly, what is happening in our country now has brought consciousness to our country that is long overdue.” Second, we must work together to “address the inequities that plague us.” She shared an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” Lastly, although we are a long way from victory, “it helps to count what victories we have and to let that spur us to carry on and to keep the faith.” In moments of discouragement, we must remember this: “No matter how long the night, dawn will break,” she shared.

In her passionate speech, Dr. Cole addressed the plight of women, and found a way to unite women, advocates, and “righteous brothers” in the room to begin and continue their service towards gender equality. She was a force, and it was clear that her words resonated with many in the audience. She was met with roaring applause and a standing ovation, not only for her powerful oration and eloquence, but her ability to inspire.

As Dr. Cole said, gender oppression is grim and enduring, and it can be tempting to slip into cynicism while doing this work. However, Dr. Cole encouraged the What Matters attendees to leave feeling optimistic about the difficult work we are all responsible for in mitigating sexism. “If one day in a garden a woman called Eve could get the world turned upside down, it seems to me that all the women here today – together with the help of our righteous brothers – can get it turned right side up again.”

Two annual philanthropic awards were presented during the lunch program to Perry Colwell, Legacy Award winner and Chuck ReCorr, Catalyst Award winner for their dedication to the overall health of and leadership in our community. Both of these men have done extensive work to change the lives, invest in, and champion the leadership of women, and our community is better for it.

What Matters ended with a call to action from Farad Ali and Lori O’Keefe as they shared with the audience several tangible ways to get involved, rally together around women in our community, and turn the talk into action. How can we all help? Participate in the power of networks by joining one of the many active women’s giving circles in our region, or attend a women’s event locally. Educate yourself using the research and trends about women in our community (the event takeaway was a booklet of data and quotes). Serve as a mentor, and guide a woman into her own leadership. Or invest in the organizations that will help ensure that our families, our women, and our girls, are poised for success. Join us!

“We can change the future for women and girls in the Triangle. But we must choose to do that. Let’s make that choice together,” said O’Keefe as she closed the event.

-Written by Rosemary Stump, Meg Buckingham & Wad Sharafeldin Khalafalla | Photographs By Dtown Perspective