Deborah Busch Wright was playing the role of fairy godmother, her pixie stick doubling as wand and conveyor of fairy dust. If money were not a barrier, she asked the room full of girls and a smattering of women, what would you wish to do?
Seventeen-year-old Zuri Huntley of Waldorf, Md., said she’d go to college and pursue her dreams. Recent Career High School graduate Keyanté Reaves, 18, said she would travel to Japan.
“Well. with this pixie stick, I am tapping you all on the head,” said Wright, who serves as a West Haven police commissioner. “You have all the money you need. I want you to create your book of possibilities. Nothing is off limits. The sky is the limit but you can go to outer space.”
With Wright’s encouragement the attendees of the ninth Sisters of Today and Tomorrow (SOT) National Leadership Conference for Girls got busy clipping out pictures from magazines and envisioning dream careers, educational opportunities, even weddings and proms. The conference was held this past weekend at the African American Cultural Center on Park Street.
“You don’t have to know what your passions are,” Wright said encouragingly. “What is is you like and want to do? This is all about you. Not what your mother wants, not what you see on Facebook, not what you see celebrities doing, but what is inside you. What makes you feel really good when you’re doing it? Put anything on there that makes you smile.”
Wright said the point of the exercise is to give the girls an opportunity to focus on what they want for their future and give them something for which to strive.
“There are so many things that take the focus off them,” she said. “Something like this places the focus back on them. They may not stick to it, things can change, but it’s something reach for.”
Prior to the dream board exercise the girls shared lunch with Karen DuBois-Walton who talked about leadership and shared her personal story of dreams changing. The New York City native thought she wanted to be a doctor, but that changed after her parents both developed cancer before she was slated to head off to Yale University in 1985. Though her mother was presumed sicker with pancreatic cancer, her father died of lung cancer just weeks before she started her freshman year. Her mother would die just a few short months into DuBois-Walton’s freshman year.
“The first couple of years here were really rocky,” she told the girls at the conference “I’d love to tell you that had a 4.0, but I certainly didn’t because I was just keeping myself together.” She said the cultural center held a lot of memories for her because it is where she found the support she needed to deal with the death of her parents, but also the will to change her major to psychology.
“I thought that I wanted to be a doctor, possibly a pediatrician treating children,” she said. “I became a doctor, but in a different kind of work.” DuBois-Walton ultimately obtained a doctorate in clinical psychology from Boston University. (Today she serves as executive director of the Housing Authority of New Haven.)
When DuBois-Walton asked the attendees about leaders they admire, many said their mothers. First Lady Michelle Obama also was on several lists of most admired leaders.
“If you could meet Michelle Obama, what would you want to ask her?” DuBois Walton asked. One girl said she would want to know if it is stressful being married to the president.
“It looks like it’s stressful,” she said, which drew some chuckles.
Pamela Nealy, director of the Pink Diamonds program for the Boys & Girls Club of Gainsville, Ga., said she’d simply want to pick Obama’s brain about raising two daughters and keeping them inspired to achieve. She also would want her tips for how to help girls understand that who they are now can impact who they can become later.
“When I graduated from high school, I had a 1.5 GPA,” Nealy said. “I wasted a lot of time when I was their age. You don’t have time for people to take you away from you.”
This year’s conference took on as its theme “Sisters Rise: Why We Matter,” echoing the concept of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Carla Morrison, founder and executive director of SOT, said women are finding their voice, leading in all arenas, and standing against injustice, and by introducing young girls to women who are doing these very things, the conference helps prepare the next generation to lead. Next year the conference will be held in Atlanta. It is scheduled to return to New Haven in 2018.