This piece originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub, and is written by Katie Sanders.
“We all want to be the main character in our own lives,” 11-year-old Marley Dias, the social activist behind #1000BlackGirlBooks, told the crowd at the Foundation For Letters’ annual fall benefit in New York City. Founded by social entrepreneur Mike Jackson, Foundation For Letters provides students from underserved schools with access to writing programs. This year’s benefit, hosted by Rebecca Gitana Torres of Lifestyle Remix, celebrated trailblazers forging paths for women of color in literature.
Dias – who started an international movement to collect and donate children’s books featuring Black girls as the lead characters – was honored alongside actress and philanthropist Vivica A. Fox; Brooklyn principal, author, and community activist Dr. Nadia Lopez; New York Times reporter Catherine Saint Louis; and author, philanthropist, and television host Carmen Rita Wong. Here’s what these women had to say about who inspires them and how they’ve learned to find power in their voices.
Vivica A. Fox, actress, producer, and host
“Two people really inspired me. The first is [actress] Pam Grier, one of the strongest, most beautiful, kick-butt women I’d ever seen. I actually named my production company – Foxy Brown productions – after her. The second was Diana Ross. I remember seeing her in concert. I had never seen an African-American woman with that hair – with her whole look. Those two women made me want to become who I am today. And to get there, you have to believe in yourself. If you want to see your dream come true, you have to go get it. Success is not going to come knocking at your door. You have to make it happen.”
Marley Dias, founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks
“I started the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign so I could read books where Black girls were main characters. There are too many voices being excluded. Books assigned in schools need to be more equitable. We need more diverse stories featuring all of our voices. Now my mission is so much bigger than just me. I want to help create spaces where we all felt heard.”
Dr. Nadia Lopez, founder and principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy
“When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher, Mr. Magniano, had us read 1984. It’s set in the future where pretty much everything you do is under surveillance by Big Brother. This is going to sound weird, but the book made me think a lot about what the future would look like and what was even possible. Now that I’m an adult, I can see all the things that have happened, whether it’s Wikileaks or whatever. It amazes me how this literature could speak into existence some of the things that we are seeing today – and that there were authors that were bold enough to tell those types of stories unapologetically. It just goes to show you how important the author’s voice is.”
Catherine Saint Louis, Health & Science reporter at The New York Times
“A lot of us are waiting for outside people to give us their blessing [to do whatever it is that we want to do], and that day might not ever come. No one is going to come to you and say that you’re a poet [or] a journalist. To this day, people question the things I want to write about or do. You have to carve out your own identity. Don’t wait to feel like you belong. Because at the end of the day, writing is you and a blank computer screen. You either have the courage to forge ahead or not. Find it in yourself and [surround yourself with] people who believe in you. That is what will take you to that next level.”
Carmen Rita Wong, philanthropist, television personality, and author of Never Too Real
“I started out as an assistant in the media business. And no matter what I did or said or how hard I worked – I even went and got a graduate degree – I was still told I could not write. So what did I do? I went ahead and wrote a book on my own, which got published. That led to my own TV show, appearances on the The Today Show, CBS, CNN, hoards of national advice columns, and it turned into my own business. My point is: Don’t let them tell you that writing will get you nothing, or that you don’t need to be heard. I wrote my fiction series because, as a first-generation Latina, I was tired of not being reflected in pop culture, on bookstands and television. Successful Latinos, our stories need to be up there. We deserve to be up there.”
Images courtesy of Foundation For Letters
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