West40’s goals are audacious. We don’t just want to help students graduate, or just get them back on track. We want to turn each and every student into a leader in their community.
On a sunny Saturday in February, nearly 100 middle-school-aged young women and their mothers and guardians gathered in River Grove, Illinois, for this unique West40 event. As they enjoyed breakfast and found their seats in the auditorium at Triton College, they prepared for a day devoted to empowering future female leaders.
To kick off the day, college president Mary-Rita Moore welcomed the group and told them to expect a day of inspiration and emotional connections. She was followed by Karen Yarbrough, the first woman of color to become Cook County Clerk, and Dr. Carmen Ayala, the first woman and the first person of color to serve as the State Superintendent of Schools.
“It’s my hope,” Ayala said, “that one day each of you will be standing on a stage like this, helping the next generation of leaders. And your parents will say to you, ‘All of your hard work, all of your sacrifice has paid off.’”
After the introductions, it was time to get to work in the breakout sessions. Students and their guardians split up—with some sessions designed just for the girls, and others for their mothers. One of the most memorable sessions was “Effective Negative Communication.” In this session for students, the moderator challenged the group to think about times they had made negative comments to other girls. First, the girls cut out a paper doll called “Greenie” and were asked to insult the doll’s appearance. With each insult, they tore another piece off of the doll until it was in shreds. As the moderator talked about the power of negative comments and how to heal from them, each girl taped her doll back together, and was left with a vivid metaphor about how to support her fellow students.
The other sessions covered a variety of topics, from mental health awareness to information on applying for college and getting scholarships. In one especially powerful session, mothers and daughters wrote letters to each other, explaining the dreams they have and how they’ll work together to achieve them.
After taking part in some final sessions, the girls received state-issued participation certificates from Rep. Willis. Each student also received a commemorative book about the late Judy Baar Topinka, provided by her son, Joseph Baar Topinka, who has chronicled her life as the Illinois State Treasurer and the state’s first female nominee for Governor.
And after hours of bonding, encouragement and inspiration from community volunteers, West40 staff members, and special guests, they were left with the words of speakers like Katrina Thompson. Thompson, the mayor of Broadview, said, “Remember that you can always choose to look forward. As women, as leaders, we can all get excited about something good and positive. We can choose to go to the next level.”