“Looking around the room tonight, I can’t help but be reminded of the famous Margaret Mead quote: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that has.’ I am honored and humbled to be in the company of such a group of thoughtful and committed women and men who are working in many different ways to make a difference in our communities.”

This opening from Karen Singer, Executive Director of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, set the tone for the YWCA’s third annual YWomen Leadership Awards, presented by Harris Bank, as the capacity crowd of 400 at the Hilton Orrington in Evanston on October 14th gathered to honor Bernice Weissboard, Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Courtney Wright and Evanston Women’s History Project.

The honorees were chosen by the YWCA Evanston/North Shore for their outstanding commitment to women’s empowerment, racial justice and social change. An early childhood educator, Bernice Weissboard founded the nationwide Family Support Movement, launched Family Focus Evanston and later helped develop seven Family Focus Centers in the Chicago area. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Associate Professor of African-American Studies and Sociology at Northwestern University is an author and activist widely credited for her research into the social and economic consequences of HIV/AIDS on Chicago-area women, with particular emphasis on African-American women. Courtney C. Wright, the Lorraine H. Morton Young Woman of Promise Award winner, is a 2003 graduate of Evanston Township High School. She has spent the last two years in Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she developed economic and personal empowerment programs for women and girls. The Evanston Women’s History Project documents and celebrates the stories of the many women and women’s organizations that have made Evanston the community it is today. Their new exhibit, “Lifting as We Climb: Evanston Women and the Creation of a Community,” is currently on display at the Evanston History Center.

In accepting their awards, all of the honorees thanked the mentors who provided the inspiration for their work. As Courtney Wright said, “it was in a high school classroom at ETHS where my dreams began, and if it weren’t for [my teachers], I wouldn’t be here tonight.”

Presented by Harris Bank and co-chaired by Susan Hope Engel and Niki Moe Horrell of Evanston, the benefit raised nearly $100,000, the net proceeds from which support YWCA programs that empower women, including financial literacy classes and domestic violence services, which are provided free of charge to the community. A link to the YWomen film about the honorees by filmmaker Susan Hope Engel is available at ywca.org/evanston.