Selected for their outstanding commitment to women’s empowerment, racial justice and social change, the YWCA Evanston/North Shore honored Alaka Wali, Mercedes Fernandez, Rohina Malik, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority before a packed audience of over 400 at the sixth annual YWomen Leadership Awards Benefit in Evanston on October 16, 2013.

“Our 2013 YWomen honorees come from India, Peru, England and the United States, but they have so much in common,” remarked Karen Singer, President and CEO of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore. “Each of our honorees chooses to see the world through the lens of a common humanity and each chooses to use her voice, be it through anthropology, theater, organizing, or mentoring, to create communities in which all individuals and cultures are better understood, valued, included and have equal opportunities to thrive.”

Alaka Wali, an anthropologist, is the founder of the Chicago Cultural Alliance and curator and research director at the Field Museum in Chicago. “Understanding the reasons for differences helps us to take the value judgment out of different,” explains Wali. “It helps us live in mutual respect with people whose beliefs are different from our own. And working toward cultural understanding gives each of us the chance to define more clearly what we believe, to know ourselves and each other better and, ultimately, to strengthen connections between us all.”

Mercedes Fernandez is the founder of Latinos in Skokie and Latino Liasion Coordinator at Evanston Township High School. A human rights advocate in her native Peru, Mercedes founded Latinos in Skokie to empower Latino families through education, information and mutual support. “We have been invisible for decades” said Mercedes, “and now is the time to become visible, create a solidarity network, to get rid of fear and feel a part of the mainstream society.”

Rohina Malik, the Lorraine H. Morton Woman of Promise honoree, is a Chicago-based playwright, actress and solo performance artist. A Chicago Dramatist’s resident playwright and nominee for the 3 Arts Artist Award in playwriting, Rohina uses art to expose racism and prejudice, particularly as they affect our understanding of Muslim women. “The plays I write tend to deal with racism, identity, race and stereotyping because they are the issues that I really care about,” says Malik. “Theater brings people together. And theater is dialogue.”

Also honored was Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., the second oldest African American sorority in the world whose mission is to provide assistance and support through established programs in local communities throughout the world. Two local initiatives, Delta Gems and Delta Academy, provide the framework for at-risk, adolescent girls to realize their dreams through education and academic enrichment, community involvement, and sisterhood.

“As you leave here tonight, I hope you will remember what Rohina said so eloquently in the film: ‘It’s a ripple effect. You may have touched one heart. That will touch another heart, which will touch another heart’.”

Presented by BMO Harris Bank and co-chaired by Susan Hope Engel and Niki Horrell of Evanston, the benefit grossed over $100,000 to 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 will be available at