October 27, 2014 — Selected for their outstanding commitment to women’s empowerment, racial justice and social change, the YWCA Evanston/North Shore honored Mary Morten, Gail Vierneisel, Kourtney Cockrell and Illinois Holocaust Museum before a packed audience of over 400 at the seventh annual YWomen Leadership Awards Benefit in Evanston on October 22.

The theme of the event, ‘tipping the balance,’ was based on an Alice Walker quote: “There is as much human capacity as there is human cruelty in the world and it is up to every one of us to tip the balance.”

“You can replace those words with equity and inequity, justice and injustice,” said Karen Singer, President and CEO of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, “but what is important is that each of us continue to work, individually and collectively, to tip that balance towards equity and justice. In different ways, each of our honorees uses their voice to give voice to others; bridging diverse communities, breaking down barriers, opening up access and opportunity, and sharing stories so we will never forget our common humanity.”

Mary Morten, president of Morten Group, has dedicated her career to advocating for women, people of color and the LGBTQ community, most recently producing and directing the award-winning documentary film ‘Woke Up Black.’ “I think being able to lift up the voices and the stories of people who are marginalized and in some cases just don’t have any sort of voice is really important,” says Morten.

Gail Vierneisel, Assistant State’s Attorney serving Cook County, is a tireless defender of the survivors of domestic abuse, ensuring that abusers are held accountable for their crimes and helping women find a voice in the criminal justice system. “I want the victims to know,” said Vierneisel, “that there is no shame in telling people what’s been going on.”

Kourtney Cockrell, who received the Lorraine H. Morton Woman of Promise Award, is Director of the Center for Student Enrichment Services at Northwestern. She has spent a decade working to increase access to educational opportunities for young people from nontraditional backgrounds. “There’s a huge need here in Evanston and in Chicago,” says Cockrell, “and I would really like to prepare these students to go on and to pave the way for their community and their families.”

Also honored was the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost, by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice and indifference, and by engaging students in a meaningful dialogue about aligning their actions and their words to build positive relationships and foster social awareness. “We’re teaching these universal stories,” says Susan Abrams, CEO of the Museum. “This is a humanity issue … if people don’t stand up and act, then these are things that happen over and over again.”

Presented by BMO Harris Bank and chaired by Susan Hope Engel, the benefit grossed over $110,000 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 www.ywca.org/evanston.