Many people are quick to say that our community lacks good female role models; I beg to differ. There are Successful Sistahs all around us. Many have had to overcome great odds to attain the success they have today. Their stories serve as motivation to us all. Periodically, THEBLACKERTHEBERRY features a Successful Sistah from Richmond, VA and beyond to showcase her success, while empowering others.
As a graduate student studying counselor education, Cheleah Jackson likes the idea of being able to provide for children something she feels she lacked in her schooling experience – affirmation. During her experience as a career counselor in a small inner-city school in Richmond, Jackson enjoyed being around the youth, not only as a listening ear, but as a resource. “I loved being with them, talking about college and helping in that process. I loved hearing about their families, and their personal struggles, and helping them think through ways to manage life. I valued being able to tell the students that they were wonderful in their own skin; something that I wish someone would have told me before I ventured off to college.”
Jackson is from Tappahannock, Virginia, about an hour or so from Richmond – a small area called Hustle, to be exact. Jackson comments on growing up with identity issues, which weren’t helped by coming up in a home with substance abuse. “You start to see yourself as less valuable and question whether things are your fault or not,” she adds. Nonetheless, she had a great high school experience. Her mom was a school counselor and her older brother attended the same school, so she was known by association. Additionally, she was on the tennis team, served as captain of the debate team and was involved in student council. Jackson saw school as her ticket to break out on her own and find herself.“I focused on my education, knowing that I wanted to go to college and leave the small town. I was afraid of being stuck there, you know? Not that I would never go back there, I just wanted the chance to leave and do my own thing. For many of my classmates, that didn’t seem like an option.”
Jackson commends her relationship with Christ as her saving grace in childhood and had the opportunity to work on that relationship furthermore in college at the University of Richmond. “I decided to take my faith in Christ seriously and that led me down a different path – one that I am grateful to be on, although when living on a college campus, it sometimes seemed like a boring life. You know, one where you don’t indulge in the ways that others may.” Nonetheless, she didn’t let that deter her. She stuck to her guns. “Nothing against their way of living at all, I just chose to use my time traveling, volunteering, scoping out the music scene in surrounding areas like DC and NC.” College also allowed Jackson to explore her racial identity. “UR taught me to be secure in my Blackness. Being Black is beautiful and I never thought much about race until being a minority on a campus where most of the people attending are vastly different from anything I had ever known.”
Speaking of racial identity, Jackson feels that the greatest ill black children in Richmond face is the fact that many grow up not knowing their identity. “Not knowing who they are and what type of people they come from,” says Jackson. She recounts an experience at the Richmond Slave Trail, where she was told by a Cameroonian tour guide about the rich history of Africa. “I will never forget when he shared that we, Blacks in America, are the descendants of the strongest, brightest, and most courageous Africans. Our students today tend to laugh when they see someone that’s darker skinned, or they seem to put someone down if they are doing well academically. There are many reasons for this, most of which cannot be blamed on the students, but I believe this inferiority complex is what is continuing to hurt the children in Richmond,” Jackson adds.
Jackson leaves us with these words about who she is. “I am imperfect. I love Jesus and I am pursuing truth and happiness. I am aware of how blessed I am and that manifests itself in the ways that I love others.”
We must think of love as food – if we don’t give love to the Richmond community, our people will surely starve. Jackson reminds us about the importance of giving back, the importance of providing the love we may or may not have received as children to today’s youth.
To contact Cheleah Jackson, you can email here at Cheleah.firstname.lastname@example.org. Jackson has also cultivated an interested in photography. Look for an upcoming feature of her work on theBlackertheBerry.org.
I’esha GaptoothDiva Hornes
“My life was a struggle within itself,” says I’esha GaptoothDiva Hornes, when reflecting on her past. But despite the negativity this Rockaway, Queens native has faced in life, she has blazed on, not only overcoming the obstacles thrown at her as a child, but also turning the negativity into positivity, not only for herself, but for a plethora of fans as a media personality and key figure for women’s self-esteem and self-love in Richmond, VA and beyond.
Hornes’ beginnings were far from bright. An unstable home life, often bouncing in and out of poverty, set the stage for a problematic childhood. Being born to a teen mother and enduring molestation, physical and mental abuse from her own family failed to help matters. “. I was molested by many of the males in my family, excluding my father,” says Hornes. These factors contributed to Hornes devolping depression, bulimia and self-mutilating behaviors (cutting). “[In junior high and high school] I was so depressed and insecure that I constantly attempted suicide and self-destructive behavior. I experimented with drugs and dangerous situations, subconsciously with the intention of being killed.”
Her emotions directly translated into the classroom. “My home life added to my depression and stress, because of my unsupportive family, so when I wasn’t being self-destructive, ironically I buried myself in books and work. I felt as if I was an outcast, a black-sheep, very much isolated, so I stayed out of the house working a full time job while in high school,” adds Hornes. Hornes graduated from Huguenot High School in 2003. Quite naturally, low self-esteem was a major result of such a tumultuous upbringing. She reflects, “I was taught to act and feel inferior because of my skin tone, my weight, and my gap.”
Unlike many people who have endured rough childhoods, bullying was not a factor for Hornes. All that she went through forced her to toughen up and grow up fast. “I didn’t deal with much bullying because I was raised to fight. If I didn’t fight back, I got beat up when I got home, so I dealt with anger issues as a teenager often.”
As a little girl, in her heart of hearts, she aspired to become a talk show host, looking up to folks like Oprah and Rikki Lake. But in that same heart, she felt it was an impossible feat, simply because of her looks. “Because everyone would talk so negatively about my looks and my gap, I never had the courage to admit that as a kid I really wanted to be on television.” In fear of sharing her true aspirations, she always told people that she wanted to become a scientist when she grew up because it sounded intelligent and more fitting of her looks. Whether it was by becoming a talk show host or something else, becoming a media personality was still a dream of hers, but her lack of self-confidence got in the way. “I had no confidence initially, although I knew I was a great communicator, I had personality, and I can talk to people. I felt like I was too ugly to go down that road; unless I fixed the obvious (my gap, my weight, etc.) I wasn’t going to do much.”
Fortunately, there came a point in Hornes’ life when things started to turn around. “It wasn’t until my husband (then boyfriend) introduced me to church and to God that my life started to turn around,” says Hornes. “I discovered that I’m beautifully made and God-bodied.” Becoming closer to God and support from her husband instilled confidence in her, and that confidence was the driving force behind all that she has accomplished (and is still accomplishing) today. Hornes runs GaptoothDiva.com, a website that promotes positivity – motivation, fashion, music and more. She is also a plus size model and owner of DashA’veri, an online thrift store. You can also find her hosting online radio shows, emceeing events all over Richmond, participating in various forums for youth and women and supporting the community by showcasing Richmond’s best and brightest.
Hornes interest in media stems from her want to change how it influences its audience. “I think I’m one of the rebellious people when it comes to the media. I see television now and all I’m being overdosed with is: Thin, long cascading hair (relaxed or natural), no flaws, big inflated butts, and expensive labels of everything. Women of color although promoting feminism and girl power, sometimes still seem to want to adapt a European look and appeal, as if that’s the only way to be aspirational and inspiring to other black women,” comments Hornes. Recognizing the detrimental impact such media images has on young girls and women of color, Hornes decided to take a stand in a very inspirational manor. “I’m trying to combat this by sharing some aspects of my life and how I live, and unique people like me who are motivating in their own way. . I was that little girl who rarely had anyone to look up to because no one resembles me, but I chose to put myself out there as an example that is my fat, gap-tooth, loud, and eccentric personality with all it’s rough edges can go after what I’m passionate about, so can anyone else. I believe if more black women celebrated who they are, instead of trying to impose the same limitations that mainstream media tries to force down our throats, we would be able to empower each other much more than this.”
Today, I’esha GaptoothDiva Hornes is a thriving, young, black entrepreneur; however, she admits that sometimes, like for us all, confidence can still be an issue. Hornes shares, “I feel like my confidence dwindles when I think about some of the decisions I’ve made. I left a great but extremely stressful job to pursue my dream full time and be a mother full time at the same time. However my expectations of where I thought I would be today and where I actually am, sometimes makes me feel self-doubting. It’s struggle to juggle a two businesses, being a full time mother and wife, and still find time to be social, especially when the money isn’t flowing all the time.” But her remedy for the low points? Prayer with a dash of flair. “I’m reminded that I’m where I’m supposed to be and that my talent is meant to flourish and grow no matter what, so I keep myself grounded, humble, and prayed up… that’s my confidence recipe. It also doesn’t hurt to keep yourself dolled up with a cute outfit and a beat face (makeup done), either.”
Hornes gives much credit to God for all that she has achieved. “My accomplishments are God-given talents to change assumptions about what beauty, positivity, and awesomeness are. I’m blessed every day and I’m faithful enough to proclaim that, that is an accomplishment.” She also reflects on how far she’s come: “I’m alive after several suicide attempts, I’m still able to Praise God through the storm, I’ve been married to a wonderful man for ten years and been with him for almost fifteen, I have two beautiful (I mean gorgeous) little boys, I’m emailed and messaged almost daily by someone saying I inspired them, I motivated them, and I still have everything I need to keep doing it.” There is never a dull moment for Hornes; a TV show coming out in October, acting opportunities on the rise, more work with GaptoothDiva.com and taking DashA’veri, her thrift store, to new and higher heights are just a few things on her radar.
For our fellow sistahs, Hornes leaves a few words of advice. “Never feel like you are struggling by yourself. You are beautiful just the way you are, because God does not make mistakes. Every struggle, flaw, and obstacle is meant to teach us, make us stronger, and to show other people how blessed you can be. Never make anyone or anything push you into compromising your integrity, your health, and your beliefs. You are just as important as you want to feel, it just takes the courage to step into that light and be who you are. Be fearless!”
Southside native Zenobia Bey wears many hats. She’s a non-profit owner, a mentor in the community of Richmond and a spoken word artist with her very own CD on the market. As we all know, struggle comes with success. Bey’s personal struggles & successes all contribute to the Renaissance woman she is today.
“I wanted to be a song writer and music video director,” says Bey, reflecting on what she aspired to be as a child. She also admits to bullying as a child. “Unfortunately I was a bit of a bully,” Bey reveals. “[I] learned that my actions hurt other people’s feelings.” Even now, she admits to being a jokester. Overall, she had a smooth childhood. Bey, a graduate of Huguenot High School, doesn’t recall experiencing any discrimination in school, “but if there was I didn’t allow it to stop me from reaching my goals,” she says.
Community 50/50, Bey’s non-profit, works to empower youth and their families by promoting healthy living and community involvement. Community 50/50 also collaborates with other Richmond organizations on community service projects like feeding the homeless and clothing drives. Bey works very closely with BlackRVA, an organization that works to promote black culture and community to the Richmond area. “I play the role of supporting community service [events] and [adding] spoken word to various projects sponsored by BRVA,” Bey says. For more information on Community 50/50 and its upcoming community clean up on July 22, visit the website here.
Bey has been writing ever since she could remember. “I always would write then one day I went to a spoken word event and had an eye opening feeling,” Bey reflects. She has been performing spoken word for the past 2 years. She even started an open mic night called “Writer’s Block” at Visions Ultra Lounge in Richmond. Bey shares “I have a CD called, “Crab out the Barrel,” a mix between spoken word and hip-hop.” Her CD can be purchased here.
When looking back at the struggle she had to overcome to get where she is today, Bey does some soul searching. “The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was myself — telling myself I can do something and believing in myself despite what anyone says or does. I had to understand the importance of faith; when you step out on faith, you have overcome half the battle.”
She leaves us all with some words of wisdom: “Believe in yourself and take responsibility for your life and mistakes”.
Not only is Whitney a model for the camera, she is also an exemplary role model for young girls. Throughout her journey with modeling, Whitney has managed to stay true to herself and her goals, which is often hard to do in the modeling business. Modeling hasn’t always been a love of hers – “Modeling was never something I considered doing while growing up, however after the encouragement of family and friends, and after great consideration, I decided to give it a shot and fell in love with it,” says the Lynchburg, VA native. Like many children, Whitney had difficulty finding her identity. Unlike her earlier childhood years, Whitney notes a fairly easy transition into high school. “Due to my involvement in church and the fact that I associated primarily with a small but close group of like-minded friends I was able to avoid a lot of the temptations and pit falls associated with high school.”
Whitney recognizes the vital need for high self-esteem in modeling. “As a model It is extremely important to be comfortable in your own skin. If you’re not you can easily be pressured into changing your appearance into something you are uncomfortable with or doing work that may cause a moral conflict.” Her favorite part of modeling is the idea of self-expression. She also firmly believes that no dream is ever too big. “If I could have a spot on the cover of Vogue Magazine, I could officially say my biggest dream has come true,” says Whitney. Whitney plans to continue modeling, obtain her degree in broadcast journalism and possibly dabble into some acting. She’s always looked up to Oprah and aspires to have her own television show in the future.
Whitney wants aspiring models to know that it’s possible to retain your own identity in the business, as long as you have a strong moral foundation. She also urges young girls to reach for the stars. “No dream is too big as long as you work hard and aim high.” Whitney is also a friend of mine and I wish her the best in her endeavors!
To contact Whitney:
Facebook fan page: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=tn_tnmn#!/pages/Whitney-Symone/328304017229428
Taylor is THEBLACKERTHEBERRY’s youngest “Successful Sistah” to date, but don’t let her age fool you – she’s got a good head on her shoulders and a bright future lies ahead of her. She is a superb role model, not only for the youth, but for adults as well.
Taylor is a 9th grader, born and raised here in Richmond. Basketball, art and giving back to the community are a few of her main interests. “I’ve been playing basketball for five years,” says Taylor. All of those years in the court have certainly paid off already, as she is one of only three 9th graders on her school’s varsity team. Her interest in art is also close to her heart. Her favorite forms of art are drawing and painting. Despite her busy schedule, she makes time to give back to the community. Soup kitchens, homeless shelters and the police athletic league are among the places she spends time helping others.
While doing so well for herself and her community, Taylor has unfortunately faced a number of obstacles. “I have asthma — asthma and basketball…that makes things kind of hard, but I do the best that I can.” Another obstacle Taylor deals with is her age. “All of them [the other players] are older…it’s kind of intimidating,” she says. Gender also plays a role in her athletics in school; she complains of male athletes putting down female athletes. “When you try to go up against guys, they may laugh at you, but they are shocked when you play and beat them!”
She witnesses a lot of bullying and negativity at school, but fortunately, has never had to experience such ills herself. She knows bullying is wrong and recognizes the psychology behind the detrimental phenomenon. “Bullies have low self-esteem themselves,” Taylor asserts. Colorism, among other things, also affects the self-esteems of her fellow classmates. “Darker people are made fun of by lighter people,” says Taylor. She frowns upon such behaviors and insists, “You were made a certain way to be different from everyone else. You aren’t two of a kind and you should appreciate that.”
Quite naturally, Taylor isn’t certain of her future plans at this tender age, but she is sure of one thing: she’s going to college. “I want to continue playing basketball in college,” she says. And to all the boys who say girls can’t jump, Taylor says “Girls work hard and practice just as hard as you do. We’re just female, there’s not much difference!”
Ellen Sudderth has always been passionate about literature. She has recently taken this passion further with ESP (Ellen Sudderth Literary Event Planning), her book promoting agency. “E.S.P. is a door for seasoned and young authors who wouldn’t otherwise get a book signing deal. It also gives readers the feel of a book club without the commitment.”
Sudderth currently lives in Newport News, Virginia, but she reigns from Chicago, Illinois. There, she attended Bloom Trail High School. She recounts much controversy during her high school years. “My freshman year was shocking. After watching Roots, we had a riot. I was hit on my side with a brick but I was shielded from further violence. To this day, I don’t know who shielded my body, but I thank the Lord and I am forever grateful!” Sudderth attended Prairie State College in Chicago. “I didn’t finish because I had no direction,” says Sudderth. She finished her degree years later at a technical school.
In order to work with ESP, authors must submit their work to Sudderth. Once the work is reviewed and approved, ESP provides book signings and other events for the author. The inspiration behind Sudderth’s business lies in her son and the authors themselves. “I had always wanted my son to read more, but I realized that I was being a hypocrite not reading myself. A friend suggested I read Kimberly Lawson Roby’s Curtis series of books. “I read 8 books in less than 3 months – I was hooked on reading!” She also says that she wanted to thank authors for their work by giving back. With these motivations in mind, ESP was born.
Often, with great success comes great struggle. Sudderth speaks of her eldest daughter, who faced issues with colorism. It was just as painful for her as it was for her daughter herself. “I told my daughter that her black skin is beautiful!” Sudderth talks about one of the biggest challenges she faces with ESP, promotion. “I need the word spread about what we are doing here in Newport News.”
Sudderth leaves some words of advice for aspiring writers. “Don’t release your book to just anyone. Do your research. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” And some advice for college students: “If you plan to go to college, seek proper guidance.”
And for all: “Understand that you have greatness within you! “
If you are interested in contacting Ellen Sudderth, please visit her website, http://www.meetup.com/Meet-the-Author/members/9112059/. She is also on Twitter @mrssudds.