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5 women blazing a trail in Central Illinois and beyond

5 women blazing a trail in Central Illinois and beyond
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BLOOMINGTON — We may be 24 years into the 21st century, but women are still making “firsts” in history, in their careers, and in the communities. And while making oneself known as a trailblazer often comes with the responsibility of leadership, the best leaders know that every person on the team deserves respect and appreciation, regardless of their title.

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Good leaders also never forget where they came from, and what it took to get where they are now. As Judge Carla Wheeler-Barnes says in this final installment of Women’s History Month Q&A’s, “Always be empowered and believe in yourself. Once you make it, reach back and bring the next woman up with you.”

Here are five women doing just that in Central Illinois.

Jamel Wright







Wright




About Jamel: A native of St. Louis, Jamel Wright received a bachelor’s degree from Missouri Western State University and her master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, all in communication studies. She is in her seventh year as president of Eureka College and is the first woman and African American to lead the institution.

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Tell us about your mentors or role models.

I have a long list of mentors and role models whom I greatly appreciate, but the one I think about every day is my late mother, Shirley Santa Cruze. She was strong, kind, intelligent, and a very savvy businesswoman. She was the epitome of a role model and taught me to live by the motto: To whom much is given, much is expected and required.

What words of wisdom do you have for young girls or women in today’s world?

(1) Keep your bones strong — backbone, wishbone, funny bone — and get your sight checked regularly — hindsight, blindsight, foresight, (2) Commit to a self-care routine, (3) Ask for and seek help when needed, (4) Know that your voice is influential and be intentional in how you use it, and (5) Be bold by advocating for and never devaluing yourself.

What community or world issue are you passionate about, and why?

Community: Growing workforce and wage gaps. The ways in which Eureka College can strengthen the economic development ecosystem by partnering with employers and other community and higher education leaders to address these widening gaps.

World: Inequity in all its forms and the ways to address this complex, enduring and sometimes hidden or normalized issue.

What is your hope for women 100 years from now?

My hope is that women and allies have eliminated pay equity gaps and that we are well past experiencing women as the first to lead because women in leadership across all industries becomes the norm.

What can people do to support your efforts at work or in the community?

Support my students with employment and scholarships, partner with EC to co-create programs/degree pathways that close workforce gaps, especially for those whose career path requires a bachelor’s degree.

Pam Reece







Pam Reece

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Reece

 


About Pam: Pam has served as Normal city manager since 2018 — the first woman to fill that role in Normal — and previously was deputy city manager from 2010 to 2018. She first began her career with the town in 1991. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master of Public Administration, both from Western Michigan University. She has served on boards for the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, United Way of McLean County, McLean County Chamber of Commerce, The Baby Fold and the Heartland Healthcare Coalition.

What inspires you in your work?

The town leadership team, all our staff and the elected officials inspire me every day. I have the pleasure and honor of serving an organization with remarkable staff, and leading the organization toward our long-range goals is inspirational. Our actions today define our community of the future, and that is exciting.

Tell us about your mentors or role models.

Early in my public sector career, my mentors were very talented, well-respected men in the city manager profession: former city managers Dave Anderson and Mark Peterson. I learned so much from them about all aspects of leading a municipality. When I first started with the Town of Normal, there were few female city management professionals in Illinois.

My notable personal role models are countless, but the ones I’d highlight are my wonderful and talented mom, my gifted mother-in-law and my amazing friends who set exceptional examples in everything they do.

What words of wisdom do you have for young girls or women in today’s world?

You have a voice, and you can make a difference. And it’s OK to be proud of your successes.

What do you think makes a good leader?

A valued leader genuinely cares about individuals and the team, listens to others, is thoughtful, intentional and humble, is a critical thinker, demonstrates empathy and accountability, and helps others achieve their goals.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

My professional accomplishment of which I’m most proud is being selected as Normal’s third city manager, entrusted to lead the organization for the last six years.

S. Georgia Nugent







Illinois Wesleyan University President S. Georgia Nugent

Nugent




About Georgia: Nugent first came to Illinois Wesleyan University as interim president in August 2019 and was elected as the university’s 20th president in November that year, making her the first woman to serve in that role at Wesleyan. She previously served as president of Kenyon College for 10 years, and later as interim president at The College of Wooster. She also taught on the classics faculties of Brown University, Cornell, Kenyon and Swarthmore College, and served in many leadership roles at her alma mater, Princeton University.

What inspires you in your work?

What has inspired me throughout my career is the thrill of teaching: when you see light in the eyes of someone who has just grasped a new concept, had a revelation, gained an insight that may change their life.

What community or world issue are you passionate about, and why?

I remain passionate about the value of education. Access to education made such a dramatic difference in my life — I want to do all I can to see that others have that opportunity. I’m deeply disturbed by the current trend in this country to denigrate education, to reject the concept of expertise. I worry what this will mean for the future of our country.

What’s still on your to-do list in life? What are your goals?

Just continuing to be a lifelong learner, always curious to understand more.

What do you think makes a good leader?

I believe that an effective leader, first of all, must have great self-knowledge. There will be many obstacles and tests along the way, and if someone is not very clear about their personal values, what they believe in, what they aspire to, they may lose their way, their sense of mission, and they may not be successful in persuading others. Because a fundamental aspect of leadership is to accomplish a goal through organizing and energizing, and inspiring the efforts of others.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

In some ways, I am most proud of my college degree. No one in my family had gone to college, and I remember thinking, on my Commencement Day, “I’ve accomplished this. It can never be taken away from me.” That feeling of personal accomplishment, I think, gave me the impetus to always go further, to test the limits of what was possible.

Carla E. Barnes-Wheeler







Judge Carla E. Barnes-Wheeler

Barnes-Wheeler




About Carla: In 2021, Carla became the first Black judge appointed in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court. She previously served as the county’s chief public defender since 2014, where she was the first Black attorney to hold the position and the first Black administrator in McLean County. She started in the Public Defender’s Office in 2001 and previously served as an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County and McLean County.

What words of wisdom do you have for young girls or women in today’s world?

There will be many moments where you will fail. You will work hard and do your best, but for whatever reason you may not make the cut, get the job or pass the test. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Don’t redirect or deflect; stay the course and on that path! You may need to work harder, meditate, pray and ask for help. Do whatever you need to do, but don’t give up. Failure can lead to success. Nothing ever comes easy, and nothing worth having will ever be given to you. Success, for most of us, isn’t passed down, or given to you. You have to work for it; you have to work through the failures in life to succeed.

There will be people who will tell you that you aren’t good enough. They want you to believe that you aren’t smart enough and you shouldn’t be where they are. That you should not hold the same position making the same pay as them. You will walk into the room and they may not speak or acknowledge your existence. You may not be addressed with common everyday courtesy. Yes, it happens! Don’t ever believe them. You must first always believe in yourself. Do not let dream killers ever stifle your ambition. What GOD has for you is already yours; you just have to stay the course. Take that negative energy and let it serve as your motivation. It is going to happen, and how you react will determine the course of your life. Always be empowered and believe in yourself. Once you make it, reach back and bring the next woman up with you.

What do you think makes a good leader?

Always lead by example. Good leaders don’t expect or request you to do anything that they have not or would not do. Good leaders are in the trenches with you and their door is always open. They constantly support, uplift and guide members of the team. They are your cheerleader even when deadlines are not met, or the outcome is adverse. That’s not to say they don’t apply the right amount of pressure or set high expectations. But they are compassionate when the time calls for it! A good leader understands that there will be setbacks, but is there to help motivate and move things forward.

People are most productive when they feel valued and know that they are a pivotal part of the team. Good leaders constantly show their appreciation, and their members know how important they are. They treat everyone with respect. No one is more important than the other. Salaries, positions or titles do not dictate the level of respect given or the appreciation shown.


Women’s History Month: 5 women empowering the next generation in McLean County

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

It’s no secret that I was born and raised by a single, poor and ill mother. However, she taught her four children that education would change our lives. It was for her, the key to success. She taught us to never expect anything from others and to never have your hand out asking for anything! Government assistance was never to be a permanent way of life. You should want better, and if you are able to, you do better! She taught us to go out in the world and work. All four of her children believed her, and we each have our own level of success. I am proud of my family for how far we have come. I am proud of my children; they are becoming responsible adults thriving in this community.

I was taught to give back. For me, I try to give of my time. For a couple of years I hosted the children at Western Avenue Community Center in my courtroom. Last year they had an opportunity to meet with a probation officer, public defender as well as myself. They had lunch in the state’s attorney’s office; Judge Knapp stopped by and the kids seemed to really enjoy it. One of the kids said, “there’s a judge that looks like me, we both had an afro!”

What I’m most proud of is the Carla E. Barnes endowed scholarship I created at Illinois State University. While I was a student there, I was a single parent. My scholarship is designated for single parents and first-generation students. ISU is a great institution and I am so proud to give back in that way. I am dedicated to growing that endowment yearly to make it a more meaningful lasting legacy.

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What is your hope for women 100 years from now?

No more firsts! I am proud and honored to be the first Black circuit judge in our circuit, but in 100 years, I hope we aren’t still knocking down those ceilings. In 100 years from now, I hope that when there is a woman president of the United States, it’s not a shock or a movement, but our everyday reality. Women have proven to be equal with men in every aspect of society, education, business and every other professional field, and we will continue to thrive and make our mark in history.

Who is a woman in history that you admire, and why?

No one knows Channie Lou Dumas but our family. My grandmother took her children in the midst of night from a sharecroppers field in Mississippi. While there, her children, my mother and uncles, picked cotton at the age of 5 years old. She brought them and others north to Chicago. Other relatives stopped in Indianapolis and Danville, and she settled in East Chicago Heights. Channie Lou Dumas changed our entire life, and I admire her most.

Sonja Reece







Sonja Reece

Reece


About Sonja: Sonja served 24 years on the Normal Town Council, from 1991 to 2015, and was mayor pro tem for eight years. She has been active in United Way and the Economic Development Council, operates a consulting business, and currently is interim executive director of the Community Health Care Clinic in Normal.

Tell us about your mentors or role models.

I’ve been blessed to have many mentors over the years. Normal Mayor Carol Reitan encouraged me in my first year on the Normal Council. I’ve learned so much from Judy Buchanan, Mary Caisley, Deanna Frautschi and Julie Dobski on how to engage others.

What words of wisdom do you have for young girls or women in today’s world?

I would encourage the younger generation to step up and get involved with whatever interests you. Don’t wait to be asked. We need fresh eyes and a new approach to issues.

What community or world issue are you passionate about, and why?

I continue to be passionate about having good local government leaders. Political polarization just stalls progress. Find some common ground and work on that.

What’s still on your to-do list in life? What are your goals?

Helping people organize their records is still on my to-do list. I am delighted when I hear stories of how that has helped a spouse or family manage their affairs.

Nearly 130 years since the first three women were elected to state legislative offices in the U.S., women remain massively underrepresented in state legislatures. Democrat Kayla Young and Republican Patricia Rucker are on different sides of many issues at the West Virginia’s Legislature, but they both agree that too few women lawmakers is hurting their state.




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