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As we move further away from 2020, the world seems just a little bit brighter.
This year’s Women of Excellence give us reason to feel positive about what surrounds us and what lies ahead. They’re proof that if you take the time to look, you will see beauty. You’ll find inspiration and feel passion. These extraordinary South Jersey women represent how much good still surrounds us.
We’re honored to celebrate them.
It’s time.

Photography by David Michael Howarth • Shot on location at Collingswood Ballroom

 

Fatihah Abdur-Rahman, Principal, Forest Hill Elementary School

Inspiration

Fatihah Abdur-Rahman, Principal, Forest Hill Elementary School

Every day, Fatihah Abdur-Rahman wears a string of pearls around her neck. She calls them her pearls of wisdom, and for her students, they’re so much more than a fashion accessory.

Fatihah is the principal at Camden’s Forest Hill Elementary School, where she started a mentoring group for girls called “PEARLs” (Positive, Elegant, Attractive, Radiant Leaders). She created the student group after learning girls of color were being suspended at disproportionately high rates, starting as early as 3rd and 4th grades, she says. Many of her students have experienced trauma and need resources to overcome it. Her program is meant to give that added support.

“The reality is, trauma doesn’t have a zip code,” says Fatihah. “It doesn’t have an age criteria. It impacts everyone.”

“When children are going through something hard, they need an outlet,” she says. “When they don’t know how to manage their emotions, they fight you, they try to flee or they freeze up. But if you teach them to recognize their emotions and channel it into something as simple as playing with a fidget spinner, you can redirect those emotions into something more positive.”

Fatihah knows how important this is, because she sees bits of herself in her students. Having been a teenage mom and a survivor of domestic abuse, she wants to help others learn how to cope and thrive despite the odds.

“When I was going through trauma, I was silent, and the silence impacted a lot of my decisions,” she adds. “I want to give people the opportunity to give a voice to their suffering and find support. True healing only comes when you open up yourself to others.”

Shira Haaz, Corporate Responsibility Manager, Subaru of America

Business Excellence

Shira Haaz, Corporate Responsibility Manager, Subaru of America

Shira Haaz has always believed companies have a responsibility to give back to the community.

“Companies do more than just make money – they have the power and the responsibility to contribute to communities that support them,” says Shira, corporate responsibility manager at Subaru of America. “But making an impact is more than just philanthropy and volunteerism. It’s also about making sure you create a brand that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion.”

At first, Shira didn’t know much about the automotive industry, she says, but she was passionate about helping companies give back and create better workplaces, and she saw an opportunity at Subaru to make an impact.

“I always understood that big brands have a responsibility to use their business and their power to do right by the community,” says Shira, whose mother owned an executive recruiting company for nonprofit executives. “I grew up knowing that business can be about more than just money.”

In her present role, she’s worked closely with the community to create programs and opportunities for residents in South Jersey. Some were already in place, like Subaru’s program to provide scholarships for Camden students to earn their associate degrees. Others she spearheaded, like creating resources to help the Camden School District strengthen its online learning curriculum during the pandemic.

Her career has always focused on giving back, Shira says. She came to the company after 5 years at Philabundance, where she was the senior marketing manager for the hunger-relief organization. She was also a long-time volunteer at Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and the founding chair of the Lemon Society of Philadelphia, which brings together young professionals to support the foundation. For her, work is a chance to better the world.

“The most important part of my job is feeling inspired and passionate about the work I do and the people we help,” says Shira. “If I don’t want to come to work and give it 150% and do work after hours to make sure we continue to become more strategic and more impactful every day, then I’m in the wrong role.”

 

Tatiana Mitchell, Founder, The NoBrakes Organization

Leadership Award

Tatiana Mitchell, Founder, The NoBrakes Organization

Tatiana Mitchell wants to show kids that a tough childhood doesn’t mean you’re destined to have a tough future. She knows that firsthand.

“I didn’t have the easiest childhood,” she says. “I grew up in a home with drug-addicted parents. I faced neglect and abuse. I was a teen mom of 2. I’m a suicide survivor. There were times when I didn’t know if I was going to make it – or if I even wanted to make it. But I had to keep going.”

Tatiana made the decision to not let those experiences define her, she says. And she has since dedicated her life to helping kids make the same decision.

“I grew up in Camden,” she says. “I was educated in its schools. This community has played a significant role in my life, but I know what resources I was missing as a kid. It was hurtful to grow up and see that those resources still don’t exist.”

So Tatiana decided she would become the person she once needed. She founded the NoBrakes Organization, which provides behavioral therapy and education services to urban students in grades K-12. To put it simply, Tatiana’s nonprofit gives hope to children who have none.

What began as a local project to bring behavioral health resources into schools became a nonprofit that teaches kids to manage their emotions, work through trauma and overcome obstacles. She’s hosted book drives to promote youth literacy and organized projects to clean up neighborhoods to get kids involved in building up their own communities. Tatiana also gives motivational speeches to show kids that their circumstances don’t dictate where they can go in life. Since its start in 2016, NoBrakes has helped more than 600 students.

“I wanted kids to know that you don’t have to be a product of a rich neighborhood or perfect family to be a success,” adds Tatiana. “I was in the same exact seat they are sitting in now, and I overcame it.”

 

Loretta Winters, President, Gloucester County NAACP

Lifetime Legacy

Loretta Winters, President, Gloucester County NAACP

When Loretta Winters was born, she was diagnosed with kidney disease and given only 6 months to live. After spending most of her childhood in and out of hospitals, she fully recovered when she was a teenager.

“I didn’t have the luxury of growing up feeling young and invincible,” says Loretta. “I knew life wasn’t guaranteed, and I felt like God saved me for a reason. I didn’t know what that reason was, but I was determined to find out.”

You might say she has. Loretta currently serves as president of the Gloucester County NAACP, and she is the 2nd VP for the NAACP State Conference. She is a member of the board of directors for South Jersey Federal Credit Union and a former councilwoman and vice president for Monroe Township (the only woman of color to hold that title).

“There were so many things people told me I could not do,” says Loretta. “But I did, then I made sure to open the door so other people who look like me could do it too.”

When Loretta started at the NAACP more than a decade ago, she had no idea she’d one day be running it.

“You start with little things like helping with voter registration, and then you show up every now and again, and then you’re married to it,” she says. “I didn’t set out to do advocacy work, but every time I did, it felt like what I was supposed to do.”

And that work has been recognized. She’s the namesake of an 81/2-acre park named “Winters’ Cove,” and for anyone in New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District: December 15 is Loretta Winters’ Day. (It’s ok if you don’t celebrate, Loretta says she doesn’t either.)

“You don’t do it for the recognition, you really don’t,” she says. “But I realized that in accepting awards, in sharing my work, it gave me a bigger platform to reach more people and help others – and that’s all I aim to do.”

 

Shelley Zion, Faculty Director, PEER Lab | Rowan University

Game Changer

Shelley Zion, Faculty Director, PEER Lab | Rowan University

From the time Shelley Zion was a kid, she fixated on the idea that the world just isn’t fair.

“I am wired to take on fights – I always have been,” says Shelley, an urban education professor at Rowan University. “One of my very first classes in my PhD program asked us to write a statement on our core purpose. I remember calling my dad to say I have no idea what to write, and he immediately said, ‘That’s easy – your thing is that it’s not fair.’”

It seems that revelation has guided her life ever since.

Shelley started her career working in juvenile justice as a social worker, but when she wanted to become more directly involved with creating change on a larger scale, she looked to young people.

So, she went back to school. Her doctoral work focused on redesigning school systems to make students part of the conversation.

“Young people have been leading many of the marches and awareness of this past year,” she says, “and it’s been powerful to be able to witness and facilitate that.”

Shelley has secured more than $16 million in grant funding for schools across South Jersey and has partnered with high schools to create programs that foster student-centered change. As the Faculty Director of Rowan’s PEER Lab (Partnerships for Educational Equity & Research), she creates research-based initiatives that strengthen the community.

This year as she’s seen the country discuss race and equality in a way they haven’t in the past, she has focused on the connection between racial justice movements and how Covid-19 disproportionately impacts communities of color.

“The transition in our political landscape has created this really perfect space to start addressing conversations that we should have been addressing for centuries,” says Shelley. “We’ve reached this new level of awareness in people who otherwise might not have been paying attention. Now it’s time to take that awareness and create change.”

 

Digna Townsend, Confidential Aide to Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr.
President/Co-founder, South Jersey Young Democrats Black Caucus

Woman to Watch

Digna Townsend, Confidential Aide to Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr.
President, South Jersey Young Democrats

She hasn’t even celebrated her 30th birthday, and yet Digna Townsend can tell you about her successful history in politics and her work to make a difference.

“I felt from an early age that politics was the most effective way to bring about change,” says Digna.

Digna’s work in South Jersey politics may not always be immediately visible, but it’s powerful. She currently serves as the confidential aide to Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr., and she is president of the South Jersey Young Democrats. In her work with the Young Democrats, Townsend strives to arm members with the tools and resources they need to advocate for themselves and stand up for human rights.

“My goal is to make sure folks feel like they can get involved,” says Digna. “Trust me, I know what it’s like to not feel you have a place or a voice.”

Among many projects, Digna has helped spearhead a voter registration drive for colleges, co-hosted the Atlantic City Women’s March, and partnered with local Black businesses for a Black History Month Celebration.

But even after all these years in politics, she has no plans to pack up for the nation’s capital.

“Nothing against DC, but this is my home,” says Digna. “I feel that so often good talent believes they have to leave home to make a difference. But I think when you stay rooted in your home base, you have a greater opportunity to tackle issues that really matter.”

“This isn’t just a community I work for,” she adds. “It’s a community I’m a part of. These people are my neighbors. They’re the people I call my cousins, my brothers, my sisters, my family. These are the people I want to fight for.”

 


How honorees were selected: Over the past few months, readers nominated women they knew who were making a remarkable difference in their community or workplace. Seven South Jersey leaders reviewed the nominations and selected 6 women who exemplified what it means to be excellent.

Photography by David Michael Howarth Shot on location at Collingswood Ballroom

Styling by Sarah Gleeson

Makeup by Vanessa Lopez Hair for Shira Haaz by Alex Keating/Rizzieri Salon & Spa; for Shelley Zion, Amanda Faia/Rizzieri Salon & Spa and for Digna Townsend, Shelly Grimes/Beauty Trenz

Flowers by Michael Bruce Florist


See our 2020 Women of Excellence! 

May 2021
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