LONG BEACH — The lineup of female trailblazers was undoubtedly impressive, but what they represent in a world where women still struggle daily for equality and respect, on scales minuscule and monumental, remains extraordinary.
Five women who have helped shape women's roles in law, business, volunteerism and politics during the past 30-plus years were honored before thousands at the final event of Tuesday's Women's Conference 2010, the Minerva Awards.
Maria Shriver, whose work organizing the Women's Conference in recent years has brought it onto a global stage by encouraging participation from heads of state and international leaders, called this year's Minerva winners "women who have changed so many lives and encouraged and empowered countless more.
"These Minervas all identified problems and unmet needs in their communities and have worked tirelessly to solve them. By honoring them, we hope to inspire others to be architects of change just like them."
Those honored were retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the nation's first female jurist on the nation's highest court; television and publishing magnate Oprah Winfrey; Oakland community activist Oral Lee Brown; humanitarian and prison counselor Sister Terry Dodge; and Carolyn Blashek, whose Operation Gratitude nonprofit
The O `connection'
Winfrey, head of a $1 billion-plus empire and perhaps the most influential of the 2010 Minerva winners, credited her decades of success with what she describes as a "connection" with average people everywhere.
"This is rewarding and humbling because none of us here do what we do to receive recognition," Winfrey said. "But it feels good to know that the work I've
In a rousing speech, Winfrey encouraged men and women to cope with criticism, hardship and adversity by learning and summoning strength from within as well as friends, family, co-workers and loved ones.
"Every time you get talked about, you turn your head and keep on strutting, and you get a little stronger," Winfrey said. "What I know for sure is it isn't enough to be powerful, but to know how to use that power" whether within the home, neighborhood, school, workplace and elsewhere.
"If you use your entire life in service and in surrender to a higher calling, you will be blessed to be your own Minerva and to live your dreams."
Supreme Court jurist
O'Connor, who served from 1981 to 2006, joked that "what you are seeing at the moment is probably the first and last time an unemployed cowgirl will receive a Minerva award."
In reflecting on her historic career, O'Connor reminisced on the many obstacles she faced before her rise to the Supreme Court, an accomplishment unthinkable before the modern women's rights movement.
"That action opened countless doors for women across the nation and had consequences around the world subsequently," O'Connor said. "I'm grateful to have that privilege, but even more grateful for the opportunities it opened for women across the world."
Now 80, O'Connor is deeply involved in projects educating students about U.S. government, particularly their role in shaping policy and forcing changes, locally and globally.
Helping former inmates
Minerva winner Dodge heads Crossroads, Inc., a group providing transitional housing, education, career and counseling services and overall support to hundreds of women released from prison.
To date, more than 400 women have successfully rebuilt their lives and reconnected with family through Crossroads.
"The work I do is not extraordinary," Dodge said. "If it seems extraordinary, it is because not enough of us are doing it."
Through her years with Crossroads, Dodge has worked with thousands of women, many in prison, addicted to drugs and seemingly without much prospect for the future, to read, write, learn job skills, remain sober and regain hope.
Shriver noted that Dodge's work helps ensure these women "don't end up back on the streets or behind bars, given that is the one scenario in which everyone loses.
Oakland community activist Brown, who founded a small scholarship foundation for youngsters in her poverty-stricken community, was feted for launching the program by digging into her own meager bank account.
"I said I was going to get $10,000 for scholarships, and it's just grown so great" from those humble beginnings, gaining corporate sponsorships and widespread financial and volunteer support from throughout California.
To date, more than 400 Oakland youth have received scholarships to some of the nation's premier universities thanks to "Mama Brown."
"Every child in America deserves a good education, and if we work at it, we can do it," Brown said.
Minerva winner Blashek founded Operation Gratitude in 2003, when she sent a care package to an unknown soldier serving in Iraq. Since then, the organization has evolved nationally, organizing 550,000 care packages to service members serving abroad since.
Blashek said it's "not only important that our troops are honored and remembered by receiving the packages and letters, but that the rest of us show our appreciation for them as well by working side by side in the packing efforts," which often draw hundreds of volunteers.
"Serving those who serve us is both an expression of thanks from a grateful nation and a fitting tribute to our military heroes who inspire us to a cause greater than ourselves," Blashek said.
Tuesday's Minerva Award ceremony wrapped up eight years of leadership of the women's conference for first lady Shriver, which now draws more than 30,000 guests. Under her leadership, the two-day event has drawn world leaders such as Warren Buffett, the Dalai Lama, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King and Betty Ford.
The event's growth has also been a boon for Long Beach, which has managed to maintain the conference's commitment to the city despite phenomenal growth. In addition to the 30,000-plus guests, the event draws hundreds of international media members and given city boosters a tremendous platform.
Kristopher Hanson 562-499-1466 email@example.com