“I want to place their accomplishments within context –so I’m going off script for a moment,” Rebeccah Bennett told the audience during the awards portion of the St. Louis American Foundations’ 9th Annual Salute to Young Leaders reception at The Four Seasons Thursday night.
She served as Mistress of Ceremonies at this year’s program, presented by Wells Fargo Advisors. Before she called out the 20 exceptional individuals of the 2019 class of honorees, she acknowledged another group from a time when assuming a position of leadership was not an option for African Americans in this country.
The year was 1619. Enslaved men women and children were brought to the Jamestown settlement in Virginia as the first documented Africans in the United States. They were the first African-Americans – and they arrived on these shores in chains.
“The cumulative prayers, efforts, activities, strategizing, resistance, institution building and community development for 400 years have made it possible for us to celebrate these twenty,” Bennett said. “Every man, woman or gender fluid person who is being celebrated this evening is not just here because of their intellect, hard work and acumen.
They are here in part because of those things – yes. But in part because of the sacrifices of others who are in here. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, mentors and employers.”
Bennett said the investment in the Young Leaders by the supporters in the room is part of a longer lineage of people who have prayed their success into being as they endured the horrors of slavery, and the systemic oppression that continued as if the institution had never ended.
“They hoped that one day we would have orthodontists, vice presidents of this and that and community developers and people who have established their own nonprofits so they can give back,” Bennett said. “I want to locate the excellence of this group as part of a longer lineage that we should also be grateful for and thankful for.”
As with every year since the inception of Young Leaders, Bennett reminded the audience not to be shy about heaping on the praises of the honorees. Holding one’s applause until the end of all the names called in an effort to keep from being labeled disruptive is a form of blasphemy at Young Leaders.
“Ladies and gentlemen there are no inappropriate displays of love and affection this evening,” Bennett said. “I am relying on you to have an embodied response – to really get in it. If you want to clap, clap. if you want to stand up, go right ahead. “if you want to say, ‘that’s my baby,’ it is wholly appropriate for you to do so.”
The purpose of the unyielding energy was to have the support and celebration serve as fuel as the with their life’s work and service. “We know that it is not easy to get to this place,” Bennett said. “That they have had to climb and overcome many obstacles and impediments in their way. But let our enthusiasm be part of the wind beneath their wings.”
Each of the evening’s sponsors – Wells Fargo, Edward Jones, The Regional Business Council, Urban League and Webster University -delivered words of encouragement as the Young Leaders came up individually to accept their awards.
‘The new normal’
“This extraordinary group of individuals really defines the new normal,” said Larry Smith, First Vice President and Manager of Resource Development at Wells Fargo Advisors.
The old normal is what we went through to get here. We talked about underrepresentation for years in different organizations. But the new normal is what’s represented by these extraordinary individuals.”
The 2019 Young Leaders are as follows: Chiquita ‘Coach Chi’ Anderson, Crystal M. Carter, Cynthia Chapple, April T. Cole, Jami Ballentine Dolby, Evan W. Fowler, Jeremiah Giles, Shakia Gullette, Jennifer A. Haynes, Andrew Hubbard, Darryl T. Jones, Dan Lester, Diana Hill Mitchell, Cletra Peters, Ash Rohra Jr. Dominique Scott, Shar Smith, Ana Stringfellow, Felicia R. Williams and Nytilia Young.
“We’ve got individuals representing decision-making positions in higher education, in the legal field, in wealth management, in engineering, in economics, social services and healthcare. It runs the gamut,” Smith said. “ We have individuals – who are no longer the first – who are extraordinary.
We always talked about the first, but we now have individuals who are the new normal in an organization.”
Among that new normal is Cynthia Chapel. “I don’t want you to say that you have not met a black chemist,” Bennett said.
In addition to her work as Research and Development Chemist for ELANTAS PDG, Chapel is founder and managing director for Black Girls Do STEM. The program’s mission is to trigger and increase curiosity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the minds of black girls.
“One of the reasons I love this event is because we are in February, so this is when we celebrate Black History Month,” Bennett said. “Often times what we feature are African Americans in antiquity. The beautiful thing about this event is that we are featuring contemporary African Americans – who are blazing trails.”
In lieu of remarks, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis President and CEO Michael McMillan chose to point out one of the honorees that came out of the Urban League’s management team to reiterate the theme of the generational impact of uplifting and instilling values within the African-American community.
Darryl Jones II, Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships for Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, was five years old when he met McMillan. He was with his parents, who were in the audience, at the Annie Malone Parade back when it was located on Natural Bridge. McMillan credited Jones’ family for shaping him into the man he is today.
“Darryl is the embodiment of the type of person we all want this community to have – that gives back, that makes a difference,” McMillan said. “A person that took a corporate career where he was doing exceptionally well and said, ‘I appreciate this,’ but I want to give back and help every day. Not just in my spare time, but all the time.”
Bennett went off script again as she closed. She reminded the Young Leaders of the importance of them being a part of the continuum of the 400 year legacy of defiant optimism, sacrifice and resistance for the sake of the next generation by reaching back and grabbing others as they continue on their respective journeys.
“I say to you 20 outstanding young leaders, for all of the paths that you are blazing, if you are the only to walk along your path – if the paths do not widen as a consequence of your presence – then your leadership will have been constrained, and will only be relevant to your life,” Bennett said.
“Our work is to open the path. We are a part of the lineage. The baton has been handed to you.”