By Yvette L. Craig

Women In Focus, Inc. (WIF) celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with their annual Scholarship Dream Ball themed “Inspiring the Dream.”

The organization is dedicated to promoting educational achievements and excellence in students of color across the Madison community.  For 34 years, WIF has awarded scholarships to deserving area college-bound students as a means to inspire dreams. Last year, 12 students received the monetary gifts which totaled $30,000.

Since its formation in 1983, WIF has awarded over $500,000 worth of scholarships for students of color across Dane County who are pursuing college and continuing education degrees. Some scholarships also are granted to adult students returning to college after a hiatus for various reasons.

The black-tie gala, held Jan. 18 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, also honored one of its founding members Dr. Virginia Henderson who passed away in April. The legendary educator and matriarch to many, Henderson was a tireless advocate for education for children – especially children of color in Madison

“Education is the key,” WIF President Edith Hilliard said, quoting Henderson. 

Henderson worked as a school psychologist and an advisor to the superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District on matters of equity and diversity for 19 years.  In 1993, she created the African American Ethnic Academy to supplement the education of African American students, to build their self-esteem, and to increase their capacity to succeed in the world.

The Madison School Board is considering a proposal to rename Glendale Elementary School in her name Henderson worked for the school from 1976 to 1991. She then offered her talent and skills by serving as the special assistant to the superintendent for equity and diversity at central office until she retired in 1997.

“Dr. Henderson was a beloved and passionate educator who worked to advance learning, eliminate racial disparities and improve the lives of students of color in Madison,” said Verona Morgan, vice president of WIF.

The organization awarded the first memorial scholarship in Henderson’s honor to Dija Manly, a graduate of LaFollette High School who is currently attending Stanford University.

“Women In Focus, Inc. acutely feels the loss of our member and friend, Dr. Virginia Henderson,” Morgan said. “She was the bedrock of our group. Her life and vision about the importance of education inspired us to continue to raise funds for scholarships for students of color… Rest in peace dear sister.”

Quilen Blackwell, a 2003 WIF scholarship recipient, was the night’s keynote speaker. He is the president and founder of the Chicago Eco House, whose mission is to train inner-city youth in sustainable social enterprises to alleviate poverty. The Chicago Eco House’s two signature programs are a flower farm and a 3D printing youth social enterprise. The Eco House has won several awards for its work including the UL Innovation Education Award, Delta Institute BOOST Award, and the Keep Chicago Beautiful Community Vision Award.

“What does a flower have to do with fulfilling Dr. King’s dream,” Blackwell said. “Growing up in Madison I didn’t care too much about flowers, but I did care a lot about education. … Although I didn’t know what my destination in life would be, I did know that education would be the seed I needed to get there.

“Desiring for an education wasn’t enough. Like a promising seedling, yearning to live …  had to learn how to fight for an education that some didn’t think I should have,” he added.

Blackwell has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree in environmental policy and sustainability from the University of Denver. He worked in the biodiesel industry as a procurer of feedstock and is a returned Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand prior to starting the Chicago Eco House.

He is devoted to advancing youth entrepreneurship in the environmental education (EE) field. Blackwell believes that this approach can help to expand the EE audience to underrepresented communities, while also using knowledge of the environment to solve real-world problems that youth from poor families face every day.

Following his speech, the music started and event goers danced the night away.

WIF hosted its first “I Have A Dream” Scholarship Ball in 1986.  Here are the 2019 High School Scholarship recipients:
  • Dora Aranda, Madison College, recipient of Jan & Al Studesville Scholarship
  • Abdoulahi Bah, Madison East High School graduate
  • Jesse Jarreau, Edgewood High School graduate
  • Krystyn Jones, Robert M. LaFollette High School graduate
  • Dija Manly, Robert M. LaFollette High School graduate, recipient of Dr. Virginia Henderson Memorial Scholarship
  • Justice Parker, Robert M. LaFollette High School graduate
  • Andy Morales Plata, Madison West High School graduate
  • Virginia Quach, Madison West High School graduate
  • Kayvion James Ragland, Robert M. LaFollette High School graduate
  • Safaa Mohammed Saed, Madison East High School graduate
  • Areli Salto-Cortes, Waunakee Community High School graduate
  • Khailanii Slaton, Madison East High School graduate
  • Anakaren Zitlatl, Madison West High School graduate