Equality coalition names five Women of the Year

More than 130 local women have been honored over the years in conjunction with Women’s Equality Day

Women and men will gather Saturday night, on Women’s Equality Day, to add five more women to the ranks of those named Women of the Year.

The women, nominated by friends and co-workers, were chosen because of their commitment to improve the lives of area girls and women. Their names will be added to a list of more than 130 who have been honored by the Women’s Equality Coalition of Linn County over the past four decades.

Women recognized in 2017 are:

Those chosen as 2017 Women of the Year by the Women's Equality Coalition of Linn County are (beginning top left) Denise Bridges, Barbara Chadwick, Charrisse Cox, Monica Brown Challenger and Eden Wales Freedman.
Those chosen as 2017 Women of the Year by the Women’s Equality Coalition of Linn County are (beginning top left) Denise Bridges, Barbara Chadwick, Charrisse Cox, Monica Brown Challenger and Eden Wales Freedman.

Eden Wales Freedman

At Mount Mercy University, Dr. Wales Freedman serves as director of diversity studies and assistant professor of English. She is a well-known scholar who often speaks or writes on behalf of human rights issues important to women and minorities. She is a reader and reviewer for the interdisciplinary journal, “Girls Studies,” and a writing mentor of the “Afghan Women’s Writing Project,” which helps Afghan women write and publish their experiences living under the Taliban.

These also are passions that she carries into her personal life where she is an active participant in movements and events intended to promote women and encourage equality for all people.

“In recognition of her unwavering support of women and girls, it is only fitting that Eden Wales Freedman be recognized as Linn County Woman of the Year. Her investment in the eager young minds of her students and her ‘little sister’ will pay dividends for years to come.”

Monica Brown Challenger

An executive director of the Iowa Innovation Learning Center, Brown Challenger also is known for her work as the outreach and education coordinator for the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and as managing director at Diversity Focus.

Her nomination predominantly focuses on her volunteer efforts on behalf of the “Open Minds, Open Doors” conference, which encourages middle school girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Brown Challenger has been a part of the event since 2000, and also has given her talents to the Black Inventors Camp, Kirkwood Community College Engineering Technology Academy, the 6th Judicial District Department of Corrections, United Way of East Central Iowa, and St. Luke’s Women’s and Children’s Center Patient and Family Advisory Council.

“Monica sees a society that values equal opportunities and participation for women and girls, and works toward that vision daily.”

Charrisse Cox

Cox was nominated primarily for her work on behalf of the Cedar Rapids-based Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success. She also is a long-standing educator in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, currently serving as the only teaching member of color at Johnson STEAM Academy. For the past 11 years, Cox has been a lead teacher at the academy.

Every day and in so many ways, Cox goes well beyond her assigned duties by providing added assistance and guidance to students dealing with barriers to education. She founded and leads a weekly after-school program during the school year known as The Expansion, which she works to populate with young people who would most benefit from its cultural focus.

Cox, an active member of Mount Zion Baptist Church, encourages young women and girls to realize their potential through education. She is aware of the economic inequities that continue to affect young women and girls of color and, according to those who work with her, begins nudging them toward success early in their academic lives. For many of these students, Cox has been the only woman in a position of community leadership who looks like them.

“This is often demanding and thankless work, but Charrisse is one of too few who never give up on this task. Women, now grown, recognize and remember her influence.”

Denise Bridges

Bridges is a staff member at the Area Substance Abuse Council who has worked within the school system to provide evidence-based education in relation to drugs and alcohol. It was perhaps that work that prompted her to help lead a large school supply drive for area families in need.

One young woman who was a part of a small group mentored by Bridges said she never thought higher education would be a part of her future until she began working with Bridges.

Bridges also has worked with the NAACPYouth Think Tank, African American Preservation Society and a host of other community organizations that work toward equality in Linn County.

Four years ago, Bridges founded the annual Art of ACES event, which is held during child abuse awareness month and allows local youths to showcase artwork that has helped them to overcome trauma or mental illness.

“She has formed long-lasting, trusting relationships with the girls and women she works with, serving as a mentor to many. She continuously models, encourages and provides them with strategies, resources and opportunities to promote positive life choices.”

Barbara Chadwick

She has served on the Linn County Early Childhood Iowa board, and was president of the Iowa Public Health Association. As part of her current work with Linn County Public Health, Chadwick has advocated for equality through political action, and has especially sought to be a voice for underprivileged women. Co-workers say she leads her staff “such that they are empowered to exhibit their strengths and reduce barriers for their clients.”

Chadwick, once the local face of Planned Parenthood of East Central Iowa, leads by example, encourages others to access inner strengths and inspires those around her to improve their own or their neighbors’ life.

“Barbara has a compassion and drive that improves the lives of women (and others) who are the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Attendees of the equality celebration Saturday evening at Kirkwood’s Linn County Regional Center in Hiawatha will have an opportunity to hear directly from the award winners, as well as from the young woman chosen to receive a college scholarship. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. and the program begins at 7 p.m. Local musical group Deep Dish Divas will provide entertainment and tell their own story.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 20, 2017.