Journalist Chianti Cleggett, the founder of the first Young Women’s Empowerment Conference (YMEC), to be held at the McWane Center downtown on April 18th, has always dreamt of helping young women find purpose and direction in their lives.
The dream began when she was an only child who found herself forming powerful bonds with older girls and women. These women provided friendship, inspiration and, perhaps most important, advice. "Here's how to do things and here's how not to do things," as Cleggett puts it. "I always wanted to mentor young girls and give back what was given to me," she says.
In order to bring her dream to fruition and make this conference a reality, Cleggett combined forces with two other Birmingham professional women, Jessica Vance, a marketing and public relations professional, and Noelle Cooper, a financial officer in the Department of Pediatrics at UAB.
The YMEC, sponsored in part by the YWCA of Central Birmingham, is free and is presently accepting applications from teenage girls ages 13 to 19. Girls can apply online at www.youngwomensempowermentconference.com. One hundred applicants will be chosen. "We want to find inspiring girls who are already striving to reach goals," Vance says. "They need to have the seed of empowerment within themselves so that we can help to nurture it."
Young women can have their parents, school advisors or volunteer coordinators nominate them for one of five awards to be given out at the YMEC, according to the organizers. There will be one award given in each of the five main areas on which the conference will focus -- entrepreneurship, sports, arts and entertainment, community service and empowerment.
One reason that Cleggett, Vance and Cooper felt driven to put on this event is the lack of self-esteem and motivation they have observed among teenage girls in the area while doing volunteer work with various groups. “We all know that this often leads to teens dropping out of school, becoming pregnant or spending their lives in dead-end jobs,” Cleggett says.
The organizers hope that the attention and encouragement the participants receive at the conference can make a big difference in their lives. "Sometimes all a young girl needs is a word of encouragement, a little guidance, or an offer of help and advice to turn their life around -- things they may not be getting at home or from whatever situation they’re in,"" Cooper says. "So often it’s for need of so little that so much is lost or wasted."
Like Cleggett, Vance and Cooper are driven by a desire to give other young women some of the same help and encouragement they received during their formative years. "My parents were a huge source of encouragement for me growing up," according to Vance, who was the first college graduate in her family. "Many young girls don´t find the inspiration I did in my parents. They are never told to dream bigger, reach higher or to strive above their current means." "I was brought up in a very privileged environment as a young person," Cooper says. "As I have grown older and been exposed to a variety of environments, I’ve grown to realize that I want to help others to be all that they can be."
The organizers express the hope that the conference participants will be a very diverse group. “We hope to draw aspiring girls from all backgrounds, education levels, incomes and races,” says Cleggett. "Learning to look past such things as race, income and background is essential to success, Vance says. "We want to introduce these girls to other girls their age that may be from the other side of town or from a different life all together to show them how beneficial differences can be." According to Cooper, "It is important that these women understand that no matter where they come from or what they believe to be their set path in life, they can change that and be all they aspire to be and more."
Speakers at the conference will include Tasha Simone, an on-air personality at radio station 107.7 FM; Cherie Miner, a physician and former football player; and Candi Williams, executive director of Hands on Birmingham, a not-for-profit that develops opportunities for busy career people to volunteer in the community. Also appearing will be organizational consultant Gayle Lantz, owner of Work Matters, a local firm whose client list includes Microsoft, Lockheed Martin and the Southern Company. "There is also a possibility that we will have a woman astronaut speaking at the conference as well, as NASA is also a partial sponsor," according to Cooper.
"We are hoping to provide role models from all backgrounds for the girls who attend," Vance says. "We want them to meet our various speakers in hopes that they can walk away with a new goal or two." Participants will also be able to attend two breakout sessions during the event, choosing from such topics as college prep, self-esteem, financial literacy and business etiquette.
In addition to their work with the YWEC, Vance and Cooper volunteer with the "Lunch is Served" program at Jimmie Hale Mission. Cooper also works with such groups as First Light Shelter and Pathways Women’s Shelter. Cleggett volunteers with the Be Who You Wanna Be mentoring program sponsored by Birmingham's Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, talking to kids in the area about her profession, and works with teen girls who are members of her sorority.