“I learned at a very young age growing up in the city of Detroit with 11 siblings and a mom and dad who were victims of the crack epidemic, that I quickly had to realize my own power or I would soon become a product of my own environment,” Gail Ford said. “I had to realize my own power for all of my siblings who were looking at me for a cue to how to react to our terrible conditions – homelessness, hunger, no running water in our house.”

Ford, the keynote speaker at the first-ever Black Women’s Leadership Conference on May 20, energized a large group of black women from Madison and beyond at the innovative and informative conference organized and hosted by “socialpreneur” and motivational speaker Sabrina “Heymiss Progress” Madison.

“The event went even better than I could have planned for it to go. There were black women everywhere smiling and laughing and engaging each other in conversation,” Madison told Madison365. “The space was filled from wall to wall. Throughout the day women approached me and simply thanked me for putting this together for them because they needed this.”

Keynote speaker Gail Ford (left) with Black Women Leadership Conference organizer Sabrina Madison
Keynote speaker Gail Ford (left) with Black Women Leadership Conference organizer Sabrina Madison

The conference, titled “Reclaiming Our Power,” was held at the beautiful three-level Winedown venue on State Street and was organized to give black women in Madison a chance to promote and support each other’s professional and personal successes.

Strategy Power Sessions were led by talented local African-American women professionals Takeyla Benton, Kshinte Brathwaite, Malika Evanco, Sheba McCants, and Dynae Saba tackling issues like financial planning, effective leadership, education, health and wellness, family engagement and more.

Sheba McCants, the community engagement and events coordinator at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS), talks about managing stress.
Sheba McCants, the community engagement and events coordinator at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS), talks about managing stress.

Women at the event were given a program and a workbook to write down their reflections and notes throughout the conference. More than a dozen vendors and exhibitors were set up for women to interact with. The event was a great chance to ask questions of experts in different fields and for women to network and socialize with other women that, in many cases, they had never met before.

Ford, who has spoken across the country to audiences using her personal story to provide inspiration, motivation, and guidance to help others move towards a better life, set the stage early with her energy and her passion and her sense of humor.

“When I think about black women and what our slogan is when nobody wants to do it, we are like, ‘Aw, Hell, I’ll do it!’ We always step up,” Ford said.

Early on in life, Ford had to step up to that invitation of leadership and be mature well beyond her young age. “When you come from the ghetto and the mindset of what you are seeing in your environment is all that you will ever be able to do, it takes a lot to be reprogrammed to think of yourself as better,” she told the women.
The tipping point for Ford, she said, was when her unarmed brother was shot nine times by the Detroit police. “It was at that point that I knew that it was up to me to ensure my own success,” she said. “When you are a little girl and you look at a police officer as someone who is supposed to have power and authority and to protect you, and that same person turns around and hurts you, it does something to your psyche. It makes you question: where is my safe place and who is going to protect me?

“At that point, I made up my mind … do you know who’s going to do it? Gail Ford!” she added.

Ford quote Malcolm X saying: “The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman.”

“He also asked, in that same speech, why do you hate yourself? Why do you look at your hair and your skin color and your body as something that should be hated?” Ford continued. “My question today is: Why do you think that you don’t have power? Why do you have to reclaim your power? Who took it from you?”

Malena Bass provided live artwork at the Black Women's Leadership Conference May 20.
Malena Bass provided live artwork at the Black Women’s Leadership Conference May 20.

Over the past 13 years, Ford has worked in non-profits and post-secondary institutions to advocate for systematic changes to better align K-12 education programming with college-ready expectations. In March of 2015, she was asked to serve as the Interim Assistant Director for the Pre-College Enrichment Program for Leaning Excellence (PEOPLE) at UW-Madison. Her work with youth and professionals afforded her the opportunity to attend First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Beating the Odds Summit” at The White House in July 2015.

To close her keynote speech, Ford outlined five points every woman should use to find their power:
1) Do not dismiss anything in life as invaluable … never dismiss any experience
2) Reject comparisons and competitions (especially between black women)
3) Affirm and speak your power and truth every day
4) Work smarter, not harder
5) Self-care is not selfish, it’s a basic human right – take care of yourself mind and body.

Ford closed with a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft, from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. “I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Madison announced that next year’s Black Women’s Leadership Conference will be even bigger and better, a two-day affair already scheduled for May 19-20. She added that she wants the entire week, kicking off with Mother’s Day, to be dedicated to black women’s leadership throughout the state.

“Next year’s event I would really, really love to have at Madison College,” Madison said. “For me, it would be the completion of a circle, because I started as a student at Madison College and I went on to become an employee at Madison College. How dope would it be to have the conference there next year?”