Women’s History Month: Personal Stories of Inspiration (2024)

In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked a few leaders within our community to reflect on a woman who inspires them. It could be a historical figure, mentor, or family member.  We were stunned by the depth of the responses we received. Not only are these stories a poignant stand-alone read, they also remind to look for inspiration in unexpected –and too-often underestimated—places.

 

A Regional Leader
Diane Nguyen, Executive Director, San Joaquin Council of Governments on Julia E. Greene, former SJCOG Executive Director

When I think of an inspiring woman leader who planted the early seeds of professional encouragement in my life, I think of Julia E. Greene. Julia was a positive force as the executive director of the San Joaquin Council of Governments from 1998 to 2005. She coined the phrase, “put on your regional hat” to encourage all of us to think beyond local jurisdictional boundaries. She also said we needed to work together as “one voice” in developing regional transportation solutions and advocating for transportation funding.

Previously, Julia was the first female appointed as an Executive Director of a Regional Planning Council in the state of Florida. I cannot say how we forged such a strong connection. I was a young planner early in my career and she was at the end of her career. Yet, she helped shape my burgeoning career, always guiding me to come up with transformational ideas and to open myself to endless possibilities. I credit her with shaping the lens in which I view challenges—not to immediately think about how it can’t be done, but instead, to be inventive and find how it can be done. Outside of my mother and sisters, her steadfast belief in my abilities ignited a light within me to believe in myself.

Unfortunately, Julia is no longer with us but as they say, a light that burns this bright is never extinguished.

 

Family Matters
Anne Richman, Executive Director, Transportation Authority of Marin on the women of her family

It is so tempting to write about the Barbie movie! But in real life, I admire my mom, aunt, and my kids. My mom has been an inspiration in the ways she has reinvented herself. From supporting a young family while holding down multiple jobs, going back to school once the kids were out of the house, finally earning her graduate degree, moving across the country more than once, and creating a new community for herself here in Northern California, she finds ways to be creative and contribute to the community.

Next, my aunt. She grew up at a time when women were not supposed to be good at math. When she took her technical college admissions exam in the 1960s, the administrators made her retake it because they didn’t think a woman could be that good at math. Of course she did just as well the second time! It’s hard to believe that she had to persevere in the face of that, and not that long ago.

And finally, my daughters, whose strength in forging their way in this world inspires me to keep trying my best.

 

Reaching for the Stars
California State Transportation Agency Secretary Toks Omishakin on astronaut Mae Jemison

One woman who inspires me not only aimed for the stars―she, quite literally, voyaged there. This is Mae Jemison. A trained and dedicated dancer, she knew at an early age that science was her other calling.  Though she was afraid of heights, she did not let that deter her from her dream to go to space. After years of intensive training at NASA, in 1992, she and six other astronauts went into space on the shuttle Endeavor. Ms. Jemison was the first black woman ever to travel into space, and their shuttle made 127 orbits around the Earth.

Ms. Jemison―with her extraordinary persistence and large-scale impact―has always stood out to me.  I also find inspiration in her life prior to this historic achievement.  She started college at Stanford University at the age of 16 to study chemical engineering and African American studies, where she confronted racial discrimination. She went on to graduate from Cornell with a Doctorate in Medicine and then practiced general medicine in Los Angeles. After a year, Ms. Jemison took her skills abroad and served in the Peace Corps as a medical officer in Africa. Shortly after her return, she applied to NASA.

Over the decades, Ms. Jemison has given back through many channels: her nonprofit organization Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence; her leadership on the 100 Year Starship project working to make human travel to another star possible; the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries; and serving on many effectual Boards of Directors.

Astronaut. Doctor. Dancer.  Ms. Jemison has undoubtedly inspired others as evidenced by her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Texas Science Hall of Fame, recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Intrepid Award, and winner of the Kilby Science Award.

 

Shining the Light On Others
Kate Miller, Executive Director, Napa Valley Transportation Authority on her mother’s influence

I didn’t bargain for was how difficult it would be to narrow a lifetime of inspiration down to a single woman. I wondered if it would be silly to share how Mary Richards, a character on the Mary Tyler Moore show, radically altered my perception of how women in the 1970s were supposed to be. I also saw images of powerful women in the media – like Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem – who took stands against racism and gender discrimination – and who reinforced a world view that my mother had already planted. I have also benefited from countless thoughtful and intelligent women in transportation and government who had overcome barriers and made it possible for future generations of women to thrive.

My mother, while from a markedly different time, was not unlike these women, but her way was never to shine the light on herself, but to shine it on others.

My mother was an Irish Catholic girl. She was a child of the Great Depression and a teenager during World War II.  Near her family home in the farmland of Rancho Palos Verdes, she witnessed childhood friends being shipped off to Japanese internment centers. When the war ended, she attended nursing school and befriended a gay man with whom she became great friends. She married my father, the son of Russian Jews, in 1952.  For most of my youth, my mother was a housewife with children, and I sensed her boredom and frustration, but I also witnessed her resilience and purpose.

Like all women from her era, she had little privilege without my father. She did not have separate access to credit and bank accounts, and often, only had limited transportation. But my mother was far less concerned about herself than the circumstances of others. She actively volunteered and freely gave her time. She embraced diversity and verbally accosted others who didn’t. She was a champion of underdogs, rooting for the losing team even if her children were on the winning one. The deference she showed all people imprinted deeply on me.

She was very much a free-range mother that allowed my brothers and I to wander the open space in the San Francisco East Bay hills. She hardly cared when I took the AC Transit Transbay Bus to the City as long as I took my younger brother along. She encouraged me to talk to strangers (still one of my favorite things to do), noting that they’re only strange if you don’t find out more about them. Her influence made me open-minded, strong, self-sufficient, and street smart. My mother taught me to trust, to seek adventure and challenge, and to laugh at myself – always there was laughter in our house in good times and bad. My mother is gone now, but I still hear her laughter and draw from her strength and wisdom.

 

Work Ethic, Resilience, Integrity
Patricia Taylor, Executive Director, Madera County Transportation Commission on her mother. 

My mother has been an unwavering source of inspiration in both my personal and professional life. Professionally, she instilled in me the values of hard work, integrity, and commitment. Witnessing her dedication to her career, following a divorce, taught me the importance of perseverance and the rewards that come with a strong work ethic. Her ability to navigate challenges with grace and resilience has been a guiding light, encouraging me to pursue my own aspirations with determination.

On a personal level, my mother’s kindness, empathy, and nurturing nature have shaped my character. Her unrelenting support has given me the strength to overcome obstacles and embrace the importance of compassion in all my interactions. In every aspect of my life, my mother’s example serves as a constant reminder of the power of resilience, integrity, and love. I aspire to carry forward and fulfill her remarkable legacy.

 

Generous, Smart, and Capable (and in our Midst)
Kim Fuentes, Deputy Director of South Bay Cities Council of Governments on Jacki Bacharach, SBCCOG’s Executive Director.

(Editor’s Note: We originally invited Jacki Bacharach—the subject of this story—to submit, but somehow the request made it to Kim’s desk. We love how this turned out!)

I’ve worked for Jacki Bacharach for over twenty years. Because she has served in so many leadership roles throughout her career, including chair of the Palos Verdes League of Women Voters, Mayor of Rancho Palos Verdes and only woman Chair of Metrolink (Southern California Regional Rail Authority), she has so much to share with the women who follow in her footsteps. And I am just one of many.

Not only is Jacki a smart and capable leader, she is also a generous person and professional. She always accepts invitations to speak to other women professionals about her path in a male-dominated profession (most recently to the Women Geographers).

South Bay Cities COG has been fortunate to have had a steady flow of young women associated with the Civic Spark Program.  I’ve observed Jacki being a mentor to every one of them. Finally, there is my privilege of working for and with Jacki for over two decades. I could not have had a better mentor and friend and so I’m honored to submit her name for recognition as a woman who inspires me.

 

Closing Note

Again, thank you to our contributors.  We like this so much we should do it again next year.

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