Terri Crook speaks to conference attendees.
By ISHEKA N. HARRISON
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When Burnadette Norris-Weeks and a group of her peers started the Women of Color Empowerment Conference (WOCEC) seven years ago, they wanted to equip women with the tools they needed to run for public office, but they ended up accomplishing so much more.
“We wanted to demystify how to run for public office because there were a core group of us who felt that if more women understood its not as scary as it appeared to be, they would run,” Norris-Weeks recalled. “Over 150 women squeezed into a limited space (and) we decided we’re really on to something because so many people wanted to come and we couldn’t accommodate them.”
That overwhelming demand led NorrisWeeks to the realization that they needed to focus on more diverse forms of leadership.
“We recognized that there weren’t very many opportunities for women leaders (of color) to connect. Everybody is so busy going their separate ways and doing the things they’re doing,” Norris-Weeks said. “It seemed to me that just as other groups are able to put their talents together and build a larger platform, women of color leaders ought to be able to do it too; to learn and grow and have a safe place to do it.”
So WOCEC enhanced its offerings year after year to cater to the needs of women in leadership. Now every September hundreds of women attend the conference, presented by the Women of Color Empowerment Institute, to receive and share vital information, build unmatched connections and unite with other current and aspiring women leaders.
“The conference has experienced a lot of growth over the years,” Norris-Weeks said. “Now we have people who come from all over the country that come and they stay so it’s become an economic engine as well. It’s grown into what we hoped would happen, which is a national conference for women leaders all over the country.”
This year will reflect that. More than 500 women leaders from an array of sectors like law, politics, healthcare, technology, arts and more will attend the three-day event, September 8-10 at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, 321 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
Speakers including beloved Congresswoman Maxine Waters, known affectionately as Auntie Maxine; Angela Rye, principal and CEO of IMPACT Strategies, CNN political commentator and NPR political analyst; Sylvia Trent-Adams, United States Surgeon General; Delma K. Noel Pratt, Miami Gardens Police Chief; Karen Hunter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, professor, publisher, and host of Sirius XM’s The Karen Hunter Show; Dr. Evelyn Bethune, Professor and Granddaughter of Mary McLeod Bethune; and many others will appear.
“All of the speakers are going to be so great, but I think I’d have to say as many people, I’m always intrigued by ‘Auntie Maxine,’ Norris-Weeks said when asked who she was looking forward to seeing. “What Congress woman Maxine Waters has to say and her view … right now she’s so hot at striking at the very core of what many women of color feel, really addressing some of the frustrations we have and being in tune to what we feel. I’m looking forward to hearing from her but I certainly am excited about the entire conference as a whole.”
The conference will also include a welcome reception and comedy show hosted by actor/comedian Jonathan Slocumb, networking opportunities and a graduation ceremony for the Women of Color Empowerment Institute’s second class of young professional mentees, a program for women under 40.
“For these younger women to come and be surrounded by so many ‘bosses’ at the top of their game and be able to ask questions and understand how to navigate difficult situations in leadership and beyond that is really important,” Norris-Weeks said.
Over a dozen high school students will also attend the conference free of charge to shadow the conference through an age-appropriate curriculum because Norris-Weeks and her team are committed to cultivating the next generation of leaders.
She said as long as attendees leave knowing something they didn’t before she will consider the conference a success.
“We will have achieved our objective when we learn something that we didn’t know before. I want women of color to understand that there is an organization out here that is for us, about us, concerned about us and concentrating on us,” Norris-Weeks said. “In this political climate that we’re in today, there is a safe space for us to come and commune with like-minded people in leadership, where we can converge and learn and grow together. We’re navigating turbulent waters (and) I want them to know we have a place where we can just talk candidly about the things we are facing from day to day, in a real safe space, where we can come and know that we’re not alone because together we can do more than we can do apart.”
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: 7th Annual Women of Color Empowerment Conference
WHEN: September 8-10
COST: $55 +
WHERE: Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, 321 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
CONTACT: For more information, a schedule of events or to purchase tickets, visit www.nationalwomenofcolor.com