Alexandria Johnson Boone launched the Women of Color Foundation to give African-American women a forum to discuss issues that were pertinent to their lives. As the years have gone by, however, she has worked to expand the nonprofit’s reach to welcome women of all colors.
“We’ve added Latino women, Asian women, Native American women, Asian-Indian women and white women,” says Boone, the organization’s founder and chairwoman. “White is a color too. Our foundation services, registers and supports all women and girls of color who decide to participate in our programs and events. It’s such an amazing thing that we’ve lasted 15 years. I’m sure nobody thought we would.”
Boone was inspired to create the Women of Color Foundation when she attended a retreat where she and her two guests were the only women who weren’t white. So in 2002, she organized a day-and-a-half event called the Women of Color Foundation Personal and Professional Development Retreat.
“It was designed for African-American women,” Boone says. “Women of color don’t have a place they can go to get career development training and deal with personal issues, tragedies and challenges in a confidential, comfortable setting.”
Two of Boone’s biggest supporters were her friends Bonnie Barenholtz, who had hosted Boone at the retreat that inspired her to create the foundation, and Joanne Clark, who provided critical financial support. At that time, Clark was a senior vice president at National City Corp.
“Joanne said, ‘Alex, I don’t know if there is a need for a forum like this, but I know you. If you say there is a need, there is a need,’” Boone says. “So National City Foundation gave me my first grant of $10,000. We had an amazing event and a great turnout. National City got good exposure for being a good corporate citizen and the rest is history.”
The #MeToo movement
Things really began to take off around 2005 and 2006 when the Women of Color Foundation formally became a charitable organization.
“Our fundraising took off,” Boone says. “The increase in funding allowed us to do programs in Chicago, Columbus and Cincinnati. But as we tried to grow the foundation, we decided we wanted to stick with programs in Cleveland.”
In November, the foundation hosted a workshop on sexual harassment at Cleveland State University. The recent #MeToo movement, which has called out a number of high-profile men for their mistreatment of women, made this a very timely event. Boone put together a panel that could help further the conversation.
“I called three women I knew who are major attorneys in this town and I said, ‘I need you ladies to help. I need somebody who prosecutes sexual harassers. I need somebody who teaches women how to identify sexual harassment. And I need somebody who represents employers who get lawsuits filed against them. It was one of our best workshops,” she says.
A moment of validation
Another initiative that Boone is proud of is the Women of Color Foundation’s work at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.
“We travel there in March and September of each year to do programs for these women,” Boone says. “We do career development training, we help them self-examine and we encourage them. So many of the women we’ve trained have since been released. They benefit greatly from the training. Whenever we go, I get letters and cards from the women. ‘You changed my life. You gave us hope.’”
The program also proves to be a memorable experience for those who do the training.
“Everybody says it’s an experience they never expected to have,” Boone says. “They never thought they would be so fulfilled doing it.”
The impact of the prison program was driven home when Boone was preparing for a foundation retreat at Firestone Country Club in Akron. Fifth Third Bank was one of the sponsors and called Boone asking if the bank could give up one of its slots to a woman who had just been released from prison and wanted to attend the retreat. Boone rejected the offer.
“I said, ‘No, you don’t have to use your slot. I’ll give her a slot,’” Boone says.
A week after the retreat, Boone received a letter from the woman that included a thank you note and a check for $10.
“She said, ‘I don’t know if this will help you or not, but I want you to have this $10 so you can help somebody else like me,’” Boone says. “I was like, ‘That’s what keeps me going.’ If somebody knows what we can do for them and is willing to spend their last $10 to help us keep doing it, that’s why I’m in the game. That’s the only reason.” ●
How to reach: Women of Color Foundation, www.womenofcolorfoundation.com