Commentary: Women of Inspiration

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN – In spring 2020, I found myself inspired by three women who emerged as determined, confident leaders who brought grace and calm to an unquiet time.

One I consider a friend. One I have since met and written about in a previous column. The third I will soon have the opportunity to meet, now four years later, this spring.

In the Mahoning Valley, Dr. Virginia (Dee) Banks spent countless hours in the hospital as an infectious disease specialist treating those suffering the life-threatening consequences of Covid-19 – a new phrase that quickly became part of our lexicon. She tirelessly worked around the clock while also responding to the media’s requests for her expertise on the pandemic, during which she implored those listening to get vaccinated.

The following year, Dr. Banks received the Live Fierce award from the American Heart Association for her work and in 2022 the Simeon Booker Award for Courage followed by the Athena Award last year.

On the state level, Ohio Health Director Amy Acton, who grew up in Liberty, became the voice of calm and reason in the daily briefings alongside Gov. Mike DeWine. While she was a pillar of strength for us, she became the target of vitriol, hate, anti-Semitic attacks, and threats to her family and to her life.

Still, she said the love she received from strangers was much greater. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a Youngstown Rotary meeting where she shared her story.

Just as Covid was tightening its grip around the world, our country was thrown into further turmoil and shame as we watched a police officer kneel on the neck of George Floyd until he took his last breath. Ironically, four years earlier, NFL player Colin Kaepernick had fallen from grace after daring to take a knee to protest police brutality and social injustice during the playing of the national anthem.

The murder of George Floyd set off protests and riots across the country. That’s when another woman caught the attention of our nation as she called for calm in the streets.

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of one of the largest cities and a woman of color, through honest, gut-wrenching emotion, displayed unparalleled strength and leadership as she told the crowds to “go home” – speaking not only as the mayor of Atlanta, but as a mother fearful for her four children. 

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Bottoms served as mayor during one of the most challenging times in the history of Atlanta – in the midst of a global pandemic and a racial justice movement. 

She became a leading spokeswoman regarding the challenges and opportunities facing cities and leaders across America. She even joined the Biden administration for a short time.

Her biography details how she took active measures to deal with the impact of the pandemic on Atlanta. It also tells how, during one of the worst economic downturns, her administration delivered four years of balanced budgets without resorting to increased property taxes, layoffs, or furloughs of city employees. 

She also ensured that diverse opinions and perspectives were brought to government processes by creating her city’s first Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Office of Violence Prevention, and appointing the city’s first director of LGBTQ affairs.

Bottoms has an interesting background that shaped who she is today. She traces her family’s roots to a slave plantation in Georgia. She is also the daughter of a famous father – R&B singer Major Lance. 

Many in the Mahoning Valley, this writer included, will get to meet Mayor Bottoms as the Centofanti Foundation keynote speaker at Coleman Health Service’s Unmute the Uncomfortable on April 26.

It is an event that I’ve been involved with since its inception with its focus on racial equity, mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Since leaving office, Bottoms has been an advocate for mental health, has shared her own challenges with ADHD, and of being a strong female leader of color in spaces traditionally occupied by men.

She’ll be interviewed in a fireside chat format by Municipal Judge Carla Baldwin who, along with the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, has played a key role in the Unmute events.

Other speakers will include poet Barbara Fant, originally from Youngstown but now living in Los Angeles. She will perform her piece “Brown Bodies Bending.” LaToya Logan, CEO of Project Lift in Cleveland, Dr. Kamesha Spates from the University of Pittsburgh, and Dr. Toni Bisconti from the University of Akron, will also speak.

It will be a thought-provoking day with dozens of students attending for free, thanks to generous sponsorships. Continuing education credits will be offered for many professions.

Any proceeds will go to treat Coleman’s 5,000 low-income clients in the Mahoning Valley who struggle with mental health. It will be a community dialogue aimed at shifting the narrative, shaping spaces and supporting gender equity, with an opportunity for us all to hear from – and finally meet – the inspiring Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Editor’s Note: Stacia Erdos Littleton is the regional development executive for Coleman Health Services.