Lifting up unsung heroes

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540WMain hopes to elevate local Black women who break barriers through Black Women ROC! The effort, which started out as a blog, marks its fifth anniversary this year.

Calvin Eaton, founder of 540WMain,  a virtual antiracist education platform, launched the campaign to highlight Black women whose work isn’t publicly recognized very often. The Rochester community is invited to submit nominations by June 5.

Any Black woman within the Greater Rochester region is eligible for nomination. The term “women” is inclusive of community members who identify as such, organizers say.

This year, the digital media celebration expects to expand its footprint with interviews and photographs by local photographer Allison McDonald disseminated through social media and the 540WMain blog. Black Women ROC! will spotlight three women with an exclusive feature via social media channels every week in July.  The campaign will culminate with a discussion centering on the work and voices of nominees. The discussion will be moderated by Brianna Milon, a Rochester journalist and 540WMain blogger.

“They’ll get to share a little bit about their journeys, the community and talk about how they got to where they are in Rochester and in the path that they took,” says Meg Eaton, who is responsible for community engagement and development for 540WMain. “When we get these nominations, we get a lot of people who submit some really impactful stories about why they’re nominating this woman and what the impact that they have had on their personal experiences as well. So, I’d like to share some of that this year as well and talk about the nomination process a little bit more than we have in the past.”

Last year the campaign received more than 30 nominations—the most it had received in its history. This year, 15 nominations showed up within hours after the call for entries. 

“It’s really inspiring to hear stories of people who are really on the front lines, who are in communities who are putting forth grit and blood, sweat and tears into changing Rochester for the better,” Calvin Eaton says. “But who still may not have the level of visibility from other folks, like other activists do. And so that’s really what it’s about, making sure that we’re giving voice to people who are unsung so that more people can know about them and what they’re doing to change the community for all different reasons.”

The team keeps an eye out for women who get nominated more than once by different people—it is often an indicator of powerful work. Recognizing those who influence change and remain out of the public sphere is also a consideration.

Former Black Women ROC! honorees include Celia McIntosh, a nurse practitioner and member of the Police Accountability Board, and Davanique Collier, who is passionate about uplifting the youth. Jessica Bain, owner of Collective Society, and Phyllis Jackson, a community wellness project manager with Common Ground Health and founder of the Interdenominational Health Ministry Coalition, are some other women who have been honored in the past.

Historically—from their contributions in the labor market and the  fight for equality to the right to vote—Black women have not received enough recognition, experts say. Organizations like 540WMain are working to change the narrative by reminding communities of heroes from the past and in the present.

“Black womxn are the foundation of a community and often go unappreciated or unnoticed,” Milon says. “We feed, cloth, and care for people and will normally do it without asking for much in return. Remember when nominating to shine a light on those who fly under the radar. They are the people who work behind the scenes with very little public love. Show them you see their efforts.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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