38th Annual Women in Focus I Have a Dream Ball at the Wisconsin Masonic Center: Promoting Excellence through Generations

Women in Focus

From Left to Right: Jodie Pope Williams, Dream Ball \co-chair, Michelle Wray, chair of the ball decorations committee, Teran Peterson, Dream Ball co-chair, Nancy Bauch, chair of the literacy

by Jonathan Gramling

It was 41 years ago that an interracial group of professional women came together to form Women in Focus who came together to impact the African American community and beyond in the arts, education and other fields. And several years later, they held the first I Have a Dream Ball at the UW-Madison Memorial Union to commemorate the King Holiday and raise scholarship funds for students who needed financial assistance to reach for their academic dreams.

Thirty-eight years later, Women in Focus is going strong as ever as it prepares to host its signature I Have a Dream Ball on January 13th at the Wisconsin Masonic Temple. And its focus is still on raising scholarship funds while honoring Dr. King.

“We have given over $500,000 worth of scholarships over 38 years,” said Teran Peterson, one of the co-chairs of the gala. “That adds up to 423 scholars of color in Dane County who have benefited from Women in Focus. My daughter actually received one four years ago now. She is doing incredible things. And it’s all possible due to Women in Focus.”

One of the wonderful facets of Women in Focus is its longevity that allows a generation of scholarship recipients to give back.

“I am a recipient of a Women in Focus scholarship,” said Jodie Pope Williams, the other co-chair. “I was a returning adult. That’s another population that we serve. This year, I think we put a lot of emphasis on wanting to get the word out there that there are scholarships for returning adults, that it isn’t just for graduating high school seniors. In 2013, I received the Miss Annie Mae McClain Scholarship. I didn’t know about Women in Focus. An advisor at the time, Ms. Teresita Torrence, told me about it. I was working and attending Madison College as a returning adult student. I still work at Madison College. I have shared our scholarship out wide to students whom I know are qualified and are pursuing technical degrees, shorter term degrees and are interested in transferring.”

As Women in Focus evolves and grows, the new generation of leadership is working to ensure that the organization continues to meet the needs of a growing community.

“We do hand out books at Juneteenth,” Peterson said. “We also did it at the Urban League event. Our literacy program came out to Sun Prairie this year in partnership with the Neighborhood Navigators.

Sun Prairie is the second biggest city in Dane County. We have a population of folks of color out there that is growing. They have needs. And there are people in the community already who are advocating loudly for those changes to continue.”

And while providing scholarships to graduating high school seniors is important, Pope Williams also wants to ensure that Women in Focus is meeting the academic needs of everyone in the Madison area’s communities of color.

“ I think it’s kind of a holistic approach to scholarships,” Pope Williams said. “I think a lot of times we see scholarships in our community that focus on high school graduates, which is great. I think it is a both-and that we serve both high school seniors and continuing adults. We know as folks of color there is a huge gap for us is serving those students and understanding all the financial barriers that impact them. And so, having a $2,500 scholarship is huge. I’ve worked in financial aid before. And I know it goes directly to the student. For me, that meant being able to buy things that a scholarship that went directly to financial aid wouldn’t have. I wasn’t eligible for any grants or anything like that. So having a scholarship was huge to me. We are really trying to emphasize and be inclusive of those folks who are in community colleges and technical colleges like Madison College and shorter-term credentials.”

The theme for this year’s banquet id ‘Actualizing the Dream.’ And with today’s negative climate, students from all sectors of the community need the support now more than ever.

“Teran and I at the beginning figured out what the image was going to look like. We’re very intentional about recognizing what time we are in today and what Dr. King would ask of folks who are coming to the ball and people who are learning about Women in Focus. And it is time to act. It’s not a time to be silent. It’s a time to stand up and your money has a direct correlation between what you believe and what you can do about it by supporting someone with a scholarship.”

“Actualizing the Dream, I could gush about it for a while,” Peterson added. “If you look at the invite, the image is created of the faces of our previous scholarship winners. And they are actualizing MLK’s dream by going to college and getting this education with the help of Women in Focus and the monies that come in and are raised by this ball. These scholars are our future. And like Jodie said, we are living in a time where DEI is under attack. You can be intentional on where your money goes, where your time is spent and how you want to combat that. The best way I know how is with Women in Focus and giving scholarships to our kids of color in Dane County.”

The I Have a Dream Ball is at the Wisconsin Masonic Temple this year at 301 Wisconsin Avenue. The doors open at 6 p.m. and the program begins at 7 p.m. The keynote speaker is Taylor Kilgore, a past recipient of a Women in Focus scholarship in 2013.

“She is really special for many reasons,” Pope Williams said. “One of them is because she worked for and volunteered with the Simpson Street Free Press who have been huge supporters of us. They send volunteers and so we are excited to be able to hear words from her as well as see young people who are volunteering see someone who started out just like them and is actualizing her dream. I think that is also key. We want to show young people that if you just continue to show up, and continue to say yes to opportunities — her path wasn’t all linear — you can actualize your dream.”

The I Have a Dream Ball is an elegant affair.

“It is dress formal,” Pope Williams said. “Miss Verona Morgan would like to put on her fur, so we’re dressing up. It is a gala, so we are excited to get all dressed up and dance the night away for a good cause.”

A plated dinner weill be served up by Kavanaugh’s. Krystal Star Photography will be taking individual photos. Colliuns 360 will be taking photos and video in the round. And Corey Whitmore and Media 22 will be providing the dance music all night long.

And one of the important features ofr the ball is the silent auction which is online at their website, www.womeninfocus.org.

“We have over 60 items,” Pope Williams said. “You don’t have to be present to win. You can bid whether or not you are coming to the ball. That money also goes to scholarships.”

Pope Williams and Peterson are carrying on a tradition — and stand on the shoulders — of the pioneers of Women in Focus that included Jan Studesville, Gloria Jones-Bey, Rose Brown, Dr. Virginia Henderson and Carol Lobes. They continue the important educational support of Women in Focus in support of the academic aspirations of so many. And someday, there will be others who stand on the shoulders of Pope Williams and Peterson in support of community.

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