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Leaders of today speak to leaders of tomorrow

Dr. Maya Angelou
By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer

SPRINGFIELD - Words of strength, courage and sensitivity graced the MassMutual Center on April 27 where Dr. Maya Angelou, featured Keynote Speaker, was joined by actress Mia Farrow and business woman Lynn Donohue as the three women addressed the meaning of resilience.

"Ask for what you want, you will have to pay for what you get," Angelou said upon greeting a crowd of hundreds at the 12th Annual Women's Partnership Conference presented by Bay Path College.

Angelou who is famous for such work as, "I Know Why the Caged Bird sings," said to the packed audience, "I don't trust people who don't laugh." She illustrated her hour talk with poetry, singing, stories of her life and laughter.

Angelou balanced her stories of hardship with stories of triumph and reminded the audience that, "each one of us is a rainbow in the clouds."

"It behooves us to say 'thank-you' to the rainbows and the clouds," Angelou said. "We have all had rainbows in our clouds whether we knew it or not, whether they embarrassed us because they kicked English to the curb or whether they were too pretty, too thin."

She encouraged students at Bay Path to continue in their journeys and said that the college served as a "rainbow" for many people.

"The problem for us is not to say who we are but to be who we say we are," Angelou said. "I am a human being and nothing human can be alien to me. When you accept that you are a human being and nothing human can be alien to you on that premise you can develop your rainbow in the clouds and you can help someone who is different than you. It is at that point when you truly become charitable."

Angelou warned audience members not to trust someone who says, "I don't like myself but I like you."

"Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt," she said. She closed her speech with a final poem and thoughts that echoed the sentiments of the Development Conference's theme, resilience.

"As often as possible I laugh," she said. "I make myself laugh. In the Bible they encourage us to be peace makers I encourage us to be peace breakers."

Farrow spoke to audience members in an intimate fashion and addressed topics that encouraged the growth of resilience in her life.

The actress and human activist declared the loss of her childhood at age nine when she battled with polio. It was not just a physical fight but an emotionally and psychological one as well as she watched the world she knew cleansed and gutted by adults who feared the passing on of the disease. Her stuffed animals were thrown away, her family dog was given a new home and as she lived in isolation battling the disease she worried of her loved ones contracting it.

"The innocence of the perfect Beverly Hills childhood was replaced with knowing," Farrow said. "I discovered that whatever your loss is you can still, for the most part, choose your attitude and that you can't really own anything. True ownership comes in the moment of giving."

Farrow devoted much of her time discussing ongoing-armed conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where she said 500,000 people have died since 2004 as the result of ethnic cleansing.

"It is like Rwanda in slow motion," she said. "It is like someone is saying, 'This time I'm going to let you see this is happening so you can't say that you weren't aware'."

According to Farrow, 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes by the Janjaweed, a militia group recruited from the tribes of the Abbala Rizeigat, and the non-Baggara people of the region.

The Sudanese government is reported to publicly deny that it supports the Janjaweed but is said to have provided money and assistance and participate in joint attacks with the group, systematically targeting the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit ethnic groups in Darfur.

The Janjaweed have been raping and killing the Darfur population and over 80% of the Darfur cities have been destroyed, Farrow said

"All that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," Farrow said quoting the words of Edmund Burke.

She urged audience members to visit to learn more about Darfur.

"I have seen the very worst that human kind is capable of but also the very best," Farrow said. "People can participate by making it clear to leadership that there needs to be a full time political effort and protective force in the Darfur region."

Farrow said that during the difficult moments in her life she found her faith and spent time with her children and reconnected with friends.

"My effort was to define myself," she said. "Every plunge into darkness left me searching for light. It is that which cannot be taken away that we can measure ourselves."

Farrow, the mother of 14 children, has adopted 10 of her children from areas around the world that include Africa and Vietnam.

"The knowledge that children are suffering is inseparable to who I am," she said.

Donohue, who grew up in South Boston, talked of how she changed her life and earned her first million before the age of 30 by working in a business that as of today only employs two-percent female, the construction industry.

"What would you do if you knew that anything that you thought was possible?" Donohue asked.

As a 15-year-old drop out who struggled in a family with an alcoholic and workaholic parent, she spent many of her early years running from a life that she was trying to escape.

After an arrest, she returned to her hometown of New Bedford, where she began working at her father's bar until a newspaper article changed her life. The article wrote about the pay rates for male and female construction workers.

Donohue studied and received her bricklayer's license and began searching for work in the field but after two years of not getting a job things did not seem bright for her.

"We all want to be the ones to leave that mark," she said. "When I was growing up I thought that the only mark I was going to leave was to break my mother's heart."

Today Donohue's story is very different. She caught a break and began work with a construction group that soon led to more job opportunities. The success was muted by the harassment she experienced from male coworkers who looked down at her for working in the field.

"I said one day I am going to be your boss," Donohue said.

Years later Donohue became just that when she sought to become the "best mason contractor in southeast Boston."

She founded Brick By Brick, a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower all South Coast Massachusetts residents to advance personal and career goals through inspiration, education and mentoring, and to encourage those residents to pass their success stories on to others who are also struggling to succeed.

"Find out what it is that you want to do and what you will give back in return," Donohue, author of "Brick by Brick: A Woman's Journey", said. "Put it on a timeline, write it down and commit to it."

Other attendees of the event included State Senator Gail Canderas and Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan.