The memory of my night dressed in an uninterrupted-white taffeta floor length gown with pearl embellishments, satin gloves, and alabaster heels to match is jolted each time I visit my Tennessee homestead. It wasn’t my wedding, but it was a night many mothers dream for their daughters to celebrate their coming of age – a lavish ballroom cotillion. Portraits of the soiree decorate the living room of my parents’ home. I cringe when I glance at the wall of snapshots of me from the late 1990’s. I don’t know what was poufier: the dress with its crinoline springs or my hair-hive that added about two inches to my actual height.
It wasn’t really a night I looked forward to. I had spent months of weekends with city girls some 30 miles north of my rural digs who viewed me as a country bumpkin anxious for their ‘sedity’ ways to wear off on me. I couldn’t tell you one name in the group of debutantes who surrounded me as I danced the ‘Tennessee Waltz’ with my date and my dad then, or now. I never tried to remember.
Who I do remember with sweet fondness is my beloved, highly-educated, poised, and borderline bougie aunt who convinced me such exposure would do wonders for my self-esteem and career. Cousin Gwendolyn was a principal in Nashville who belonged to pretty much every elite group in town, and if she didn’t belong, it was because they weren’t highfalutin enough for her. Yet, she wasn’t so pretentious, so glued to status that her time was consumed with its pursuit. She reached back to me as a youngster with non-college educated parents to make sure I earned enough degrees to make up for what they didn’t. She wrote letters of encouragement, helped me network and offered pats and praise for my work at KET when I sent recordings at her request… well, her demand. She was my mentor, and a feisty fifty-something-year-old when cancer claimed her seven years ago.
I say all that as a testament to mentoring; to empowering. They sound like soft, psycho-babble words that require only a small exercise of brain power. But, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Gwendolyn did for me what so many women do for young girls well outside their family circle – they advise and at times gently chide. They share their time, talent and treasure with hopes their mentee will dodge the pits and potholes that come from poor choices.
This weekend on ‘Connections,’ I talk about how to help our young girls guard their bodies and spirits, and reach their full potential — despite their zip code, familial status, peer pressure and influence of pop culture. I’m joined by two women who put their boots on the ground when it comes to female empowerment: Tanya Torp, the community engagement coordinator at the United Way of the Bluegrass and founder and CEO of the grassroots organization called BE BOLD; and Dr. Stephanie Troutman, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and African and African American Studies at Berea College.
Watch Connections Friday at 5pm ET on KET 2 and Sunday at 1:30pm ET on KET. Follow @ReneeKET on Twitter.