11 inspiring Chicago women you should know

A shortlist of extraordinary women making a difference in Chicago and beyond.

August 7, 2013

A recurring theme in my work as a feminist writer has been the search for positive female role models and mentors. What qualities do they possess? How does one seek them out? And, in a world where high-profile women are consistently threatened and attacked on the basis of their femininity, where can the next generation of female leaders look to find reassurance, solidarity, and above all, hope?

Thankfully, Chicago is filled to the brim with strong, innovative and endlessly compassionate women who have dedicated their lives to helping others and shattering the glass ceiling one crack at a time. But while some are prominently featured in the news, (like Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Teacher's Union President Karen Lewis and philanthropist Ann Lurie) many others remain virtually anonymous to the public, despite being regarded as heroes in their own communities.
 
So, in no particular order, here is my short-list of 11 admirable women making a difference in the Chicagoland area and beyond:
 
1. Leonetta C. Sanders, principal, Harper High School
 
This spring, Sanders was featured in a special two-part episode of This American Life that focused on the epidemic of violence surrounding Englewood's Harper High School, where last year alone, 29 present and former students were shot. The broadcast shone a spotlight on Sanders' impassioned efforts as principal to hold the school together, keep her students safe and inspire them to acheive their full potential.
 

2. Dr. Kimberly Dennis, chief executive officer and medical director, Timberline Knolls

Dr. Dennis is a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorder treatment, addictions recovery, trauma/PTSD and co-occurring disorders. As CEO and medical director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in Lemont, Il., Dennis supervises the medical staff and sets the overall vision and direction of the program. Her holistic approach to psychiatry, in addition to her unique expertise in treating individuals with dual diagnoses, has made Timberline Knolls one of the nation's leading treatment centers for adult women and adolescent girls seeking long-lasting recovery. 

3. Yasmin Nair, writer, academic, activist, commentator

As the Chicago-based "bastard child of queer theory and deconstruction," Nair has made quite a name for herself in the literary world. As an investigative reporter, photographer, and critical essayist, her writing has examined complex issues such as neoliberalism and inequality, queer politics and theory, the politics of rescue and affect, sex trafficking, the art world, gentrification and the immigration crisis. 

An archive of Nair's published work, including a compendium on gay marriage (Gay Marriage Hurts My Breasts) and a blog focused on political and cultural commentary (We Don't Live Here Anymore) can be found at YasminNair.net

4. Ameena Matthewsviolence interrupter, CeaseFire Illinois 

Matthews is a violence interrupter with CeaseFire Illinois, an anti-violence group that works directly with gang members to curb shootings in the Chicago area. In 2011, she also made a starring turn in the Steve James-directed, Kartemquin Films-produced documentary The Interrupters, which prompted the city to give CeaseFire a $1 million contract to send violence interrupters, or mediators, into two crime-plagued Chicago neighborhoods over the past year. 

Today, the self-professed "peace maker, peace keeper and community builder" continues her work of youth outreach and violence prevention in Chicago, maintaining an active Twitter account to broadcast her efforts. In February, WBEZ reporter Lauren Chooljan featured Matthews as part of her Year 25 series. 

5. Jessica Hopper, music journalist, Rookie Mag

Hopper is a music and culture critic based in Chicago. She got her start writing for the Minneapolis City Pages and Spin magazine, before becoming a columnist for the Chicago punk zine Punk Planet and editor of the famed Riot-Grrrl affiliated zine Hit It or Quit. From 1995 to 2004, Hopper also worked as a publicist for dozens of indie, electronic and punk bands, including At the Drive In, The Promise Ring and The Gossip. 

In addition to her current position as music editor of Rookie Mag, Hopper writes the Fan Landers advice column for the Village Voice and regularly contributes music criticism to Spin, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Her book, "The Girl's Guide to Rocking," was named one of 2009's Notable Books for Young Readers by the American Library Association. 

6. Veronica Arreola, director, Women in Science and Engineering at UIC 

As the assistant director for the Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Arreola also directs the department's Women in Science and Engineering program (WISE). The mission of WISE is to recruit, retain and advance women, majority and minority, in science, technology, math and engineering. 

Arreola is an established writer and public speaker as well. Her work has appeared in Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Ms. Magazine and Women's Review of Books. As a long-time feminist blogger, Arreola also has contributed to a number of online publications, including The Frisky, Chicagonista and her own award-winning blog, Viva La Feminista. Currently, she is working towards her doctorate in Public Administration, with specializations in public management and gender. 

7. Tracy Garcia, founder, It's a Pittie Rescue

In 2012, Chicago Heights resident and "pittie" advocate Tracy Garcia started a nonprofit organization called It's a Pittie Rescue in the South suburbs to match pit bulls with loving homes. Garcia began working for South Animal Hospital when she was 15, and has acquired numerous certifications in her years of training with animal control. Now she works to eliminate the stigma surrounding pit bulls and to provide this misunderstood breed with the care and quality of life that they deserve. In the past year alone, Garcia's organization has saved more than 250 pit bulls and facilitated more than 100 adoptions. 

8. Lindsay Avner, founder and chief executive officer, Bright Pink

At 23, Avner became the youngest patient in the country to opt for a risk-reducing double mastectomy with reconstruction. After losing her grandmother and great-grandmother to breast cancer before she was born, and watching her mother fight both breast and ovarian cancer when she was only 12, Avner discovered through genetic testing that she was high-risk and made the courageous decision to have preemptive surgery. It was also during this time that she became aware of the lack of resources for women in her specific situation—those who didn't have breast or ovarian cancer, but wanted to take a proactive approach to their health.

In 2007, Avner founded Bright Pink, the only national nonprofit focusing on the prevention and early detection of ovarian and breast cancer in young woman, while also providing support for high-risk individuals. Today, Bright Pink has become one the fastest growing nonprofits in the nation, impacting and saving thousands of lives each day. 

9. Estelle Glaser Laughlin, Holocaust survivor, author

83-year-old Laughlin is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, the ghetto uprising and three concentration camps (Majdanek, Skarzysko and Czestochowa) in WWII Poland. Soviet forces liberated her from Czestochowa in January 1945; in 1947, she moved to the United States to live with family in New York City. 

For many years, Laughlin worked as a survivor volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Now she resides in a Chicago suburb, where she holds book signings for her powerful 2012 memoir "Transcending Darkness: A Girl's Journey out of the Holocaust," and speaks about her experiences to inspire hope in others.

10. Trisha Lee Holloway, medical case worker for trans women, Howard Brown Health Center 

Recently honored as one of Windy City Times' 30 under 30 in 2013, Holloway is a shining example of LGBTQ advocacy in the Chicago area. Prior to her current position as a medical case manager for trans women at Howard Brown Health Center, Holloway served as an outreach worker at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, where she provided HIV testing and counseling. 

To further her goal of bringing awareness to the needs of trans women in her community, Holloway recently helped open the first trans housing program in Chicago, TransLife Center.

11. Bridget Brown, founder, Butterflies for Change

Brown, a national public speaker and workshop presenter, redefines the term "inclusion" by being the first person with Down syndrome to be included in her school district. Brown graduated in 2005, and now works as a person-centered planning coach to help young adults with disabilities.

In addition to being a keynote speaker for Butterflies for Change and a graduate of the Stars advocacy program through The Arc of Illinois, Brown is also an Action Club member, actress, dental assistant and health educator at the College of Dentisry at UIC. 

Who else would you add to this list? 

Leah Pickett is a pop culture writer and co-host of WBEZ's Changing Channels, a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr