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Class of 2021

This Journalist, Educator, and Mentor Inspires Others with Her Unstoppable Energy

Leah Martin Photography

Karen Fisk, director of Marketing and Communication for the Springfield Museums, calls Janine Fondon a “connector.”

And that’s just one of many words that can be used to describe the founder of UnityFirst.com, a national distributor of diversity-related e-news to corporations and diverse communities. Indeed, she is also an educator — she’s currently chair of the Undergraduate Communications Department at Bay Path University and has been an adjunct professor at many area colleges and universities — as well as a journalist, public speaker, colleague, and mentor.

But ‘connector’ probably works best, and it most effectively sums up what she does in the Western Mass. community — and beyond.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change,” Fisk, who worked with Fondon to help bring the exhibit Voices of Resilience (more on that later) to the Museums, wrote in her nomination of Fondon as a Difference Maker. “As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

Through all this work connecting people, Fondon, who relishes this role, told BusinessWest that she strives to make the region a better place through the sharing of knowledge, ideas, goals, and dreams for the future.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change. As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

During her time at Colgate University, a liberal-arts college in Upstate New York, Fondon recalled that she was encouraged to “raise your voice, be part of the world, and make a difference.” She did so there — she became part of a gospel choir, for example — and has done so throughout her life.

Part of her MO, if you will, is to inspire others by telling the stories of those who came before, those who blazed a trail, and those who, well, made of difference in the community and the world. This is especially true when it comes to women, and women of color. Many of these stories haven’t been told, or told as much as they need to be, she said, adding that telling them was the broad goal behind Voices of Resilience, which is still on display at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Quadrangle.

It features more than 70 stories of women — activists and businesswomen, mostly — ranging from Gwen Ifill, the longtime host of Washington Week (and Springfield native) who passed away a few years ago, to Lejuana Hood, who founded Springfield’s Pan African Museum, to Miriam Kirkaldy, Fondon’s grandmother, who came to Ellis Island in 1917 and forged a new life for herself.

“I decided to pull together some stories — some rooted in Springfield, others rooted around Springfield — and these are stories that needed to be told because we can learn from them,” Fondon explained, using her grandmother as an example.

“She came via Ellis Island from Jamaica, and she came the year before the 1918 pandemic,” she explained. “You think about the fortitude she displayed and her experience; I grew up with her experience, and I said, ‘we can learn from that experience.”

The exhibit also formed the backdrop for the fourth annual On the Move event in 2020. Organized by Fondon, this gathering, which will be staged virtually this year due to the pandemic, encourages conversation and networking among women, and it has become a well-attended tradition.

It’s also another example of how Fondon has devoted her time, energy, and imagination to finding new and different ways to bring people together, share ideas, and work individually and collectively to move the needle when it comes to diversity, inclusion, women breaking down barriers, and so much more.

In short, it’s just another case of how she connects and serves this region as a true Difference Maker.

 

Loud and Clear

If you look closely, as in very closely, you might be able to pick out Fondon in one of the pictures of real students from New York’s fabled High School of Music & Art at the end of the 1980 movie Fame.

She was in the choir, and the shot of that group was among many of the last class of that school before it merged with the School of Performing Arts and moved to Lincoln Center.

“I wouldn’t even call it a cameo,” said Fondon, who noted that she had some talent, but not enough to join the likes of famous alums such as Billy Dee Williams, Christopher Guest, Susan Strasberg, Hal Linden, or Steven Bochco and make it as a performer or producer.

But she left the school with an even deeper appreciation for the arts than what she already had, and it has remained with her throughout her life. And you might say she’s achieved a different kind of fame after first graduating from Colgate University, where she majored in sociology and anthropology and studied in London, Paris, and Barbados, among other places.

The exhibit Voices of Resilience

The exhibit Voices of Resilience is just one of many ways Janine Fondon has helped educate others and inspire them to find their own voices.

After leaving Colgate, she pursued work in the media, working first at CBS as a news intern and handling research for 60 Minutes, among other shows, then ABC in the Public Relations department, where she was encouraged to continue her education, and did so, earning her master’s degree at New York University.

Fondon worked in New York for some time before moving to an ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. and eventually relocating to Massachusetts, where she has worked in a number of fields. She worked at Digital Equipment Corp., for example, and later at Bank of Boston, in its Corporate Communications department.

After starting a family, she desired more flexibility in her schedule and started freelance writing and then teaching on an adjunct level, with the former becoming the basis for UnityFirst.com, an information portal that shares topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion with more than 4,000 members of the national press, including top mainstream business publications, television, radio, and internet sources.

Recent pieces on the site include headlines like these:

• “Barbara Bush Foundation Celebrates Black History Month with the Release of New Anti-racist and Anti-bias Teaching Resources”;

• “Barefoot Celebrates and Supports Black Female Business Owners with the Return of #WeStandforHer Campaign”; and

• “Canada’s Black Loyalists Honored on Royal Canadian Mint’s New Silver Coin Celebrating Black History.”

“We go to thousands of people in a variety of formats, from our direct e-mails, the website, and collaborations that we have with others across the country,” she explained. “We’re just here engaging and sharing information.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest,” she went on. “People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day. And I’m really proud that we have a really young base that’s coming in and engaging. That, to me, is the hallmark — sharing information, having people engage, learning, and using that information.”

This past year was certainly an important one for UnityFirst, she said, given all the racial turmoil in the country and new dialogue about equity and inclusion.

“I started to do some writing and speaking beyond our own circle,” she told BusinessWest. “And that engaged a lot of people as well. And I want to do more of that because engaging with others and beginning new dialogues … that brings about change.”

While she continues to byline new stories each week and teach at Baypath, she continues to look for new and different ways to use her voice, inspire others to use theirs, and further inspire an entire region by recalling some voices of the past.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest. People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day.”

Such is the case with On the Move, which will again be staged on March 8, this time virtually. Fondon doesn’t like the word ‘conference’ to describe it, though, preferring ‘forum’ instead.

“We have a conversation, and sometimes there are breakouts that we do,” she said, adding that the setting has changed through the years — it has been staged at Bay Path, CityStage, and the Springfield Museums, for example — but the mission remains the same: to engage, educate, and inspire. “This year, we’re going to look at where we are and where we’re going.”

Looking ahead, and anticipating what might come next in a career that has taken her to different parts of the country and a host of different career opportunities, Fondon said she intends to keep doing what’s she always done — and maybe find even more ways to do it.

“There’s so much work yet be done,” she explained. “As long as we can keep sharing information that helps us make better decisions and get to a better place, there is room for all that I have to do.”

 

Hear and Now

Returning to that nomination of Fondon, Fisk wrote that “she listens, she encourages, she shares ideas, she shares remarkable, unstoppable energy. Most important, she cares, deeply cares, and she hopes, and then she takes action.”

And, above all, she connects. Indeed, all her life, Fondon has been doing what she was encouraged to do while in high school and college — find her voice. And not only find it, but use it.

She’s used it to educate and empower people. And with this knowledge and power, others can hopefully do what she has long been doing acting as a Difference Maker in the community and, in truth, everywhere one’s voice can be heard.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Bringing the Past to Life

By Laura Grant

Janine Fondon is seen here next to a portrait of her grandmother Miriam Kirkaldy.

In 1917, Miriam Kirkaldy landed on the shores of Ellis Island seeking to create a new life for herself. Despite the discrimination she faced as a woman of color, she found work in New York City and eventually became a homeowner before starting a family.

More than 100 years later, her granddaughter, Janine Fondon, stood beside her portrait at the Springfield Museums exhibit “Voices of Resilience: The Intersection of Women on the Move.” Fondon curated “Voices of Resilience” to honor the accomplishments of women who changed the world — and the exhibit does this in a number of ways.

It highlights ‘hidden figures’ with a particular focus on women of color, including African-Americans, Latinas, Caribbeans, and Native Americans, among others. The walls of the exhibit are covered with panels, all of which have photos and descriptions of these women. Examples include Jenny Slew and Elizabeth Freeman, or MumBet, who fought the legal system for their freedom in the 1700s, as well as LuJuana Hood, who founded Springfield’s Pan African Historical Museum in 1995. The exhibit stretches over hundreds of years, chronologically, beginning with female pharaohs and queens — “the first female CEOs,” Fondon said.

The exhibit provides ample evidence showing just how dedicated Fondon is to uplifting the communities around her.

She explained that she splits her focus into three main areas. The first is teaching. Having received a graduate degree in Communications and Business, she has held multiple editorial and managerial positions for companies such as ABC-TV, BankBoston, CBS-TV, and Digital Equipment Corp. She began teaching in 2012 and is currently an assistant professor and the chair of the Communications Department at Bay Path University, as well as an adjunct faculty member at Cambridge College and Westfield State University. She teaches undergraduate communication classes with subjects ranging from marketing principles to social media, and absolutely loves the work.

“It has been a joy because we have walked into the new era of communication,” she told BusinessWest.

One of Fondon’s clearest goals is to push for diverse and inclusive communities, and to that end, she launched her own company with her husband, Tom Fondon, in 1996. UnityFirst has seen many forms over the years, but at its core, the intent is the same: the website strives to share stories of people of color.

And through e-mails, newsletters, and social networking, it connects people from all across the country. News updates and profile pieces are distributed to a network of more than 2 million members. It also hosts the African American Newswire, which users can utilize to send information directly to more than 4,000 press groups and publications.

While UnityFirst has a focus throughout the U.S., Fondon also strove for upliftment specifically within the Pioneer Valley with “Voices of Resilience,” which is open through April 26 and features the stories of activists and businesswomen spanning hundreds of years who have history within Massachusetts.

Making Connections

When curating the exhibit, Fondon aimed to not only provide information but to give visitors a chance to truly learn about these women and connect with them. This also meant encouraging attendees to consider their own lives or to give gratitude toward the people who had inspired them. Part of “Voices of Resilience” features a board where visitors can write their own stories and pin them up.

Many people used the chance to thank the women dear to them — mothers, sisters, teachers, and friends. Some highlighted historical women, such as mathematician Katherine Johnson. One guest said Fondon herself is an inspiration.

“On the day of the opening, we already knew it was going to be a powerful exhibit, and we were honored to have it here at the Museums. … There was so much positive energy and so many happy people, proud people. That felt incredible.”

Fondon said she felt it was crucial to give visitors an opportunity to share their history. As such, she worked with poet María Luisa Arroyo, who wrote a piece specifically for the exhibit. The poem insists that all stories belong in this space. In the final line, she writes: “Sit here. I will listen.”

This idea of connection — hearing stories and telling them in turn — is reflected in the exhibit’s events. Springfield Museums staged a ceremony on the date the exhibit opened, and the event brought in the voices of some of the featured women, such as the family of Carole Fredericks, a blues and rock artist. Her relatives were able to talk about Fredericks’ life and the legacy she left on music. In Fondon’s words, it “opened up the storytelling.”

“On the day of the opening, we already knew it was going to be a powerful exhibit, and we were honored to have it here at the Museums,” said Karen Fisk, the museum’s director of Marketing and Communication Strategy. “We were overwhelmed by how many people showed up. Our Blake Court was absolutely full, and people were lined up all along the balconies looking down, which was a beautiful sight. There was so much positive energy and so many happy people, proud people. That felt incredible.”

“Voices of Resilience” was also home to the fourth On the Move forum on March 8, which is International Women’s Day. Beginning in 2017, Fondon organized this annual event to encourage conversation and networking among women in the community. This year’s forum featured keynote speaker Kamilah A’Vant as well as a group of business owners and professors as panelists ready to answer questions from the audience. Much like the opening ceremony, it provided a chance for genuine connection between the speakers and the visitors.

Fisk remarked on this event as well, saying she and Fondon wanted at least 50% of the gathering to consist of adolescents and young adults. To their delight, they far surpassed this goal. Groups from multiple schools came to the event to engage with the panelists and ask questions about employment and voting.

“The On the Move forum had young people and older people speaking to the power that women have, especially when they work together,” Fisk explained. “Janine unites people to work together.”

The exhibit’s closing ceremony will be on April 26 and will serve as a direct collaboration piece between Fondon and several spoken-word poets, as well as with Marlene Yu, a Chinese-American artist whose acrylic paintings are currently on display in the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Springfield Museums.

These works are massive, bright, and colorful, while also capturing the spirit of environmentalism and providing commentary on climate change. Her work will be featured during the event’s closing ceremony, and Fondon was glad to have a chance to collaborate with her. Despite Yu’s age, she continues to paint nearly every day and has produced more than 4,000 pieces of work in her lifetime.

Fondon found that inspiring.

“There was a perfect melding between the ‘Voices of Resilience’ and [Yu’s work]. That is the heartbeat of the exhibit,” she remarked. “I said, ‘she’s a resilient woman’ without even knowing her — just from the power of those pieces.”

Of course, Fondon’s hard work does not go unnoticed. Her work at WTCC 90.7 FM, a diversity-focused radio program in Springfield, earned her an honorary degree at Springfield Technical Community College. She was recognized as an outstanding professor by the African-American Female Professors Assoc. and has received countless other awards for her leadership abilities.

Still, what drives Fondon the most is not accolades; it’s rooted in her family. That is the reason why she is able to give so much to the community. Fondon said she works with her husband on everything, particularly regarding UnityFirst, which the two of them started together. The exhibit even features a quilt given to Fondon in order to honor their marriage. It represents not only the joining of two families but also the deep cultural history behind the heirloom. It is clearly a prized possession, and one that sits right in the center of the exhibit.

Her daughter is at the heart of what inspires her, too.

“I want my daughter to not only know the history, but make new history,” Fondon said. “We need to get our young generation in this city excited. We need to engage them in their future. Even my daughter was just so excited to learn about her grandmother.

“If we can help young people not only find their story here, but also give them the ability to make new stories, that’s what a community wants,” she added. “We need to make sure they know that we want them, and we want them to help drive the future of this city.”