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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.”