S. Bianca Bailey's life could have been forever defined by her mother's murder when she was two years old. Instead, the Texas native beat the odds in 2011 after being named a White House Champion of Change for Women and Girls in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
"You don't have to be a product of your environment," said Bailey, 23, who graduated in May 2012 with a chemical engineering degree from Howard University, and is working on a master's in civil engineering in Illinois. "Whatever negative situation you're faced with, make sure you have something to focus on, to put your energy into, so you'll be successful. Don't let anybody say you can't do something."
Raised by her single father, Bailey, a former president of Engineers without Borders-HU, received the award as part of the Obama administration's Winning the Future Initiative, which aims to accomplish President Barack Obama's plan to "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world."
Through Borders, Bailey volunteered in Kenya, Brazil and Haiti, and served as an operational manager for Girls Incorporated of the Washington, DC Metro Area on Howard's campus.
It was her relationship to Girls Inc. that Bailey credits for her success.
"It's a requirement that girls need someone who pioneered the way to show they can be anything they want to be," said Bailey. "Girls Inc. did that for me." She attended after-school programs in Dallas, and attributed hands-on STEM exposure to women scientist mentors as key in her selecting a STEM career. She received scholarships from Girls Inc. to attend college.
Girls Inc. recognized Bailey during a fundraising benefit in late November at the Atlas in Northeast. Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps, a leader in pediatrics and women's health, and a founding member; and Artis Hampshire-Cowan, a senior vice president at Howard, were praised for contributions to the organization.
"I'm honored to be recognized, however, we want the country more involved in these girls' lives," said Epps, the first African-American president of the American Medical Women's Association, the D.C. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. "We want our girls to be strong, smart and bold, and to make a difference."
Girls Inc., a national nonprofit dating back to 1864, inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold, through life-changing programs and experiences that help them navigate gender, economic and social barriers. The network of local Girls Inc. serves 125,000 girls, ages 6 to 18, annually around the country. It tackles issues such as false beauty standards, teen pregnancies, victimization and depression.
The other honoree, Hampshire-Cowan serves on the board of Girls Inc. DC.
"My being honored is a way to bring attention to Girls Inc., and highlight girls like Bianca," Hampshire-Cowan added.
The elegant evening benefit featured silent and live auctions, and raised more than $40,000 to fund programs.
"I'm so thrilled," said Denese Lombardi, executive director since 2006. "I'm happy with the turnout; that so many people believe in what Girls Inc. does for the community."
Headlining the event was Rain Pryor, who performed her 70-minute autobiographical solo Off-Broadway show, "Fried Chicken and Latkes."
Pryor, daughter of comic genius, Richard Pryor, grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., in the 1970s and '80s in a biracial household with her mother, Shelly Bonis, a Jewish one-time go-go dancer. Her show featured portraits from her life, including her attempted suicide, her father's suicide attempts, his womanizing, drug abuse and paternal concern.
"I got to a place where I understood their struggle," said Pryor, 43, about her parents' tumultuous life. "Something happens when you have a child. The history makes you a better person." Pryor, who now lives in Baltimore, Md., and New York, has a three-year-old daughter.
"He's always on my mind, especially around his birthday (in December)," said Pryor.
She was spot-on with profiles such as her hard-headed mother (Joan Crawford of the 'hood), her maternal grandmother and paternal great-grandmother. Pryor transformed as she effortlessly spat out Jewish idioms, and described how her white mother eased the pain of her African-American daughter when she was called the "N" word. Pryor wove some blues into her portraits, much to the delight of the audience as it made the journey with her – including her father's funeral in 2005. She did it with raw emotion.
"It's really great to hear about Rain's life and see her father in her, and her support for the cause of Girls Inc. is so positive," said Margaret Dureke during the event. "There are many women empowering these girls to let them dream what's possible. It's good to pass on the baton to the next generation."