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Monday, March 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Be open to whatever comes’: Vanessa Williams mentors black women, girls ahead of Spokane concerts

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 21, 2019

Singing superstar Vanessa Williams greets a group of women of color on Saturday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Williams is performing with the Spokane Symphony. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Singing superstar Vanessa Williams greets a group of women of color on Saturday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Williams is performing with the Spokane Symphony. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Sandy Williams, editor of The Black Lens, says she always reaches out to notable African American figures who come to town to see if they will talk with local young people about their experiences.

“In a place like Spokane, you feel so removed from people who are iconic in the black community,” Williams said. Seeing them in person “makes you feel more empowered.”

Often times celebrities decline to make time, but Williams said she wasn’t surprised when iconic singer and actor Vanessa Williams, who first rose to fame as the first African American Miss America, quickly agreed to meet with a group of young black women and girls ahead of her Holiday Pops concert at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

“She’s always been incredibly gracious,” said Sandy Williams, who interviewed Vanessa Williams for the December issue of her newspaper. “She’s been known for that over the years. She has a commitment to young people.”

Vanessa Williams told 15 girls and women from local grade schools and other parts of the community about how she worked hard, was open to new opportunities and persevered to find success.

“It’s always important to talk to women who identify with who I am,” said Williams, who found inspiration from the likes of singer Lena Horne and actor Diahann Carroll while growing up seeing few black figures in popular media. “If I can give a little bit of my strategy in life and help people become who they want to be, why not?”

At the end of her sophomore year at Syracuse University in 1983, after her theater show was canceled, Williams agreed to enter the Miss Greater Syracuse scholarship pageant and won. She later was crowned Miss New York and then became Miss America for 1984.

“At 20 years old, I had no intention of being Miss America,” Williams told the group of girls. “If I hadn’t taken that chance … who knows where I would have been.”

But while she was the reigning Miss America, a magazine published nude photos of Williams without her authorization. Williams was forced to resign her position and lost lucrative opportunities. She later found success as a recording artist and actor.

“The mindset is to be open to whatever comes,” Williams told a girl who asked what she tells herself each morning. “You never know what is going to be afforded to you in your life. … Be open to people that come into your life to give you new challenges.”

Williams also told the girls about when her mother first told her about the particular challenges women of color face.

“You know you’re going to have to do better than everyone else just to be considered,” Williams remembered her mother telling her in second or third grade. She added, “Being good isn’t good enough. As a woman of color it’s not enough just to get by. You’re going to have to make a splash, and you’re going to have to work hard to get noticed. People will notice you if they know that you are hungry and willing to work.”

When facing adversity, Williams told the women and girls to think of themselves like trees in inclement weather.

“There might be some snow, might break some branches. There might be rain. There might be wind. … But it doesn’t change the tree,” she said. “Figure out who you are and know that whatever comes in, tries to knock you down, tries to harm you and break you, it hasn’t changed who you are.”

Mentors are especially helpful for guidance and finding avenues for one’s passions, Williams said.

“You can always find somebody who can help you,” Williams said. “Find out what you’re really good at and get better and better, and spend the time with it. And you never know what doors will open.”

A number of the girls who came to meet Williams were from the Rogers High School Black Student Union. The club found out about the opportunity after Sandy Williams, The Black Lens editor, reached out to school officials.

Other girls found there way to the event through connections with Sandy Williams and Terrain Executive Director Ginger Ewing.

“I definitely haven’t had many examples or mentors who look like me,” said Sarah Torres, a 23-year-old Spokane Falls Community College fine arts student. “It was awesome to get that perspective. … I just feel more validated.”

Torres said she dreams of helping Spokane’s art community grow through nonprofit work, building studio spaces or addressing other needs.

“I think there’s a lot of potential here in the city,” she said.

Melissa Pirie, an 11-year-old Logan Elementary School student, said meeting Williams was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She said she enjoys singing and dancing but harbors some fear about performing in public.

“I feel like it (meeting Williams) was a pep talk to go for your dreams,” Pirie said.

Evergreen Elementary School student Aaliyah X, 10, said she listened to William’s Christmas album before the event and was encouraged by Williams’ response to her question about what joy means to her.

“Joy is love,” Williams said. “It’s being open to the love that you give, the love that you receive, the love that you see around.”

And meeting Williams was a full-circle moment for Cecilia Moore, who saw Williams for the first time soon after she’d been crowned Miss America in 1984.

“I have followed her ever since,” said Moore, who drove from Hayden, Idaho, and brought her CDs from growing up for Williams to sign. “I love what she said about following your dreams: You have to put the work in.”

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