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Tokeya Graham: Five women I admire

Tokeya C. Graham

Tokeya C. Graham

Author Toni Morrison wrote, “make a difference about something other than yourselves.” My grandmother, Marie Young, has always told me, “the time of day is due to everybody.” These two directives shape who I endeavor to be: a kind and beneficial presence in the world. It is important to embody elevated personhood so that my young adult daughter, Keilani (and my sons, Kirk and Kristian), can look to me as a role model. Truthfully, I am merely a reflection of the beautiful women who have forged a path for me, as well as for the dynamic women who walk beside me, and hopefully, for the brilliant women who will come behind me. I love women. I am blessed to be a woman, especially a black woman. I am grateful to the women who have poured into me. Ultimately, I am a vessel to share what has been given to me.

Marie Young

Marie Young (provided photo)

Marie Young (provided photo)

My 92-year-old grandmother, Marie Young, is one of the best people I know. She has raised two generations of our family, serving as matriarch, safe place, cultural reference…home. Although she does not have much formal education, you can fill a library with the knowledge she has bestowed upon those of us lucky enough to be granted an audience with her. One of the things that I admire about my grandmother is that she is a trailblazer. She once owned a restaurant in Northeast Rochester called The Blue Flame. At the time, my grandmother was a divorced mother who wanted to move her family out of the Hanover housing project, so she started a business when it wasn’t that common for black women to be entrepreneurs. Even though she eventually closed the restaurant, she has always encouraged me to go beyond dreaming and to make my heart’s desires come true.

Mary Ann Wolfe

Mary Ann Wolfe

Mary Ann Wolfe

Mary Ann Wolfe has been a mentor to me for the past 25 years. We met during my internship at her job. At that time, Mary Ann encouraged me to go back to school. She was the first woman outside of my family to embrace me, which means more than I can express. Additionally, she opened the door for my work with the Women’s Foundation of Genesee Valley. Mary Ann also welcomed me into her network of professional women; a holiday party at her house led to my acceptance into the Dr. Alice Holloway Young Internship Program at Monroe Community College, which ultimately resulted in my career. What I admire about Mary Ann is her quiet force. She serves in many community capacities and is intentional about giving back. She has worked in the court system with our most vulnerable youth and continues to advocate for their safety and wellness.

Dr. Arlette Miller Smith

Over 10 years ago, I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Arlette Miller Smith, professor/ poet/ dramatist extraordinaire who calls me her “legacy.” As Arlette celebrates almost 50 years in higher education, her knowledge has informed my career trajectory. One of the most significant things she has done for me is to be transparent about her journey to prepare me for mine. Locally, black women academics are few and far between, but I have been able to tap into one of the most dynamic educators around. Twenty-five years ago, she founded Akoma, a black women’s gospel choir that infuses cultural traditions with song. Through her work, Arlette offers a blueprint for curating creative spaces for black women. I admire her tenacity, her generosity, and her intellect. I am grateful for her professional and personal mentorship. She has become a surrogate mother to me and continues to offer support.

Reenah L. Golden

Reenah Golden (provided photo)

Reenah Golden (provided photo)

Reenah is an activist, a teaching artist and a poet, among other gifts. Having a friendship that spans a decade provides us with opportunities to collaborate, on the page and on the stage. I am inspired by her seemingly unending supply of energy and vision. Over a year ago, she founded The Avenue Black Box Theatre on Joseph Avenue in one of our city’s most underserved areas. The theater is an inclusive space that feeds the souls of some of the most marginalized artists: young, black, brown, LGBTQ+, etc. The space is community-powered with Reenah at the helm. The way that she embraces our youth and prepares them to do their work is powerful. I admire her ability to move in different circles while creating an artistic ecosystem that works with and for the community. Reenah’s work is unparalleled and I am humbled to see what she is able to manifest.

Melany J. Silas

Melany Silas (provided photo)

Melany Silas (provided photo)

Melany and I first met as colleagues in 2006. When I was hired permanently, two years later, our offices were across the hall from each other for almost 10 years until our campus moved. Every day, we could glance across the hall to see the other. That is the perfect metaphor for our relationship: we look out for each other. Melany inspires me because she is a visionary, having created her women and girls’ conferences over 16 years ago. One of her most significant accomplishments was bringing the Angela Davis to Rochester for a keynote the day after the 2016 presidential election. Her vision knows no bounds. Melany will work around the clock running MJS Productions, teaching, serving the community, completing her PhD, and mothering her tween daughter, Nyah. Melany is committed to providing a platform for healing. I admire her innovative spirit and her commitment to black women’s wellness.



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