2020 Women to Watch honorees and who inspires them, what scares them and what they love to eat.
The Baltimore Sun is rolling out its 2020 list of 25 Women to Watch over three days. Below is the final list.
Jamie Grace Alexander
22, artist, activist and creator of Gender Museum and Baltimore Queer Paper
Jamie Grace Alexander has built a career around fighting transphobia, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. The Waverly resident previously led the Baltimore Transgender Alliance, a major support and advocacy group. Alexander founded the Gender Museum, an Instagram-based archive of “people talking about their gender identity.” And they research Baltimore’s LGBTQ history for the Baltimore Queer Paper, published on Medium.com. Alexander’s work is perhaps most visible on the 2200 and 2300 blocks of Charles Street, on a massive mural they designed with Baltimore Safe Haven: “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER.” Alexander said the unifying force of the work “is seeing where power, money and resources are consolidated in Baltimore city, and trying to give people access to those platforms.”
— Sameer Rao
Sharon Black of the People's Power Assembly and others, share their thoughts about race, community and other issues.
71, co-coordinator and organizer of People’s Power Assembly
A giant, inflatable rat and swearing protesters greeted President Donald Trump on his first visit to Baltimore after he disparaged the city in a tweet. When Vice President Mike Pence arrived last month, Sharon Black and company were back at it. A veteran of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, Black has led countless protests against racism and police brutality, among a slew of other issues. In a write-in run for City Council president in 2016, she advocated for raising the minimum wage. “Women are really the organizers and the glue for the entire movement for justice,” she said.
— Colin Campbell
20, community activist, One Pasadena
In Pasadena, a ZIP code with the most reports of hate bias incidents in Maryland, a young Black woman organized two rallies to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The day of her June rally, Shelyia Brown was shocked to see hundreds of participants fill a soccer field: “I felt like I actually did something.” Brown, a student at Anne Arundel Community College, sought to bring racial justice to her hometown by increasing the profile of the anti-racist group One Pasadena and pressed county officials on policing concerns. Said NAACP chapter President Jackie Allsup: “I commend her and her generation for picking up the mantle and moving forward for racial justice.”
— Naomi Harris
María Perales Sánchez
25, Elizabeth Mauldin Memorial Advocate for Migrant Women at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante
In 2017, María Perales Sánchez and others who immigrated to the U.S. as children sued the Trump administration for dismantling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In June, they made history: The Supreme Court ruled in her favor. At Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a Mexico City- and Baltimore-based advocacy group, Sánchez has pushed for policy change and improved labor conditions. Now she has begun a legal fellowship for migrant women. In tough times (like the three-year wait for a ruling) Sánchez thinks on her late mother’s philosophy: “to work with the community, to rely on the community — and that we came to this country to do our best job to support each other.”
— Stephanie García
Odette Ramos and others share some of their worst jobs.
47, Democratic nominee for Baltimore City Council District 14
From women’s issues to community development to affordable housing, Odette Ramos has been an advocate in Baltimore for 30 years. Knocking on nearly 19,000 doors and witnessing a family lose their home to a tax sale only gave her more fuel to campaign harder. Ramos won the Democratic primary for City Council District 14 and is poised to become Baltimore’s first Hispanic councilwoman if she wins the general election next month: “I have an additional set of folks that I want to be accountable to, but also to represent and lift their voices.”
Erika Strauss and other Women to Watch honorees share thoughts on their legacy.
38, founder, Columbia Community Care founder
When the pandemic struck, Erika Strauss-Chavarria realized she needed to act fast to help her community. “I am a teacher. I know the needs of my students, and I know the school,” said Strauss-Chavarria, a Spanish teacher at Columbia’s Wilde Lake High School. She created a Facebook group to help meet those needs: Columbia Community Care. Six months in, that group has more than 6,000 members, and the organization is officially a nonprofit that has served more than 38,000 Howard County residents. This summer, she also helped her students organize protests advocating for equity. Grassroots activism, said Strauss-Chavarria, is “part of my existence.”
China Boak Terrell shooed away the warnings that she’d regret skipping her senior year at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County. Fiercely determined, she accepted a scholarship to the Johns Hopkins University and dove into studies that led her to become a corporate lawyer.
Successful well before her 30th birthday, Terrell upended her career when doctors uncovered and treated an aneurysm in her heart and dangerous blood clots.
After the doctors saved Terrell’s life, she couldn’t shake one question: What would people say at her funeral? She was hit with clarity: “I wanted to build up people and help rebuild communities.”
So she set out to transform her life. She became a foster mother while living in Minnesota and moved back to the East Coast, where she went to work for the Washington, D.C., government to give herself time to figure out how she wanted to redesign her life for maximum good. Eventually, she went to Harvard University to earn a master’s degree in public administration on a mission to help solve economic inequality for Black and brown communities.
That mission led her and her family to Baltimore in June 2016 when Terrell became chief executive officer of American Communities Trust.
The national partner works to bring investment to low-income, urban neighborhoods, all the while building wealth for the families who live there. For Terrell and her team, one of the signature projects is the Baltimore Pumphouse, which is transforming a formerly blighted property into a bustling hub for business and food production at Wolfe and Oliver streets.
Scott Goldman, director of The 6th Branch, a nonprofit that taps military veterans to serve communities, said Terrell is developing investment strategies worth millions of dollars.
“China is a force of nature,” Goldman said.
The pandemic has made her already hard job harder. But Terrell refuses to sit back and watch Black and brown communities suffer the same years-long lag in recovery behind whites that data predict the outbreak will bring: “We have to speed up solving economic inequality.”
— Yvonne Wenger
32, Baltimore program manager, Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Carmera Thomas-Wilhite knows Baltimoreans have enough concerns to engage them — environmentalism may not be at the top of the list.
But it’s at the top of hers, and she’s succeeding in driving others to engage.
Last year alone, Thomas-Wilhite’s work to expand the Healthy Harbor Initiative helped volunteers grow more than 5 million oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, improving water quality and providing habitat for crabs and other organisms.
In about a decade of environmental advocacy, she has testified at the local and state levels in favor of plastic bag bans and against air pollution from Baltimore’s Wheelabrator incinerator, and advocated for residents dealing with flooding from excess stormwater, pushing for infrastructure improvements.
This spring, she began leading about 50 staff members on an internal Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice team, according to Will Baker, president of the foundation. The team has pushed strategies to promote equity and inclusion, such as hiring and recruitment initiatives and an expansion of the organization’s network to include more diverse voices, Thomas-Wilhite said.
“She makes environmental stewardship meaningful to everyone, young and old, white and Black, rich and poor,” Baker said.
Thomas-Wilhite sees herself as a convener of relationships.
“Nature calms us,” Thomas-Wilhite said. In her free time, the Crofton resident enjoys visiting natural areas with historical significance. “It’s good for public health and mental health. So [I’ve focused on] how can I be a good steward and help others be a part of this.”
— Ben Leonard
46, executive government adviser, Amazon Web Services
The coronavirus pandemic has intertwined Shonte Eldridge’s love for public service and technology in ways she never imagined. She’s worked for the offices of Maryland’s governor and Baltimore’s mayor and state’s attorney, and designed Baltimore’s first digital transformation plan. Now, the Amazon Web Services adviser is helping local governments, clients of Amazon’s cloud platform, work remotely, create virtual call centers and upgrade websites to keep services flowing. “Governments are rethinking how they perform the services that constituents need,” Eldridge said. “That’s ... been a great thing to see and be part of modernizing.”
— Lorraine Mirabella
64, founder and CEO of Profiles
Amy Elias celebrated the 30th anniversary of her public relations company amid strong headwinds. She was crafting public messages for The Stronach Group on a plan to rehabilitate Maryland’s venerable racetracks, which the General Assembly adopted. But she also helped clients navigate a pandemic that wiped out budgets and traditional modes of fundraising. And she took the lead in a class-action lawsuit against Bank of America for favoring lending clients as it dispensed Payroll Protection Act funds. Ultimately, “I feel good that the company stayed strong, everybody stayed employed and we were able to help clients through this really difficult last six months,” she said.
— Childs Walker
Nancy Whiteman Greene
48, chairman of Miles & Stockbridge
As a mother of five and first woman to lead the nearly 90-year-old law firm, Nancy Whiteman Greene’s determined to make a demanding profession more family-friendly. No one should choose between being a successful lawyer and good parent, she said.
“My whole goal in being chairman is to make people feel like they aren’t having to make that choice,” she said.
An accomplished real estate lawyer, she handles complex deals for hundreds of millions of dollars. Greene represents big banks financing new shopping malls, office parks and hotels. Her work includes the Annapolis Towne Centre, her first big deal, and the Sagamore Pendry hotel.
Greene has been a steady hand during the uncertainty of recent months, said John Frisch, the former chairman.
“She has a presence that is very centered,” he said. “She cares deeply about her family, and she cares deeply about her firm.”
Greene wasn’t sure she wanted to lead the second-largest law firm in Maryland. Beyond her commitment to her real estate law practice, she cooked the dinners at their Severna Park home and drove one son to swim practice.
“I just didn’t know how I was going to be able to do it,” she said.
Her husband, a Miles & Stockbridge lawyer too, took up the duties (her Christmas gift to him: a cookbook). Greene promised her son never to miss a swim meet. She marked such events on her office calendar, wanting staff to see her priorities. Even before the coronavirus, she encouraged flexible hours. Her advice to young lawyers: Pick a good spouse.
“Someone who’s going to support what you want as well as you’re going to support them.”
As Greene shepherds the firm through the pandemic, she’s convened support groups for parents. She wants them to know they’re not alone. After all, the chairman who handles million-dollar deals found herself breaking down while trying to log her 10-year-old into classes online.
“I sympathize a great deal with what all of my colleagues and employees are going through.”
Her first supermarket job was in the deli at 21. Now Tonya Herring oversees all products for Giant Food: how they’re priced, promoted and placed on shelves. During pandemic panic buying, many shelves were bare. “We were taking it very personally that we couldn’t get all the products in stores,” Herring said of her 200-person merchandising team. “We needed to keep morale high.” Herring describes herself as thoughtful but not afraid to speak up or take risks. “Hopefully I’m leaving a legacy of women that can continue to grow their careers, so my four granddaughters know they can be anything they want to be.”
— Lorraine Mirabella
37, vice president, chief compliance officer, Howard Bank
Katherine Koustenis sees her role as more than ensuring compliance with government regulations. She links employees to volunteer opportunities, during bank-paid hours, to engage the community bank in the community. Under her leadership, volunteering jumped 32% last year to 1,200 hours. She leads by example, serving meals or digging holes for trees. “I don’t ask people to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” she said. “When you roll your sleeves up and do physical work, you get to know people on a different level.”
— Lorraine Mirabella
29, play-by-play broadcaster and sideline reporter for Baltimore Orioles
When the on-air light flashed Aug. 4 and Melanie Newman began talking to Orioles fans over the team’s radio network, she did something no Maryland woman and few women anywhere had done before. She became the first female broadcaster to call a game for the Orioles and just the fourth to call play-by-play for any Major League Baseball game. Pioneering was the last thing on the Georgia native’s mind when she broke into the unglamorous lower ranks of broadcasting eight years ago. “I hope at some point, it won’t be news, a female getting this job,” she said. “But I recognize the significance of talking about it, because it does open up mindsets.”
— Childs Walker
Lucy Motsay Rutishauser
56, chief financial officer, Sinclair Broadcast Group
Lucy Motsay Rutishauser played a pivotal role in the largest acquisition ever for Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Sinclair, a news producer and one of the nation’s largest TV broadcasters, pushed into sports programming in a big way last year, buying 21 regional sports networks and Fox College Sports from the Walt Disney Co. for $10.6 billion.
Rutishauser led the effort to raise billions of dollars for the deal in one of the largest debt offerings in the country. She needed to justify the news broadcaster’s big bet on sports, a step toward becoming a diversified media company amid growing competition.
“It put us squarely into a new footprint outside of broadcast,” Rutishauser said. “We know the news and sports content genres have been growing consistently over the past five years.”
It was a natural role for Rutishauser, one of eight siblings who grew up in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood and who all pursued professional careers. A University of Baltimore MBA graduate, she has worked a series of corporate treasury jobs at Black & Decker, Laura Ashley, Integrated Health Services and other firms.
“Go out there and forge a path, make a difference,” Rutishauser said her father used to say. “That’s been what has guided me over time.”
In 1998, she read about growth of the family-owned-turned-publicly-owned broadcaster in Hunt Valley and called seeking an assistant treasurer position. There was no such job, but Sinclair created it for her. She became treasurer and also headed investor relations.
When then-CFO Chris Ripley became Sinclair’s president and CEO in 2017, Rutishauser stood out: hard working, detail-oriented, thorough and “wickedly smart,” an obvious choice to replace him, Ripley said.
“She’s very firm,” Ripley said. “She doesn’t waffle on things, so she’s very good at negotiating, very decisive and that’s helpful when you’re trying to drive a deal.”
As one of the few female CFOs among Fortune 500 companies, where Sinclair expects to land this year, “I ask a lot of questions,” Rutishauser said. “I want to understand how other people think and how they approach problems, while continuing to learn myself.”
— Lorraine Mirabella
Shonte Eldridge, Lucy Motsay Rutishauser, Katherine Koustenis, Amy Seto, and Shelonda Stokes, share their thoughts on a possible female vice president.
48, endowments and foundations senior adviser, Brown Advisory
Lending expert advice, Amy Seto — a Hong Kong native who has invested in Baltimore’s future professionally and personally — guides foundations and endowments so they can do the most good, for the most people. Helping them increase their investments allows for compounding impact. From social unrest to the pandemic, “you could give away everything and still not meet the need,” Seto said. Inside the investment management firm where she is a partner, Seto is committed to diversity, having studied how to become an ally: “I try to effect change wherever I am.”
— Yvonne Wenger
Catina Smith, Melanie Newman, Amy Seto, Katherine Koustenis and Nancy Greene share their thoughts on success.
34, founder, Just Call Me Chef
Catina Smith wishes she’d had a Black woman culinary star to look up to when she was growing up in Northeast Baltimore.
That wish has fueled her organization, Just Call Me Chef, which provides opportunities and networking for Black women chefs through increased visibility.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Smith, who lives in Guilford. “It would have been great to see someone who looks like me on TV.”
Since launching the group two years ago, Smith has created calendars and organized photo shoots and networking events. Some of the shoots have resulted in spreads in publications such as Cherry Bombe, a magazine centered on women in the culinary industry.
“I just thought it would be extremely powerful,” she said of the imagery. “It shows that we are out here and that there is a market for us.”
A photo shoot last fall attracted 100 Black women in the industry.
“The energy was nuts,” Smith recalled of participants who had traveled from as far as Detroit and New York City. “It was all about empowerment.”
Smith has worked in a number of finer kitchens locally including Magdalena, Alexander Brown and Copper Kitchen. She now curates a dinner series, 3 Petals, which she runs out of her home.
“This is our history. We have been in the kitchen,” she said. Yet, “when we think of the culinary arena now, all we see is the face of white men. I’m just trying to create that visibility for us.”
Michelle Suazo is executive director of The Food Project in Southwest Baltimore, which teaches youth about the culinary industry through mentoring and hands-on activities. She testifies to the impact of Smith’s volunteer work with her organization.
“She really is exceptional,” Suazo said. “She especially inspires the girls by showing them the talent and strength a female chef can have running a kitchen. Chef Cat always pulls off a beautiful and delicious meal with the youth.”
Next, Smith wants to offer a scholarship for Black women pursing careers in the culinary industry.
— John-John Williams IV
Tonya Herring, Amy Seto, Shelonda Stokes, Amy Elias, and Shonte Eldridge talk about race and national reckoning in the country.
48, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore
Shelonda Stokes swept up litter in her first job for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore at age 14. More than 30 years later, she has become the partnership’s first Black president. “My job has come full circle,” Stokes said. The Morgan State and Polytechnic Institute alumna took over permanently in June after serving as interim president and board chair. Beyond maintaining 106 downtown blocks and putting on Restaurant Week and the Monument Lighting, she is focused on inclusivity. "I wanted to make sure the focus was not ‘us’ and ‘them,’ " Stokes said.
When Grace Callwood was diagnosed with cancer at age 7, she didn’t know what it was or why she had it. Had she done something wrong? Yet she regrouped to bolster kids who are hospitalized, homeless or in foster care. She founded We Cancerve, now a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a youth board of advisers that organizes programs such as an annual “Camp Happy,” which went virtual this year. Kids in crisis deserve to know “that their sad situation is not their fault and ... someone is looking out for them,” said Grace, an Edgewood High sophomore.
— David Anderson
Dr. Jinlene Chan
47, acting deputy state health secretary for public health services
Dr. Jinlene Chan is no newcomer to public health, having spent years in the Maryland and Anne Arundel County health departments. But when those like her in the field do their jobs right, preventing disease and improving health in the community, few people ever hear about them.
But times have changed with the coronavirus.
Since becoming acting deputy health secretary for public health services in August, she’s become a public face for the state’s pandemic response.
Chan said none of the actual work is new, though the scope of the job is much larger. She said she settles herself by “keeping my eye on the prize.”
What is the prize?
“With this pandemic it’s mitigating and minimizing the impact on our neighbors and our communities,” she said.
To that end, Chan rises each morning and reviews data and evaluates programs to see what needs to change or improve and how the puzzle pieces fit together. And there are a lot of pieces, from testing and contact tracing to hospital bed capacity. The department also has to be ready when there is a vaccine.
Health Secretary Robert R. Neall said he chose her for the position because she had the background and had already shown she could do the work.
Specifically, Chan’s “outstanding leadership of the immensely complex state COVID-19 testing program made her the obvious choice to step in and assume Fran Phillips' duties,” Neall said in a statement about the retirement in August of the former deputy. “Her years of experience in health, as a local health officer and at [the Maryland Department of Health], are the qualities needed during this unprecedented public health emergency.”
Though she speaks English, Spanish and Chinese, Chan credits listening to others as key to her leadership.
But at the end of her long days, it’s her family that has her ear.
“Any spare time I have I spend with my kids,” said the Anne Arundel mother of three. "They are changing so fast. There is a saying ... the days are long, but the years are short. I don’t want to miss the moments I do have with them. "
— Meredith Cohn
36, associate professor, civil and systems engineering, Johns Hopkins University
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the world, the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard has tracked each of its movements since the tool’s creation in January. “We decided that there’s a lack of real-time data that’s dynamic enough that you can understand the transmission risk," said Lauren Gardner, its creator. The interactive tool has become the world’s trusted source on the state of the pandemic, with data points in about 200 countries and some 3,500 different locations including small towns and communities. “There’s nothing else like this, at this spatial scale or in real time, providing data in an open-access format from the most authoritative sources,” Gardner said.
— Hallie Miller
Ellington West, Sonavi Labs, Dr. Kathy Neuzil, University of Maryland School of Medicine and Dr. Susan Mani, LifeBridge Health, share insights on the past year.
Dr. Susan Mani
47, chief population health officer, LifeBridge Health
For many, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the health disparities that exist along lines of class, age and race. But Dr. Susan Mani was already focusing on the needs of vulnerable populations as an administrator at LifeBridge Health. “Your health is very much impacted by socioeconomic factors, and addressing some of those needs has to be just as important as what medication I prescribe,” she said. Mani, a cardiologist, leads a statewide task force on COVID-19 disparities. (She is also married to Kamau High, The Sun’s senior editor for features; he did not participate in the selection.) Mani views health care as not only a lifeline but also a force to fight inequity: “I’ve always thought in a holistic manner — not just about the clinical piece.”
— Hallie Miller
Deanna Najera, Carroll Hospital, Dr. Jinlene Chan, Public Health and Dr. Kathy Neuzil, University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Deanna Bridge Najera
37, past president, Maryland Academy of Physician Assistants
In the country’s war against the pandemic, Deanna Bridge Najera has worked to ensure that physician assistants are included in the cavalry.
Najera just completed her yearlong term as president of the Maryland Academy of Physician Assistants, which successfully pushed state lawmakers to tap physician assistants in the emergency COVID-19 response.
Physician assistants are health professionals certified to provide care, usually under the supervision of a physician. Najera said she and her peers have a “taste of everything” in the medical field.
Working in the emergency department of Carroll Hospital at the pandemic’s start, Najera sensed constant fear in the air. Walls went up. Air filters were installed. A single sneeze could put you on edge. With patients reluctant to enter the emergency room, Najera was furloughed but soon found herself working full-time at the Carroll County Health Department. She is the lead clinician for reproductive health and serves as a consultant on COVID-19 matters, which includes visiting congregate living facilities facing outbreaks.
“I think my sort of North Star is always doing what’s right ethically, morally, even if it means being pilloried for it,” she said.
Health officer Ed Singer, head of the county health department, credits Najera with providing critical assistance in developing protocols for operations and contact tracing, supporting testing and crafting messaging to the public. A spokesperson for the department, Maggie Kunz, said Najera has helped break down complicated medical issues for citizens.
“Deanna is a public health champion who understands how community health impacts individual health,” Kunz said.
Najera also provides on-call psychiatric services for students at Gettysburg College and Shippensburg University and seasonal help to a migrant agricultural workers' health program.
Her next challenge? A position at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney, where she seeks to increase mentorship opportunities and create more places for physician assistants.
— Mary Grace Keller
Dr. Kathleen Neuzil
59, director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health
Kathy Neuzil is among the nation’s top vaccine researchers, but don’t call her elitist. “Not everyone can access specialized medical care, but we can reach everyone with vaccines to prevent disease,” she said. Health equity has driven her work tackling myriad killer infections in decades on the job. Now she’s facing perhaps her biggest challenge: a coronavirus vaccine. Her lab has already participated in early-phase testing for one potential vaccine and is in the midst of late-phase testing for another. “We can’t control all of the other diseases that cause morbidity throughout the world — influenza, malaria, typhoid, diarrheal diseases — until we control COVID.”
— Meredith Cohn
Dr. Kathy Neuzil, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Ellington West, Sonavi Labs and Grace Callwood, We Cancerve Movement.
33, CEO and founder, Sonavi Labs
More children die of acute respiratory infections than nearly any other cause, according to the World Health Organization. But Ellington West, whose company is developing and placing digital stethoscope technology in communities that need it most, said that need not be the case. “We said, there has to be a way to repurpose the stethoscope so anyone in the world can pick up the device and come out with a [diagnosis] classification,” she said. With the help of her father, Johns Hopkins University’s James West, the “Feelix” stethoscope has already landed in several countries, and West said she is among just a few Black American women to have raised more than $1 million in venture capital.