By Annie Bennett
Five Malden activists whose advocacy covers issues as varied as the environment, girls education, child marriage, anti-Asian bias, and the arts were honored March 25 by the Zonta Club of Malden as part of the annual “Women Making a Difference” event.
“Every day there are women in our community that are doing amazing things,” said Ari Taylor, Zonta Malden’s Recording Secretary and Chair of the Finance Committee. “Little (and) big things that you don’t even realize advance the status of women… and this event is to honor them, these everyday heroes.”
The “Women Making A Difference” event, traditionally held during Women’s History Month in March, honors those who are pushing forward Zonta International’s mission within Malden, which includes “empowering women through service and advocacy.” This year’s honorees were Naomi Brave, Lisa Cenca, Kay Kahn, Marcia Menong, and Mei Hung.
Last year’s event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and this year’s event was held virtually.
The goal of “Women Making a Difference” is to inspire others, Taylor said. Members of Zonta and Malden’s community submit nominations. Usually, there are three honorees, one of which is the winner of the Humanitarian Award. However, last year was the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the right to vote, and five honorees and two Humanitarian Award winners were chosen for 2020, and are now finally being recognized in 2021.
Mayor Gary Christenson sent a video to the virtual event, saying: “I am confident that when you hear from each of these nominees, you will be inspired by their leadership, their commitment to making a difference, and their ability to just get things done.”
Thirteen local groups sponsored the event and showed support for the winners. A commitment to diversity was echoed in an interview with Neighborhood View and can be seen through the wide array of accomplishments and backgrounds in this year’s recipients.
Naomi Brave, the founder and president of Malden Arts was honored for her tremendous effort to ensure that Malden remains beautiful and that the arts are ingrained in the city. Brave is the kind of woman who “doesn’t have to give anything back to her community (but) decided ‘I want this space to be beautiful’” Taylor said. Because of Brave, said Taylor, “we now have this amazingly beautiful city.” However, Brave’s efforts go beyond mere beautification. She was recognized for her resilience while trying to push forward “her idea and she didn’t let anyone tell her it wasn’t possible. She made it possible and that makes it incredible, that makes her a woman who is making a difference,” Taylor said. Her contribution to Malden is seen in the citywide murals and other public art projects.
“We need to give people strength and hope and art does that,” Taylor said.
During her acceptance speech, Brave said, “Malden Arts is definitely a labor of love” and referenced “the power of arts to connect people across languages and cultures and the power to expand our minds and show us what’s possible.”
Lisa Cenca was recognized for the progress she was able to make for girls’ education through her roles as the founder and former principal of the Malden Catholic School for Girls. Taylor said Cenca designed an entire curriculum around empowering young women and has also instilled a respect for females among boys. Taylor said that she always bears a positive attitude, never being seen “without a huge smile.” Cenca was recognized because, as Taylor puts it, “I’ve never seen someone fight and advocate for girls the way that she did.”
Cenca has been an educator for over twenty years and has used her curriculum to address a number of social issues, from environmental equity to ending animal cruelty. When accepting her award, she discussed the current book she’s writing, entitled A Girl’s Guide to Greatness: Where Leadership Meets Social Justice. She also said that she feels “truly blessed to have been given this opportunity to make this world a more equitable place for everyone.”
Honoree Marcia Manong is, in Taylor’s mind, “a quiet activist; she’s never going to ask for attention.” Manong is a community organizer and activist whose leadership with the Malden River Works Project really grabbed the committee’s attention.
Manong “tirelessly just puts herself out there and puts her mind to it and gets it done,” Taylor said. To the committee, she is a woman making a difference in large part because “she’s had adversity that she just looks in the face and says ‘out of my way I’m going forward’ and there’s just a lot of respect and a lot of admiration for that.”
Taylor referenced Manog’s work volunteering in high school for the NAACP, her efforts to thwart apartheid in South Africa, her contributions as a board member at Urban Media Arts (formerly MATV), where her granddaughter currently interns, and many other accomplishments as well. Manong accepted the award and emphasized the importance of gender equality, saying, “Girls all over the world are depending on us to get this right. We dare not let them down.”
This year, the first winner of the Humanitarian Award was State Rep. Kay Khan (D-11th Middlesex) Zonta prioritizes ending child marriage as a goal and Khan has worked extensively within the State House to illegalize the act in Massachusetts. Unlike many politicians, Khan “truly puts in the work and it’s not for another reelection.” Khan has been commended by Zonta for calling attention to the other, less obvious aspects of child marriage that are harmful, such as a lack of education.
Taylor said, “we need this and this is what our community needs… our girls need to know that they’re respected.” In the ceremony’s introduction of Khan, her efforts towards accessibility and other social justice issues were emphasized. While giving her acceptance speech, Khan said that fighting child marriage “is even more important than ever” and put out a call for action to end the practice within the Commonwealth.
A Humanitarian Award also went to Mei Hung, executive director of the Chinese Culture Connection, who has made significant contributions as an activist for Asian Americans and Malden at large. Taylor cites her work as nothing more than “pure service.” Additionally, “she makes herself available, she helps bridge gaps, she helps connect people, she’s really committed and dedicated to her work (of) celebrating diversity and allowing people to see all sides of everything. She’s worked so long and so hard in our community.”
Taylor said Hung is a quintessential example of the type of woman who should receive this award and said that “what she has done for the Malden community and for the Asian American community in Malden… goes above and beyond.”.
In her acceptance speech, Hung said that “we know that women are really running the show in many situations and without women, this world would collapse in no time.”