Last year our fearless Executive Director, Evelyn Mensah, was selected by The Chicago Foundation for Women to participate in a leadership initiative in last year. This intense, self-actualization and empowering cohort is founded upon Reverend Willie T. Barrow’s legacy as a leader and activist in the Chicago community and civil rights movement, co-founder of Operation PUSH, and generational mentor bringing outstanding women leaders together to support, learn from one another and birth new services to continue the fight for economic and health empowerment of women and girls in our communities. Willie’s Warriors is a continuation of her mission and legacy to mentor others.

The 4th Willie’s Warriors Leadership Initiative took place between February through September, bookended by a spa retreat. The opening retreat in February took place virtually in the continued fight against COVID 19. However, the 17-member cohort created topics to cover in-person for the remaining monthly workshops including Economic Empowerment, Financial and Fiscal Responsibility, Change Management, Call to Courage: Standing out and being heard, and Who’s in Your Corner; who are your cheerleaders? Do you see them? Our closing retreat took place at the Eaglewood Resort and Spa in Itasca, Illinois which allowed us to fellowship and begin a group initiative to provide a modern versus of the infamous Greenbook.

Ms. Mensah describes her experiences with the Willie’s Warriors Leadership Initiative cohort: How did you become a Willie’s Warrior? 

I was nominated by staff who then submitted answers to questions regarding my role and work here at the African American Christian Foundation.  

Who were the other Willie’s Warriors? 

There were 17 spirited and powerful women leaders from both the nonprofit and corporate worlds, different levels professionally, but mostly in leadership roles. 

What did you learn from your experiences with Willie’s Warriors? 

It was a really amazing experience! Some of the key things that we covered in the cohort was how to rely on each other, best practices in our organizations, and what works for different individuals: sometimes our words are not heard and we have to fight the system to be heard and understood. We learned how to navigate all of that as women leaders.  

What did you learn about leadership? 

I learned how to use my vulnerability to navigate the pressures of leadership, to lean into my vulnerability as a way of connecting with my team, others and a source of strength.  

How do you feel you benefited from your time with Willie’s Warriors?  

The leadership experience gave me a lot of courage and helped to strengthen my leadership skills. I learned from these amazing and seasoned women to live in the moment and not stress by working all the time. They are just a great group to be around as they inspire me to be better. I still have some learning to do, so I stay in contact with this powerhouse cohort and alumni cohorts. 

What were some highlights from the program? 

Bonding with the cohort as a whole, meeting and supporting each other with different projects. The capstone project of the program was to create an online magazine and a T-shirt design. It was really a wonderful experience. 

How were you encouraged to carry the message forward? 

As an alum, we have the opportunity to host future cohort sessions and also act as mentors to new Willie’s Warriors. 

Since the program ended do you maintain contact with the other members of the Willie’s Warriors Cohort 4? 

Yes, we meet on a quarterly basis to catch up and see how each other is doing. We continue to support each other in ongoing projects. 

Would you nominate anyone to be a Willie’s Warrior? 

Absolutely, yes! I plan on nominating staff members to join the leadership program.  

We are excited for what Ms. Mensah has gained from her experiences with Willie’s Warrior  

Leadership Initiative. It was an incredibly powerful experience for learning and growth for our executive director carrying the work of Rev. Barrow’s life mission and legacy forward to empower black women. Rev. Barrow’s advice to young African Americans: “Read, talk to folks, ask questions, be curious, be noisy, and learn from your ancestors.” 

Learn more about the Chicago Foundation for Women Willie’s Warriors Leadership Initiative 

Learn more about Reverend Willie T. Barrows 

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