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Four strong women

Jazz, travel, voluntarism and architecture distinguish them. Service unites them.


PEREZ: Mother told her she'd sing.
  • PEREZ: Mother told her she'd sing.

“Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves” wasn't just an '80s hit by Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin. Nor was this forced pairing just a publicity stunt to boost flagging record sales. It's an anthem of independence, a call to arms, that still has resonance today; and the young women we profile here, all in their 20s and 30s, embody its very spirit.

But there's a difference. These women aren't just doing it for themselves. No, these spirited sisters are doing it for others, too.

Each year, the Times focuses specifically on women for a summer cover story. We've looked at the glass ceiling of business advancement and women's place in Arkansas athletics. Last year, we focused on women in combat, on the front lines by choice or happenstance in the Middle East.

This year, we turn our attention to women on the front line of nonprofit work, those fighting for community and the well-being of others  — here and abroad.

It takes a certain kind of woman to wage this battle, one with pluck and determination. These sisters have that — times ten. They have all forged their own paths in singular ways, and have helped others while doing it.



She's smoking  —  but only figuratively

When we meet Genine Perez at her office, she is a vision in orange and pink — sporting a silk tunic with a scarf thrown effortlessly around her neck and a head full of wild curls. She is warm, welcoming and quick to laugh, and, yes, a little tired.

Asked to describe her job, she exhales a long, “Whooo!” Which job, we might well ask. Genine works full time, teaches two college courses, has a burgeoning music career and her own line of hand-made bath/body products. Oh, and she's the mother of three with a fourth due in August.

As head of the tobacco prevention program for Family Service Agency, she explains, “I coordinate the efforts for a statewide youth program . . . to encourage them to be leaders in tobacco prevention so that we reduce youth initiation and consumption of tobacco products.” The goal is to raise awareness about the risks of tobacco use and the ways in which big tobacco targets the young. 

To demonstrate, Genine produces two tin buckets full of tobacco products that look and smell like candy; she's using them in an upcoming project, “Let's go to the candy store” to talk about deceptive packaging.

Genine's work in the nonprofit world began in 2003 when she joined ADFY (Arkansans for Drug Free Youth), where she remained until they closed in June 2006.

Before getting into this kind of work, Genine served in the air force during the Gulf War, stationed in Germany. There she married, had a child (Immanuel, now 17), and divorced. Like a lot of young people, she joined the military because she needed a way to pay for her education.

She returned home to Fort Smith and then moved to Little Rock, where she had her two other children (Olivia, age 12, and Sophia, 7), launched a small business out of her home and got her music career off the ground.

Frustrated by not finding bath/body products she liked, Genine, with characteristic gumption, decided, “I'll just make my own.” Though she's been brewing up her own salves for years, her company, Experience by G.L.P., was officially born two years ago, after Genine attended a small business administration class at UALR. (No surprise that while there she received the “Most Enthusiastic Entrepreneur” award.)

In addition to her home business and work with Family Service Agency, Genine also teaches English skills and composition fundamentals at Pulaski Tech and Comp I & II at UALR. In her spare time, mind you.

It's clear that Genine puts a whole lotta love in everything she does, especially her music, whether that's singing with her band Lagniappe or a jazz band. (Infrared Studio Productions will release her live concert album in the fall.) Though she's been singing since she can remember, Genine recalls this turning point: She was 12 years old, washing dishes and singing to pass the time, “Not singing to be heard. ... My mama slipped downstairs while I was singing ‘Amazing Grace,' and said, ‘Girl, I don't care what you do, you're gonna sing.' ” She's followed her mother's imperative.

When she moved to Little Rock, she and drummer Dave Hoffpauir formed Lagniappe, a Cajun word meaning “that little something extra” and an apt name for a band fronted by Genine. Of being on stage, Genine says, “It's one of those times you can just be free and let yourself just glide on in.” They typically play covers by the likes of the Staple Singers, Aretha, and others, but “When I'm just Genine, with a 3- or 4- piece band, it's all jazz.”

Her children all share an interest in music; her son plays piano, her oldest daughter drums. “Olivia excels at drums, Prince's drummer met her and took a liking to her and said “This girl's got something.”  Asked about her youngest daughter, Sophie, Genine says shaking her head, “That baby girl, she's a firecracker.” Can't imagine where she gets it.

The inevitable question arises, how does she have time to do all of this? “A lot of people ask me that,” she smiles and continues in that beautifully cadenced voice of hers, “To be honest, if I'm sittin' still I'm concerned. You know how people say ‘I can't wait to retire.' Not me. I love to come to work. Whatever I'm doing, working with my products, working with my kids, I love that. When I'm singing, I love that. When I'm teaching, I love that. So when you love something you make the time for it. That's basically it.”



Helping others far afield  —  and in fields

The daughter of two intrepid travelers, Lizzie East comes by her wanderlust and sense of adventure naturally. After graduating from LSU and working in Little Rock for a time, Lizzie obtained a work visa and embarked on a solo months-long stint in Australia. She returned home only to feel that peripatetic itch once again. Lizzie explains the feeling that precipitates a trip, “I just get this sense that I've got to move; I've got to get out. It's such a big world out there! That's usually what happens.”

It's been almost a year since she lived and worked in Africa, a hastily planned five-month excursion that took her to Namibia, Zanzibar and beyond. She felt strongly that “Africa was the place to be.” Not one to laze idly about on these excursions, Lizzie, before departing, contacted a nonprofit and a former Little Rock resident who now lives in Zanzibar.

Her journey began in the Namib Desert with EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid), an organization dedicated to helping farmers sustain a safe and mutually beneficial relationship with elephants.

There Lizzie helped monitor the roaming elephant population, build walls around communal water pumps, and mend fences both literally and figuratively. This job was a natural fit for this long-time animal lover and outdoor enthusiast. “I'm such a firm believer in hard work. I love putting in a hard day's work and the physical exhaustion that comes with that.”

They pitched their tents under the star-filled desert sky and would sometimes have to wake up in the middle of the night to move camp for a herd of passing elephants. “They rarely sleep,” explains Lizzie. “They're on the move all the time in search of water.”  Lizzie describes a close encounter with a bull elephant that left her and her fellow volunteers showered in trunkfuls of dirt.

From there, Lizzie traveled to Kenya, for what was to be her most life-changing experience. Through one of Little Rock resident Ellison Poe's connections, she secured a position in an HIV-AIDS Awareness mobile unit where she learned to administer shots and got a crash course in Swahili (which she now speaks fluently).

Her longest stay, however, was in Zanzibar, where, thanks to Cathie Matthews (director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage), she hooked up with the remarkable Alice Ayers, now known as Aida Ayers, a native Texan who lived for a time in Arkansas before making her home in Africa 10 years ago. Lizzie felt immediately drawn to Ayers, “Her spirit and energy is amazing.” The same, of course, could be said of Lizzie's infectious enthusiasm.

The beautiful, dreadlocked Ayers, an artist, married a Zanzibarian, and settled in a village called Mangapwani (“Arab Coast”) on the island of Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar. On her first visit, Ayers felt a spiritual connection to this place, known for its caves where slaves were held during the 1800s. “It's like a ghost town in a literal sense,” says Lizzie.

With the help of her husband, Ayers started a school and as Lizzie says, “Totally transformed this village. . . . Aida is an angel.” Lizzie explains that when she contacted her to see if she could visit, Aida said, “'Yes, you can come. Why don't you be a teacher.” It wasn't a question.  “I thought, whoa, wait a minute, I've never done that before, and I don't even speak the language.” With typical aplomb, Lizzie agreed and ended up teaching English and computer to 60-70 students in a one-room open schoolhouse.

This spring, Lizzie helped organize a benefit at Little Rock recording studio Afrodesia to raise money to build a well in Mangapwani. “Aida says that when I left, I took the water,” she says. “The water is government issued, and they didn't have any for over seven months. The conditions are so poor. It's such a challenge everyday just to live there. There's a saying in Africa, T.I.A., ‘This Is Africa.' ”

“My parents definitely instilled in me a love of travel and a belief that I can do anything.” Lizzie also inherited an ability to relate to people from all different walks of life in an authentic way, and to meet life's challenges head on. And, we might add, a certain fearlessness.

She offers this anecdote from a trip to Spain, “I was in Pamplona during the running of the bulls, and they said girls couldn't run with the bulls. I said, ‘I'm going to run with the bulls.' ”

A modern woman

fights for the past

Vanessa Norton had what you might call an unconventional upbringing. For one thing, she is perhaps the only person who can claim that, while growing up, she divided her time between Snowball, Arkansas, and New York.

Her parents, both Hendrix grads with bohemian leanings, moved to Snowball in 1975 and, according to Vanessa, “built this crazy house.” That crazy house would inspire a life-long interest in vernacular architecture and a passion for preserving the past — and eventually lead her to her current position as Executive Director of The Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. “I got interested early on in wanting to preserve things; I realized at a young age the significance of having things from the past around and learning from those things,” she reflects in a recent conversation.

Born in 1980, Vanessa grew up in that quirky homemade house before moving to New York in 1989 so that her father could pursue his art. Vanessa explains, “There's not much of an art scene in Snowball.” There her parents began a successful art conservation business and have recently opened an office, Norton Arts, on Main St. in Little Rock.

In 1998, the Nortons began restoration of their family homestead in Cave Creek, located in Newton County, and succeeded in getting it on the national register. “It's such a cool grouping of buildings . . . near Miss Mae bluff which is named after my great-great-grandmother,” Vanessa says.

“All of this was happening when I was in college,” she explains, “and it made me realize that historic preservation was a career option. . . . It was interesting to me because this was my own history . . . that was the initial impetus. . . . the feeling that my history happened here.'”

She received her master's in historic preservation from the Pratt Institute in New York, where she wrote her thesis on vernacular hippie architecture, specifically Arkansas homes built in the 1960s and '70s out of found materials. Vanessa then worked for the New York Preservation Archives Project. She moved back to Arkansas last year and in August 2008 assumed her current role with the Alliance, the only statewide nonprofit organization focused on preserving Arkansas' architectural and cultural resources.

Vanessa was a key player in getting the state historic preservation tax credit passed at the legislature this year (something that had been attempted for many years).

She tells us that it passed almost unanimously after five sessions of trying to push it through.

When we meet with her in her downtown office, she's in high spirits because of a piece that appeared that day in the Democrat-Gazette on the Possum Trot Church in Osage, one site on the Alliance's recently released list of endangered historic places. Others include the Faulkner County Courthouse, which Vanessa describes as “a fantastic WPA building that's solid as a rock”; the Bell Mansion in Pine Bluff (since destroyed by arson), and the Dr. E.P. McGhee Infirmary in Lake Village, one of the first modern clinics in Arkansas.

She believes strongly that this state has resources worth preserving and is willing to fight for them. She sees so much potential, “It's kind of overwhelming.”

Asked why she values this work, Vanessa says, “Preserving our heritage, our history, is important for educational purposes and just for quality of life; there are actually all these studies done on quality of life in historic districts. But also for sustainability reasons — old buildings are already there. The National Trust says that the greenest building is the one that's already built. That, of course, is huge. These buildings have resources you can't get anymore — old-growth timber, hand-made bricks — if you throw those away, it's such a waste of resources. And then there are the economic reasons, keeping money in the community. It's all tied up together.”

As for the future, Vanessa is turning her attention to the Main Street district and the many vacant buildings there. “We'd love to see that whole area come to fruition.”

She's doing her part to revitalize downtown. She and her fiance, another Hendrix grad, live in the Quapaw Quarter but just bought a boarded-up house in Little Rock's Central High neighborhood that she plans to restore herself — and maybe with a little help from the professionals (that would be mom and dad).

Empowering the people

Projects in medias res lie scattered about the City Year office, an airy loft above the Clinton Museum store. A painting of Martin Luther King Jr. destined for a rec center, leans against the exposed brick wall; knitted caps for babies at Children's Hospital sit near completion on a table.

We've caught them at the tail end of their inaugural “100 Hours of Power,”a program that brought together more than 75 City Year corps members, staff and volunteers for 100 consecutive hours of round-the-clock community service. Now that's service.

As corps members prepare to graduate, Shannon Butler prepares to celebrate her one-year anniversary as City Year Little Rock/North Little Rock executive director. A Little Rock native and a product of its public school system, Shannon says, “this position is a natural fit for me.”

Prior to joining City Year, Shannon worked at the Clinton Foundation for five years as deputy director, and before that worked in the Clinton Administration and in his transition office. 

Stephanie Streett, current executive director of the Clinton Foundation, hired Shannon right out of college. Shannon smiles, recalling her down-home interview while Streett was in Arkansas. “We met at the Holiday Inn in Russellville and had biscuits and gravy.” She continues, “She's really supported me in my career.”

While at the Foundation, Butler obtained a master's in social work with a management and community practice focus, specifically non-profit management. “It directly relates to what I'm doing now,” she says.

Clinton wanted to get City Year, an Americorps program that unites young people of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service, going in Little Rock and North Little Rock and asked Shannon and Stephanie to pull together a founding committee of people to launch it.

“We are one of the smallest markets to have this national program,” explains Shannon. Other sites are located in cities throughout the U.S. and in Johannesburg, South Africa. As tutors, mentors and role models, participants make a difference in the lives of children and transform schools and neighborhoods. They also develop civic leadership skills they can use throughout a lifetime of community service.

Born in 1977, Shannon worked for Tyson after graduating from the U of A Fayetteville. She'd spent a summer interning at the White House and knew she enjoyed politics, but felt she needed to choose a career in business. She learned a lot from her time there, but says, “I thought, I cannot wake up everyday and get excited about selling chicken.”

She certainly can, however, get excited about City Year. “I wanted to be out in the community, working one on one with people.”  And that's just what she does. “I love being around young people who are excited about what they're doing and believe in it. That keeps me going. Also, I think my history of growing up in public schools here has helped me to get really passionate about this work.”

On moving home from D.C., Shannon says, “I realized very quickly that, one, there was a huge need here in Little Rock that I had grown up a little bit naive to, and, two, that I could easily make a difference as a young person here.”

She believes the work she's doing now is important for a couple of reasons. “I think the public education system in Central Arkansas and throughout the state needs the help and support of the community, and it's our responsibility to help improve life for young people. Through City Year we can do that in a number of ways; one is by teaching young people that they can make a difference in their own communities. That it's their responsibility to give back.”

This lesson was imparted to Shannon in childhood. “I've always been interested in community, in community organizing, and the importance of people getting involved in their communities to make them what they need to be. That's something my grandparents instilled in me. They talked about it all the time, the importance of giving back. So that's just something I was raised to do.”

She credits her parents with making her the driven, self-sufficient woman she is today. “My mom is a very independent and strong woman who said all along, ‘You need to make sure that you create your own life that you take care of yourself.' ” Her eyes fill with tears as she explains that it's her mother's 60th birthday. She adds, “She had a huge influence on my life and who I am.”


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