Four Stories of Service from the 2018 WONder Woman Awards

Four Stories of Service from the 2018 WONder Woman Awards

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 27, 2018)

Troy, MI- The first column Rochelle Riley ever wrote was for the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY.  In it she called out city leaders for failing to honor hometown icon Muhammad Ali by letting his boyhood home deteriorate and not having a museum in his honor. The next day the mayor’s office called the publication, and the next headline touted a promise that an appropriate honor would happen. Sure enough, the column sparked a campaign for an $80 million development that included a museum and bared the famous boxer’s name.

“The first column that I wrote when I came to Detroit called for the schools to be shut down and reopened under new management,” Riley said.  “18 years later I’m still writing the same column.” She noted the poor literacy rates of students and the importance of good education, topics she has passionately advocated for in her work.

Her talent for writing that, as she said, “riles people up,” as well as her commitment to uplifting others are what earned Riley one of four WONder Woman Awards at the Women Official’s Network annual dinner Thursday night.

Riley was honored along with President of Bloomfield Hills Board of Education Cynthia von Oeyen, Pontiac Mayor Deidre Waterman, and Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper.

The Women Officials Network of Oakland County (WON) is a nonpartisan organization that empowers the leaders of today and mentors women leaders of tomorrow with the vision of seeing more women in leadership positions at all levels of government.

Riley’s work includes more than just 22 years’ worth of columns on topics of children, race, government, and women’s issues.  She is also an author, a mother, and a friend.

“Rochelle is fearless. She’s funny. She works tirelessly. She’s caring and she’s daring.  Her generosity never ends,” said Dierdre Lambert Bounds, a friend and supporter of women’s rights.

Cynthia von Oeyen was honored for her leadership not only in Bloomfield Hills Schools, but for children everywhere.  She was introduced by her husband Paul van Oeyen who said shared that Cynthia had managed the campaign of a man running for school board. The man won.  “When she wasn’t happy with his performance, she ran against him,” he said.

Among her accomplishments with Bloomfield Hills Schools are becoming President of Oakland County School Board Association, serving on the Birmingham-Bloomfield Race Relations Task Force, helping found Preservation Bloomfield, enabling the move of an 1830s farmhouse, the saving of the E.L. Johnson Nature Center, and receiving the Michigan Association of School Board’s highest honor – the President’s Award.

“What I learned was if I wanted to advocate for my children, I had to advocate for all children,” van Oeyen said.  That meant being a voice in her community as well as in Lansing.  “When I look back… I realize how amazing it is to be in this democracy where a home town mom can find her voice and make a difference.”

Like van Oeyen, it was the issue of education that pulled Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman into a life of public service. She had already had experience stepping up against the odds in becoming the first black female ophthalmologist in Michigan.

Politics was not even on her radar until a conversation around a table with some friends.  “When Pontiac was having economic problems I read that the Mayor was going to close the library,” Waterman said.  “I said ‘Somebody’s got to do something about this.’ My friends looked at me and said ‘Why don’t you?’”

After serving on the board that helped guide the library back to sustainability, she felt drawn to doing the same for the city.  She even capitalized on her experience as an eye doctor to gain attention for her campaign.  “I was the candidate with the best vision for Pontiac,” she said.

State Representative Tim Greimel introduced Waterman, saying “Pontiac was really at a critical juncture when Mayor Waterman took over…[She] very quickly turned things around.  She attracted dozens and dozens of new businesses. She drastically improved city services to the residents.”

He added that of all the awards Waterman has received, “first and foremost her leadership was recognized by the people of Pontiac when she was reelected.”  Waterman is the city’s first female Mayor.  She is also the first to be re-elected to two consecutive terms since Pontiac switched to a strong mayor form of government in 1982.

Another WONder woman recognized Thursday was Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper.

“To be able to be here and to hear applause, you have no idea,” Coooper joked.  “What I do in my life no one gives applause.”

Cooper and her team make tough decisions on a daily basis that impact the lives of victims, those accused of crimes, and the safety of society overall.  Even in the most successful circumstances the victories are often tied to sadness.  “I can’t bring a loved one back to life.  I can’t end the pain they feel.  But sometimes I can bring justice,” Cooper said.

She started out as a public defender and civil rights attorney before running against a sitting judge who she did not agree with.  She spent eight years as a District Court Judge, 14 years as a Circuit Court Judge and 6 ½ years on the Michigan Court of Appeals before becoming the first female to be elected Oakland County Prosecutor in 2008.

“As a Cass Tech grad, she was encouraged to strive for excellence, not to let others define her limitations or her place in society,” said Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Paul Walton in his introduction.

The evening brought together dozens of women officials and supporters of all office and administrative positions, and all political persuasions.  Money raised by the WON Foundation helps to support programs that uplift women and girls, including Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan, HAVEN, The Race Relations & Diversity Task Force and Women of Tomorrow.  Learn more about WON at http://www.womenofficialsnetwork.org

For previous stories about WON, click here.

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