For about a decade, Alfa Demmellash grew up in her native country of Ethiopia, separated from her mother. Like many immigrants who left their families, cultures, and traditions for a better life in the United States, Demmellash’s mother lived off the tips she earned working as a waitress in Boston. A trained seamstress who was driven to give her daughter a better life, she spent her free time sewing elaborate gowns that she sold to women in her community and saved the money so she could eventually be reunited with young Alfa.
It took 10 years, but eventually she had enough saved for a one-way ticket for her daughter.
Alfa Demmellash would eventually go on to attend Harvard University and graduate magna cum laude in 2003. But the example set by her mother would have a profound effect on Demmellash, who in 2004 co-founded the Jersey City-based Rising Tide Capital, a nonprofit which helps micro-businesses in urban communities find the financial, social and intellectual capital they need to make their businesses grow. Many of the businesses that Rising Tide works with a home-based endeavors run by women.
“One of our Rising Tide graduates, Kiwan Fitch, recently wrote a book, ‘Confessions of a Welfare Mom Volume 2’ that features several other women who we have worked with,” said Demmellash. “These are women who have this incredible entrepreneurial spirit and just need a few resources to reach that next stage. When we founded Rising Tide Capital, we wanted it to be that place where small entrepreneurs could connect to those resources.”
This week, Demmellash will be among the 27 Jersey City women who will be honored as part of the 2013 Women of Action Awards ceremony, to be held at City Hall on April 3.
Many of the honorees selected for the Women of Action distinction have made an indelible mark on the city through work on a particular issue, at a critical moment.
This year, the award recipients include Demmellash, Tiby Kantrowitz, Aniway Olaya, Kristen Hart, Frances McCarthy, Willamae Tucker, Juliet Foster, Claire Davis Seilikson, Maria Rosalie Tobias, Sanaa Girgis, Nickigh Hackson, Wendy Oliveras, Blanca Baez, Susan Chin, Wendy Paul, Lorraine Garry, Nanette Hernandez, Dominga Rivera, Erma Greene, June Jones-Hawkins, Angela McKnight, A. Janet Chevres, Belinda Stokes, Maureen Corrado, Uta Brauser, and Henrietta Bradley. And, for the first time in the 15-year history of the Women of Action awards, an honor will be presented posthumously. This posthumous award will be presented to Ethel Pesin.
Indelible mark on the city
Skimming the bios of the women who were selected for the award this year, it is easy to see why they were selected. Many of the women have made an indelible mark on the city through work on a particular issue, at a critical moment.
Angela McKnight, for example founded the nonprofit AngelaCARES Inc. and Care About You, which offers administrative services to senior citizens. Urban planner Claire Davis Seilikson, who recently retired from the Jersey City Division of City Planning, is responsible for creating several of the redevelopment plans that have taken shape in the city, including the recently-approved Route 440 Culver Redevelopment Plan. Lorraine Garry worked to overturn the devastating property revaluation that took place in 1988, and was among the group of residents who helped save the historic Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre at Journal Square.
Pesin, who her son Sam Pesin described as a “dedicated leader of Liberty State Park and the matriarch of the Friends of Liberty State Park (FOLSP),” was a founding trustee of FOLSP and was also a former board member.
Pesin’s daughter Judy recalled her mother as being ahead of her time.
“She was very active, well into her mid-’90s,” she said. “She drove. She played bridge. She played piano into her 80s. When she stopped driving, she would jump in a cab or take the PATH to the mall. Sometimes I used to worry about her driving. But as it turns out, doctors now say that staying active is the way to stay healthy and alert as you age. She really was ahead of her time, throughout her entire life, right up to the end.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.