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YWCA honors local women who are making a difference

The YWCA has selected Karama Blackhorn, Leslie Cushman, Dr. Marie Johantgen, Lamika Lamont and Merrill Angela Williams to receive the 24th annual Women of Achievement Award at a celebration on November 10, 2017. These five women have empowered their communities by leading change and standing up for equity and justice.

Karama Blackhorn (Rogue River Shasta) racial justice and civic leadership

Karama is a Queer Indigenous activist, educator, and organizer. Their work centralizes anti-oppression education to build community and empower leadership through culturally responsive and celebratory spaces. Karama now pursues a Master of Public Administration in Tribal Governance. Stronger policies and programs through the MPA training will advance opportunities and access for minority students while aiming to decolonize education to support these students when they get to school. Karama is an advocate for educational access, a community leader, a visionary, an educator and a passionate activist.

While historically students of color graduate at rates about 10% lower than white students (33%), Karama’s work has contributed to a 98% graduation rate for students of color and white students enrolled in the Diversity and Equity Peer Mentor Program she developed. Karama is also the creator of the Queer I Am Summit, which drew 300 students from across Washington State for two days of immersion in Queer community building, history and culture.  She was instrumental in building the FIRE Summit, a collaborative college access event between tribes, school districts, and SPSCC, and organizing the YWCA Olympia’s Racial Justice Summit, among dozens of other conferences, events, boards, and programs.

Karama encourages a sense of belonging and is focused on intersectional inclusivity. She believes the power and wisdom of people to lead and help their own communities in the way they know best.  Her work is focused on creating access where none existed, or in supporting the growth of confidence in a person who may have been taught to believe they were powerless.

Leslie Cushman, racial justice and civic leadership

Lesllie exemplifies the YWCA Olympia’s mission to eliminate racism. Leslie recognizes the fundamental role white supremacy plays in this country and believes in the truths shared by people of color, by indigenous people, and by women. She is convinced that in order to move forward this country has to face the debt it owes to people of color and Native Americans. In 2015, following the May 21st shooting of Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, Leslie co-founded the Olympia Coalition to Reform Deadly Force Laws, which became a supporting partner of the Black Alliance of Thurston County.

During the 2016 legislative session Leslie and her mentor Kathy Baros Friedt along with Dr. Karen A. Johnson and a newly formed coalition of community advocates worked to reform Washington law on the use of deadly force. When the legislation was unsuccessful, a task force was established to study the issue. In 2017 Leslie and her colleagues established De-Escalate Washington, to put forward a statewide initiative. Leslie serves as Policy Director for I-940, which will require statewide standards for law enforcement training on de-escalation, mental health, and first aid; require that first aid be rendered at the scene; establish standards for the use of deadly force and mandate completely independent investigations. A key component is the requirement to include diverse communities in the development of policy.

In addition to policing issues, Leslie is involved in solidarity actions at the Northwest Detention Center and peace vigils at Percival Landing. Leslie helped found Thurston Gun Sense, a group dedicated to preventing gun violence through safe storage. Leslie volunteers with Not This Time, a Seattle-based nonprofit founded by Andre Taylor, whose brother was shot by Seattle police in spring of 2016; and is an advisor to Latino Civic Alliance, a state-wide organization advocating for civic engagement and reciprocal relationships between the community and political representation. Leslie has close ties to the Puyallup Tribe, through work and friendship, and supports the Tribe in its work to achieve Justice for Jackie. Leslie is a citizen science volunteer with the Nisqually Reach Nature Center and aspires to be a Cop Watch volunteer.

Dr. Marie Johantgen, health and safety

Marie has spent her life giving back to the local community and to the world at large. Marie has spent her over 20-year career as a board-certified obstetrician gynecologist in clinical practice, taking care of women with compassion and skill. Her CV is long and impressive, but what sets her apart is the amount of time and energy she has spent helping women in her free time. In 2009, she started the local chapter of Dining for Women, an organization where women meet each month, have a potluck dinner together, learn about international health issues that affect girls and women, and raise money to help grass roots secular organizations in developing countries.

The group is focused on sustainability and improving the conditions of women and families and has raised almost $50,000 for organizations that support women’s health and safety. Marie also worked for The Olympia Free Clinic for four years, providing care to adults who have no insurance or are underinsured. Additionally, she is active in RESULTS, a citizen’s advocacy group whose mission is to end poverty, and in CIELO, an organization that supports local immigrants. Finally, throughout her career, she has at her own expense taken multiple trips to developing counties—Haiti, Rwanda, Peru, Indian and Keyna— to offer gynecologic care to women who would otherwise not have any.

Malika Lamont, health and safety

Malika is the Opioid Response Program Manager for CHOICE Regional Health Network. She formerly worked as program manager with Evergreen Treatment Services and Thurston County. Malika received her B.A. from Xavier University of Louisiana and Master in Public Administration degree from The Evergreen State College. According to her nominator, “Malika has had to fight everyday of her life for a respected and heard seat at the table….and it’s working.” Throughout her career, she has worked with vulnerable populations to increase their health and improve social conditions. For nineteen years she has worked to address social determinants of health, including but not limited to substance use disorder, mental health issues, poverty, and homelessness.

Malika was a foster parent when she began as a licensed family care coordinator and adolescent counselor for Pierce County Alliance and Catholic Community Services in Tacoma. The Washington Initiative recruited her to work as a personal agent for people with developmental disabilities in Supported Employment, and she started her own consulting business to improve education for youth with disabilities. In 2005, Malika moved to Thurston County Public Health and Social Services to implement HIV testing interventions in Family Planning Settings as a result of an HIV outbreak.

After the sudden illness of a co-worker she also took over the Syringe Exchange Program and HIV counseling and testing. She was at the helm during what is described as one of the worst heroin epidemics in the region. She transformed the program into an exchange that served six counties and led to increased access to SUD treatment and decreased disease incidence. She was the catalyst, author and person to implement the Naloxone Policy and Distribution Program at Thurston County.

Malika helped start the Olympia Free Clinic, is a board member at Behavioral Health Resources, co-chair of the Thurston County Safety Net Council, a Steering Committee Member for the Thurston County Asset Building Coalition, a St. Martin’s RN to BSN Advisory Board Member and Preceptor. She is a founding member of the Washington Association of Syringe Service Programs and Full Circle United and is involved in other movements for social good. She enjoys spending time with her family, friends, and animals. She loves to cook for people and to go camping.

Merrill Angela Williams, racial justice and civic leadership

Merrill is a fierce advocate for social justice. Her true superpower is her genuine love for community, her warmth, her bold intellect, and her commitment to truly radical inclusion. She is involved in multiple community organizations, from Full Circle United to Black Lives Matter. Merrill was a member of the advisory committee for the YWCA Olympia’s Racial Justice Summit. She has advocated for communities of color, for the LGBTQ community, for SafePlace and other organizations supporting survivors of domestic violence, and for the #NoDAPL movement. She raised a son and became a grandma, and then started community college in her 50’s, graduating from South Puget Sound Community College and The Evergreen State College. She became a student leader and activist as well as an intern for Senator Bob Hasegawa during the 2017 legislative session.

Merrill survived an abusive relationship, drug addiction and homelessness. She has chosen to share her story of recovery in many spaces in order to give hope to other women in abusive relationships or struggling with addiction. She has worked in a homeless shelter where she supported many people whose live mirrored her own when she was struggling to get back on her feet. She has mentored countless students in her journey through college, talking to them about how they might use their strengths and experiences to persist through even the most challenging moments.

The Women of Achievement Celebration honoring Blackhorn, Cushman, Johantgen, Lamont and Williams will take place on Friday, November 10th at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Doors will open at 6pm. Presenting Sponsor Titus Will will present the honors, with WSECU as Sustaining Sponsor and Olympia Federal Savings serving as Supporting Sponsor.

Tickets are $45 general, $35 for seniors/military and $25 for youth. A limited number of VIP tickets are available for $125 per person and include a catered pre-event reception at 5:30, a meet & greet with our special guest speaker, our honorees, and music with the Lizzy & Tarik Duo. All proceeds benefit YWCA Olympia. Ticket purchasing information is available online at, under
2017 Women of Achievement tab.

For more information, contact Cherie Reeves Sperr at

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