We will conference

Renda Cline sits with a group of emerging leaders during the We Will! workshop held April 23.

MANSFIELD – Renée Thompson sees abundant potential in the youth of Richland County.

A group of women worked to cultivate that potential earlier this month during the county’s first “We Will! Women’s Empowerment” event.

The luncheon and workshop brought together about 30 middle, high school and college students from across Richland County for discussions on inclusive learning and leadership.

“I really want to help these young ladies feel some sense of empowerment, that they don’t have to be like anyone else to be the best that they can be,” said Thompson, the founder of Unlimited Potential for Achievement and former director of diversity and inclusion at the Ohio State University Mansfield campus.

“They have their own unique gifts and talents and that’s enough.”

Thompson, who organized the event, said it was designed for young women who may not see themselves as leaders.

“Many of them did tell me, ‘I never thought of myself as having leadership potential,’” she said. “That's exactly the young lady we wanted to go after.”

The event was free thanks to a grant from the Richland County Women’s Fund, as well as assistance from Ohio State Mansfield, Mansfield City Schools and the North End Community Improvement Collaborative.

Each participant was nominated by a teacher or school counselor. Participants were split up into groups, each with one or two volunteer mentors to help guide the conversation.

At one table, coach Ashley Foust asked participants about leadership traits they admire in others.

Sarah Smith, a sophomore at Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus, chose confidence. As a natural introvert, Smith said she’d had to work to cultivate confidence over time.

Foust smiled, affirming that many leaders “fake it til they make it.”

“I think it's important to recognize that when we meet people that we admire ... you're looking at them maybe in the best moment in their life,” she told the girls. “You're seeing the finished version. You're not seeing the struggles that they took to get there.”

“Give yourself the grace and forgiveness and say, ‘I'm at the beginning of my journey. I can't compare myself to somebody who's 30 years, 40 years, even 10 years into their journey.”

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Foust said she saw a lot of strength in the girls at her table, perhaps more than they saw in themselves.

“There's always those ones that stand out. There's the prom queen, the football captain, the cheer captain,” Foust said. “This group is for people who feel like they might be passed over usually.”

“It's not always the strongest or the fastest of a species that survive,” she continued. “It's those who are able and willing to change. I think all of these girls are interested in how they can get their inner light out and shine for others.

The event also included a panel discussion that touched on topics such as mental health, identity and overcoming adversity. Panelists included Deborah Weaver, Teana Sykes, Crystal Murdaugh and Margaret Lin.

Thompson said the girls in attendance seemed to connect well with the coaches and speakers.

“I think the panel discussion was very impactful,” she said. “The young ladies really liked their table coaches and several of them said, ‘Can we stay in touch?’”

Coach Crystal Davis Weese said she found the conversations mutually beneficial.

“I always love when I sit across from emerging leaders,” she said, referring to the young women at her table. “Their perspectives are amazing.”

Donna Hight, who wrote the grant application to fund the program, said she and Thompson hope to expand it in the future.

“I have gotten outstanding feedback from the coaches and young women who attended,” Hight said. “I think Renee developed a great program and we have discussed how it could be enhanced into a year-long program for women/girls.”

Hight said she’d also like to offer a leadership program geared towards boys and young men, or a combined program.

Thompson said a program like We Will! Could thrive in Mansfield due to the supportive nature of the community.

“It’s a caring community. They (the coaches and panelists) wanted to do this and that was really gratifying,” she said. “I’ve been in a lot of communities and you don’t always see that kind of generosity. You’ve got some incredible leadership.”

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at katie@richlandsource.com