Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Women United urges business leaders to seek change

One of pillars of family stability is education, along with housing, job training and health care. That was the central message at the 2nd annual Women United conference in Baltimore on Wednesday, an event that brought together more than 400 women business leaders from the Baltimore region.

Now in its second year, the event, held at the American Visionary Art Museum by the United Way of Central Maryland, included a panel that explored the struggles families in poverty face in Baltimore and in other urban areas. Panelists, including philanthropists and activists, stressed that lack of education is that center of that struggle.

Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education and director of the Everyone Graduates Center, said that some 9,000 high school students miss a month or more of school every year. He described school absenteeism as a “cycle of despair.”

The No. 1 cause of absenteeism is poor health, said Michelle Gourdine, a doctor and CEO of Michelle Gourdine & Associates, a health consulting firm. Often, the biggest health issue for students is asthma, specifically asthma that goes undiagnosed because the child does not have access to proper health care.

“Health is broader than medical care,” said Gourdine.

In her practice, Gourdine said she looks beyond the patient in the exam. She has to look at the patient’s housing, family situation and transportation.

To get people better access to affordable, healthy food, Gourdine wants to write prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, a program done by a United Way chapter in Mississippi in partnership with United Health and local farmers who share their food surpluses.

Often poverty is attributed to lack of money, but panelist Barbara Siemer, chairwoman of the Siemer Institute for Family Stability, said it’s more complicated. It’s about how that money is spent, she said.

“This is an education process,” she said. “How you handle your resources is critical.”

After the panel, attendees watched a clip from “Frontline” that focused on Omarina Cabrera, a teenager in the Bronx who had to relocate multiple times and was falling behind in school. Balfanz’s program, which focuses on warning signs at high-poverty schools, was able to identify Cabrera as someone at risk. Because of the help she received, Cabrera was able to stay in school, excelled and attended the Brooks School, an elite private school in Massachusetts.

Cabrera made a surprise appearance at Women United on Wednesday.

“I grew up in a place where dreams go to be stored and later die,” she said. “I implore you all to keep up the work that you do.”

Cabrera is attending George Washington University in the fall.

Laura Lippman, best-selling author and former Baltimore Sun reporter, was scheduled to be Wednesday’s keynote speaker. She gave attendees advance copies of her upcoming book, “Wilde Lake,” which is set in Columbia.

At the event, the Women’s Leadership Council formally changed its name to Women United as part of nationwide effort by other council chapters.

“It’s a more powerful, indicative name of who we are, what we want to be,” said event chair Laura Pierson-Scheinberg.

Wednesday’s event had a fundraising goal of $10,000 for an education initiative led by the local Women United chapter. By the end of the event, attendees raised more than $13,000 by donating money via text message.