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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

It’s Women’s History Month, and here are 4 Women who Inspire Me Every Day

Updated: Mar 28

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and in several countries the month of March is set aside to celebrate women’s history.  I have been inspired by many people in my life and travels, including many incredible women. Not all of the women who have inspired me are still living, and not all of them are women I knew personally.  But lately I’ve been thinking about four women who I know, each of them about a generation ahead of me and each of whom holds a special place in my life. They exemplify lives of leadership, activism and scholarship, community & family support, and life-long learning.  Each of them has given me love and support, and helped me find my own voice. In this blog post, I celebrate them.


During our travels, I have become aware of the concept many Polynesian cultures call “mana”.  This word is extremely important, but also extremely difficult to translate.  It encompasses a complex (yet remarkably simple) set of ideas.  I was neither born into Polynesian culture nor studied it in depth, so I cannot claim to entirely understand the multiple meanings of the word, "mana".  But, it includes the idea of honor, power, and spiritual energy.  People with high “mana” are said to be leaders, important people to their communities. Because Polynesian cultures are so closely tied to island ecologies, geographic structures, such as stones (pōhaku), mountains, and bodies of water can also have “mana”. And, in much of Polynesian legend, many of these geographic structures are people who have turned into stones, mountains, or bodies of water. Below is a photo I took in 2016 in NZ of such a legend.

To have mana is of great importance to communities. I have listened to stories told by Māori people in New Zealand and indigenous Hawaiʻians (Hawaiʻi maoli). Their stories often include descriptions of people and places with much mana.  To the extent that I understand the concept of “mana”, I think these four women embody that kind of spirit. 






Spirit of Leadership: Jane Katsuyama. 

Our friend, Jane Katsuyama, is a cellist and community leader in Dayton, Ohio.  Born in California to first-generation Japanese-American parents, Jane was forcibly removed, along with her mother and baby sister, from her California home when she was a toddler to a detainee camp in the 1940’s.  Her father was imprisoned, then later joined his family at the camp. This experience formed some of her early memories and inspired her to speak up for the rights of all.  Jane made her way to Dayton with her husband Ron in the 1970’s. Jane came into our lives when she became our daughter’s cello teacher in Dayton in 1994, quickly becoming a close family friend.  I was privileged to sit in on most of my daughter’s cello lessons with Jane - from 1994 until we moved in 2000 - and she is an exceptionally talented educator.  Not only did she teach Kate the techniques and skills related to playing the instrument, she taught her leadership skills, driving home the point that the better the player, the more responsibility she has for helping others.  She modeled careful organization in summer camps and annual student recitals, always toward the goal of enhancing the experience for the students and honoring their hard work. Jane was a key player in the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra over many years, developing innovative performances for children and playing in the orchestra’s string quartet.  She championed all of her students, and instilled in her female students the belief that they could play just as fiercely as the boys. In 2022 she was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Dayton Music Club.



Spirit of Activism & Scholarship:Vernellia Randall.

Vernellia Randall was born and raised in South Texas. The granddaughter of people who were enslaved (one of whom founded a college in Texas), she has experienced first-hand racial and gender discrimination. She was a single parent and lived with limited resources. Holding a M.S. in Nursing, she was a public health coordinator in Alaska before attending law school, working with indigenous families. Her perspectives on the law, legal systems, and policies were formed by these experiences, which were largely different from the mainstream experiences of law faculty and students. Throughout her life, she has challenged her students and her colleagues to question every aspect of the legal system – who does it help, and who does it hurt? She does so with integrity and without favoritism. She has taught courses on Race and the Law and Women and the Law. Her health care law seminars examine equal treatment in medical insurance, Medicaid policies, gun violence and much more.  


But even with this impressive career, Vernellia has been arguably more activist and produced more scholarship after her retirement.  She created and curates a website called Race and Racism in American Law (https://racism.org).  She works on it almost every day, building a bibliographic library of scholarship about race and racism in the world.  On her website, Vernellia says:

I hope that this site and my work inspires women-of-color and men-of-color who are struggling to succeed in a racially hostile world. provides insight and education to non-blacks on issues of importance to the black community. I use this site and my work to provide me a creative and spiritual outlet as I struggle in a profession that has become almost devoid of creativity and spirituality.  I hope that my site and my work reflects who I am -  an African American,  a woman,  a mother, a sister, an aunt, and a friend who works continuously at changing the world through law, love, and activism. https://racism.org

Through her work, Vernellia inspires me to make a difference and reminds me that each of us has a role to play in bettering the world. She models respectful disagreement and constructive dialog.  


As if that were not enough to inspire me, Vernellia is a loyal friend who supports me in my work.  When I interviewed for the job I eventually got at the University of Dayton in the fall of 1993, Vernellia was one of the people who took me to dinner.  We had a meaningful conversation about our work.  When I got home, I said to Paul, “I don’t know if I got the job, but I made a friend for life.”  Sometimes you just know. Her advice to me over the years has made my life better.




Spirit of Family & Community Support: Catherine Ward.

Catherine Ward was born the youngest of 5 siblings in Louisville, Kentucky, where she has lived all her life.  Just like her siblings (her oldest sister - the one in the upper right in this photo - was my mother), she has multiple degrees, including a degree in early childhood education and a Juris Doctor degree. Unlike her siblings, she has intentionally stayed out of the limelight.  Her life is an example of how important it is to the fabric of a community and a family to have someone who focuses on bridging differences, supporting others, and doing the less glamorous foundational work to make a difference. In our family, she cares for her nieces and nephews and their offspring, organizing family events and providing a safe haven.  She is the trusted first reader of her husband, Frank's creative writing. She and Frank keep the family homestead vibrant and cared-for. Just as she provided care for her friends, parents and siblings late in their lives, she continues to keep up with and care for all of us.  When her great-niece asked if she could have her wedding in her home, Cathy did not hesitate to say “yes”, even though this resulted in a lot of extra “stuff” for her to do.  I should note, Cathy & Frank were also married in their home, as were Cathy’s parents (my grandparents). 


In her professional life Cathy, too, has provided critical support to make a difference.    As a lawyer, she has focused on the less flashy work of helping mediate disputes, looking for ways to foster agreement between people who have trouble finding it.  She has served as a referee in both a housing court and traffic court, looking for ways to help people by seeking just and lasting solutions.  Her estate-planning work has focused on caring for each individual - not just drafting documents.  She has helped people with disabilities, elderly folk and people with long-term illness.   In her community, Cathy has been an active advocate to ensure voting rights, including serving as a precinct captain from an early age, and helping people get to the polls.  She was the campaign manager for the Honorable Denise Clayton, who made a difference for Kentucky at the trial court and appeals court levels. Cathy has participated in racial justice groups in Louisville.  She knows everyone on her block, and took care of many of them into their old age.  She is still best friends with two of her childhood friends from her block, one of whom lives a few doors down.  She is an avid supporter of the arts.  Her work inspires me to remember how much of our community life depends on the steady work of volunteers and people who care about their communities.  





Spirit of Life-Long Learning: Pamela Polland.

The last person I want to mention is someone I’ve known for only 6 years, but she’s made a big impact on my life.  My music teacher, Pamela Polland, lives on the island of Māui in Hawaiʻi.  Pamela inspires me in many ways.  She is a wonderful teacher.  She is patient, yet exacting.  She is supportive, but pushes me to be my best. She has been a professional musician for over 6 decades.  She has performed with world-renowned artists.  She has released six albums and has two gold records, and is an accomplished composer.  And yet, when we have a music lesson, she makes me feel like I am the most important person in the room.  I started taking ‘ukelele lessons from her in 2018, and in 2023 I started voice lessons.  Pamela is the kind of person who is intellectually fascinated by music, culture, world events, her local community, and many other topics.  When we have a lesson, it is a mix of music theory, technique, and fun.  What strikes me the most about Pamela, though, is that she never stops learning.  She has reinvented her music many times - she has performed folk, blues, rock, a cabaret jazz act, traditional Hawaiian music, popular tunes, and original compositions that offer her own personal style.  She performs each genre fully committed and with intelligence and a voice that draws you to listen.  She inspires me to believe that I can reinvent myself as many times as I want, while still holding onto a special core that is me.


Pamela is also a community leader.  When her neighborhood on Māui was destroyed by fire last year, she organized a fundraiser to help build a new home for friends, even though she suffered much of her own personal loss.

Recently I asked Pamela to teach me one of her songs.  She led me to an album called “Wahine”, which is the Hawaiian word for “woman”.  Two of the songs on that album are written and performed by her (with others).  I chose to learn the song, “Nā Pōhaku Kaulana”, because the story reminds me of stories I’ve heard in New Zealand, and because the melody is beautiful.  It is a song about two sisters who have the ability to fly, but they can only fly at night.  They fly from Kaua’i  to O’ahu , but lose track of time and when the sun rises they turn to stone.  The stones have healing power, but are moved several times and rest in an obscure place.  The stones have lost their mana.  By singing about the stones, and to the stones, we can help restore their mana.  The melody is soulful and beautiful and a joy to sing. You can read about the stones here. 





Nā Pōhaku Kaulana by Patrick Ari‘ihere Brault & Pamela Ka‘imiloa Polland

 

1) Pōhaku kaulana o ke au i hala

          Famous stones of times passed

No Wahiawā lä  ua nalo ho‘i ē

          Of Wahiawä, you are forgotten            

HUI:

2) Auē ho‘i au ē  i ka minamina

          O how sorry I am

   ‘Auhea lä ‘oukou ē,  e nā haku ē

          So listen up, stones

3)   Hakumakuma  ka lani ē

          The sky is dark

Ua poholo lä ē  ka mana ē

          The “mana” has vanished                       

4) Mana‘o ho‘i au ē  iā ‘oukou ē

          I‘m expecting you to….

   Āhea lä ho‘i ē, e ‘ōlapa hou ai ē

          When will you flash your “mana” again?                                                                      -Pa‘ani-    -Repeat Hui -                                                       

5) Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana ē

          The story will be told

Nā pōhaku ho‘ola  no Wahiawā lä ē  

Of the healing stones of Wahiawä

6) Ha‘ina hou ‘ia mai ana ka puana ē

          The story will be told again  

Ka pōhaku lä ē, ‘O Kanini‘ulaokalani ē , ‘O Kanini‘ulaokalani ē  ‘O Kanini‘ulaokalani ē

 Of the stone Kanini‘ulaokalani

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