Today’s Turning Point story is written by Bee Nguyen, president of Athena’s Warehouse in Atlanta, Ga.
When I was a child, I often heard the Vietnamese phrase “ngu long cong chua” or “five princesses of dragons,” as people looked at my parents and their five daughters. According to the Vietnamese culture, having five daughters or “princesses” is a sign of luck in the family.
Ironically, none of us girls were ever raised as “princesses” because with only one man in the household, we were taught to fend for ourselves. While our friends were allowed to stay out late, date boys, and attend sleepovers, we were raised in a fairly traditional Asian household. Every summer, my sisters and I played with each other, memorized five vocabulary words in preparation for an oral quiz given by our father and conned our mother into taking us to the mall where we would share slices of pizza and bury our noses in books at Walden books. Ceiba: a silk cotton tree. Where would we ever use that word?
We were raised as traditional females in one sense; we were forced to wear dresses in our tomboy stages, clear the kitchen table and join the women in the kitchen at parties. We were not allowed to jump fences, spit, or wear pants to church. But my parent also reinforced the idea of being an independent woman by prioritizing one thing: education. My parents taught us that education was essential, non-negotiable, and our opportunity to be a self-sufficient individual. Our parents’ expectations of us were never lowered because of our gender. My older sister can hang light fixtures, change headlights, and jump start a car; my mom spent a day installing burglar bars at the family home; and last month, my little sister called me to change her flat tire.
It was not until I took a women’s studies class in college that I experienced my turning point. Suddenly, the value of being a woman was glaringly obvious and wildly beautiful and not just a representation of growing up in female dominated household; not only did I have parents who taught us to be ambitious, self-sufficient women, but I had four sisters who were my rock. I promised myself that I would celebrate women by supporting other females and by surrounding myself with other women who both needed and provided support. As a commitment to myself, I have followed through, building a strong network and support system; the women in my life are dynamic, courageous, interesting, and fun, but best of all, they cherish being a woman.
When I started Athena’s Warehouse in 2009, I knew without a doubt that the organization would focus on the idea of empowerment for young women. Women are warriors, not princesses — and to remind other females of that, we started a prom dress program for high school girls in the Atlanta area. The program provides a dry cleaned dress to each student in exchange for three hours of community service. By requiring the service hours, we relay to the young women that they can not only earn a dress, but they can also contribute to their community. No matter how little we may have, we will always have the time to give.
As we started our work with the ladies, we realized that they needed more than just dresses —they needed female role models, guidance, and resources for real life issues. We started Be Awesome, Be Aware, a series of life skills workshops focusing on issues such as self-esteem, exercise, domestic violence and teenage pregnancy prevention. This year, four of our students reported using resources from our safety workshop to help themselves, a family member, or a friend; says one of our girls, “safety and self-defense was personally the most touching workshop for me because this helped me realize that being in an abusive relationship is not normal.”
Through the young ladies that we serve, I am continuously reminded that it is my personal commitment to serve and support women both through Athena’s Warehouse and my own life. I was fortunate to have two parents who taught me values that have allowed me to be successful in my life and in my career. Sometimes, though, like many other women, I need the support of another woman — to remind me of my strength when I am low; to encourage me to take care of myself when I am sad; to tell me to keep moving forward when I am discouraged; to be honest with me when I cannot be with myself; but mostly to give me the friendship and companionship that every woman needs. And that is what I am here to do for the young women in our community through the work of Athena’s Warehouse.
In Bee’s spare time, she enjoys running, reading, dining, biking, spending time with her two poodles and bonding with her family and friends. She is currently working on her MPA at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State.