Seven influential women, seven empowering stories, seven sets of advice — that’s what people heard when attending Wednesday’s first Women of the Decades panel discussion, hosted by the Social Work League of Lions, a Missouri Southern State University club.

The nearly 100 people who attended the event heard from local Joplin leaders, up-and-coming leaders from MSSU and Webb City High School, and a special guest Zoom panelist, Shirley Norris, who at 92 years old continues to work as a project engineer in the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Greater St. Louis office and has no plans to retire anytime soon.

The panel members were:

Melodee Colbert-Kean, former Joplin mayor and owner of MEs Place Soul Food Kitchen.

Paula Baker, president and CEO of Freeman Health System.

The Rev. Colleen Carroll, with the South Joplin Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Abi Street, Webb City High School senior leader and athlete.

Chalise Cooper, Liberty Utilities engineer administrative assistant and organizer of Joplin’s annual Emancipation Park Days celebration.

Eva Joly, international student at MSSU from Orleans, France.

Norris, the oldest full-time government employee in Missouri.

“The last four weeks we’ve been getting everything together, contacting our great group of panelists that we have speaking for tonight,” organizer Brieanna Anderson said. “We really want the outcome for this event to be an opportunity for community members and students to come together, hear inspirational stories from women and really just learn from one another, encourage each other.”

Colbert-Kean said she was surprised to be invited to be on the panel.

“I was also very grateful because when they told us how we were selected. It was from the students that are part of this social work program, and they specifically requested the panel,” she said. “I think that’s amazing, and I’m honored to be a part of International Day of the Women.”

The club came up with a list of 10 questions to elicit stories of overcoming challenges, mentors and people who inspired the panelists, and advice for people of all ages from people of all ages.

Each panelist was given the option to answer and could skip a question if she wanted.

All seven panelists answered the first question: What advice would you give your younger self?

Baker said she would tell her younger self to “go for it.”

“So many times we have a dream or an idea or a goal, and we think of a million reasons why you can’t do it,” she said. “But you know you can, and the bottom line is if you really want it and you’re willing to work hard for it and do what it takes to achieve it, then you can absolutely accomplish that. So don’t limit yourself, don’t second-guess yourself, have confidence in yourself and trust in yourself and know that you can do the things that are really important to you.”

Norris said she would tell her younger self to “set your goals and never give up on them.”

Street said she would tell her pre-high school self that “some friendships aren’t worth holding on to.”

“You should surround yourself with people that build you up and inspire you,” Street said. “If the friends you have now aren’t doing that, then it’s time to let them go even though it’s hard.”

Another question asked how important networking and mentorships are for women.

“It’s huge,” Carroll said. “If we try to do it ourselves, it’s practically impossible, but in partnership we are stronger together, sharing power and building power within one another is so much more beneficial and productive than trying to paddle the ship yourself. I can’t overstate that.”

Street said her sister once gave her good advice about mentorships.

“She said don’t just climb the ladder and then pull the ladder up with you,” Street said. “Use what you’ve learned to inspire others and to bring others up with you.”

The final question of the night was: What is your vision for women and girls in the future?

Cooper said she feels like social media and the internet “skews a lot of thoughts of women and and people in general with comparing themselves or thinking that someone is doing something that they can’t do.”

“I hope that women don’t fall into that, or people in general don’t fall into that realm of everything on social media is true, I need to be better, I need to do this,” she said. “Pay attention to yourself, do what you know you can do, go out there and do it, and you’ll succeed and you’ll become whatever you want to do with your life.”

Joly said she has an optimistic outlook for women.

“I trust the new generation, my generation, to continue things,” she said. “I believe we are really liking people to step together to make it better for females. I see women with less fears and more freedom.”

Heather Eckhart, professor of social work at Missouri Southern, said the event was put together in about a month primarily by Anderson and Gabby Herron, both social work majors.

“These two students jumped on it right away,” Eckhart said. “We asked the club who you would like to hear from, and some piped up right away and said they wanted to hear from very inspirational women in the community.

“So we set to work, and we had four weeks to pull it off. These students have worked very hard to get these inspirational panelists here tonight.”


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