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Proviso Area’s Female Pioneers Get Their Due

Judge Raines-Welch speaks during a Women’s History Month event at the Maywood Public Library on March 30. Raines-Welch is the first woman of color ever elected to the county’s 4th subcircuit. | Michael Romain 

Thursday, April 4, 2024 || By Michael Romain || 

“She is a grassroots person who is in the community and who is seen,” Phyllis Yafah Duncan, the founder of the Women’s Community Leadership Council, said of business owner Shawnda Steele. “She also cares about education and our children.” 

Those criteria seemed to apply to all six of the women Duncan’s Council recognized at a Women’s History Month celebration held March 30 at the Maywood Public Library, 121 S. 5th Ave. in Maywood. 

In 2019, Steele said her daughter opened up to her about the need for more school-wide support for her friends who were being bullied. Steele said she encouraged her daughter to write a letter to her classmates about the need. 

Steele herself started researching anti-bullying efforts. In 2021, she settled on the idea to encourage local school districts and suburban municipalities to pass proclamations recognizing Unity Day, the signature initiative of National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. Unity Day has been observed in the United States on the third or fourth Wednesday of October since 2011. 

“It was fantastic,” she recalled during comments on March 30. “Everyone wore orange, the signature color for anti-bullying.” 

Rafiah Maxie-Cole’s 19-year-old son, Jamal, died by suicide in 2020 after experiencing years of bullying at school. 

“Jamal died two days after the tragic death of George Floyd,” Maxie-Cole said. “He had but 11 months out of high school and four months into the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. He was my first son and I wear him and I bring him everywhere I go.” 

Maxie-Cole turned her grieving and pain into a nonprofit, Soul Survivors of Chicago, dedicated to suicide prevention and awareness. 

“Soul Survivors was started way after everyone had left, the calls had stopped, the visit had ceased, no one was knocking on the door asking, ‘Are you OK?’ The flowers had disappeared,” she said. “I went into his room and said, ‘What am I going to do?’ And I looked down and saw his shoe. I said, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great if I could sanitize Jamal’s shoe, put his name in it and gift it to someone [as a symbol] to walk in purpose. I’ll never see my child graduate from college. I’ll never have grandchildren. I’ll never see him get his first job, but when you put that shoe on, my son will be able to walk in the legacy of your life … so walk in purpose.” 

Soul Survivors now collects shoes from parents and loved ones across the country, sanitizes them and gifts them to others as a message to walk in purpose. The organization also spreads education and awareness around suicide with the hope of dismantling the stigma associated with it. 

Valerie Goodloe, Pastor Latasha H. Fields, Shawnda Steele, Rafiah Maxie-Cole, Phyllis Yafah Duncan and Barbara Cole at the Maywood Public Library on Saturday. | Michael Romain 

Duncan also recognized Pastor Latasha H. Fields, the founder of Christian Home Educators Support System, and Valerie Goodloe, the executive director of Woman in Need of Discovering Own Worth. 

Goodloe said her stepson’s son died by suicide three years ago, the result of a viral trend among young people that went wrong. 

“We have so many things that are going on that we don’t even know as parents what’s going on with our children,” Goodloe said. “We have to really start looking at what’s placed in front of our children. What is happening with our youth that we cannot protect them from these outside sources like TikTok and Facebook. Why do our children feel they have to go outside of the home for someone to pay attention to them?” 

Goodloe, a professional photographer by trade, documents the lives of young people affected by trauma. She directed a documentary film called “Love Is Not Enough,” which features Duncan speaking about her activism in the community. Duncan founded Mothers of Murdered Sons in 2006 after her only son, Dodavah, was shot and killed the day after Mother’s Day in 2005. 

Fields said her organization champions home-schooling as a means of addressing the many crises young people face. Fields said she and her husband have been home-schooling for 18 years. 

“With home-schooling, God put me and my husband in school, because we had to re-learn a lot of things, especially when it comes to our history,” Fields said. 

While Fields posed home-schooling as a solution to some of the many social crises facing the Black community, Barbara Cole, the founder of Maywood Youth Mentoring, offered reparations as a possible solution to Black people’s systemic crises. 

Cole urged those in attendance at Saturday’s event to sign a petition in support of HR 40, the bill that establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. She also asked people to mail a postcard supporting HR 40 to President Joe Biden. 

“We need to get on board with holding folks accountable for what we are due,” Cole said. “Reparations now!” 

Judge ShawnTe Raines-Welch, the event’s keynote speaker, reinforced the day’s Women’s History Month theme by sharing her path to becoming the first woman of color ever elected to the county’s 4th subcircuit. 

The Proviso West alum and Bellwood native who currently lives in Hillside said the road wasn’t easy. For one, Judge Raines-Welch said, she had to deal with people reducing her accomplishments because she’s the wife of Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who was in attendance at Saturday’s event. 

“That’s something I struggled with,” the pioneering judge said. “I’ve been a straight-A student all my life. I graduated on the dean’s list at John Marshall Law School. I was one of the youngest partners and the first and only Black female partner at our law firm. And yet, here I am running [for judge] and my credentials were discounted, my worth was discounted.” 

Judge Raines-Welch said as a judge in the criminal misdemeanor room at Maybrook Courthouse in Maywood, she encounters daily the social ills that women who spoke before her highlighted. 

“I see a lot of our people come through my courtroom door — it is a curse and a blessing,” she said. “It’s a curse because we shouldn’t be there in the first place. I tell a lot of young people who walk into my room, ‘Once I’m done with you, I don’t want to see you back in this building, anymore.’ 

“But, it’s a blessing because I get to impact how they feel when they walk out of that room. I get to impact their lives, if they’re trying to get their lives back on track,” she said. “It’s a wonderful position to be in serving the community I grew up in.” 

Judge Raines-Welch said she now wants to inspire the next generation of Black women following behind her, particularly those interested in going into law. 

“If you know anyone who is interested in law, tell them to call me, because I am always available to mentor,” she said. 

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