Lean In Think Tank: Chattanooga’s Groundbreaking Women – by Deborah Levine

The Women’s Council on Diversity has inspired Chattanooga since its first meeting the day after 9/11. The influx of international companies led to our community-wide Global Leadership Class six years later, followed by Women GroundBreakers Storytelling. Documented in the American Diversity Report, these projects demonstrate how a small Southern city tackles its growing diversity and internationalization. Women Ground Breakers is now a Think Tank and part of Lean In, the international women’s movement begun by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.

The inaugural brainstorming session explored Chattanooga’s weaknesses and strengths for Successful Women.  The groundbreaking women attendees were diverse in generation, race, religion, and profession. Several have legal backgrounds: Cathryn Cohen and Ardena Garth Hicks who is a former public defender. Others focus on education: Shawn Kurrelmeier-Lee, Christine Francis, and Linda Moss Mines who is also City/County Historian. Many are experienced in nonprofit management including Sue Stohlmann and Carrie Di Memmo. The group included entrepreneurs Laura Hessler and Cathie Keegan as well as social worker Valerie Radu.


The discussion of the groundbreakers included 1.) the Education Access issues that affect achievement, employment, and recognition; and 2.) the Social Trends that specifically impact local women.


An underlying cause of Chattanooga’s uneven progress is the quality of education in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.These families historically represent much of the city’s diversity. Resources in these schools are limited with some lacking social studies as well as art education. The ability to read is uneven, writing skills are elementary. Communication skills needed for workplace advancement are minimal. Transportation and parking necessary to reach supplemental educational are often unaffordable.


• Traditional networks don’t adequately recognize “Groundbreaking” women.
• Poor academic achievement and an unsophisticated level of emotional intelligence suppress our job-ready workforce.
• Leadership appears to be homogenous and lacks dialogue with outsiders, newcomers, and diverse people.
• Elected office and chairmanships for women, particularly minority women, are recent and infrequent.

• Good role models and women’s organizations with specific areas of focus.
• New movements bringing attention to women and openness to their inclusion
• Expanded diversity with the influx of global companies and diverse women relocating to Chattanooga.
• Excellent small business networking, events for encouragement, inspiration


“Relationships among women are critical and inspiring. Our community thrives on them.” ~ Shawn Kurrelmeier-Lee

“Need more women of color in leadership positions in human services, social services, and nonprofit sectors.” ~ Valerie Radu

“Yes, there are external barriers and a culture of gender inequality, but women only need to realize our power and express our voice, and help younger generation to express their voice and claim their rights.” ~ Carrie Di Memmo

“Weaknesses of Chattanooga for Successful Women – why college-aged females African American) are not staying.” ~ Ardena Garth Hicks

“Find ways to teach a rounded education despite budget cuts and standardized testing. Can we combine literacy, emotional intelligence, and STEM education?” ~ Cathryn Cohen

“Be open to “Southern” traditions and … exercise your skills and expertise in a fair and kind manner.” ~ Cathie Keegan

“Chattanooga needs a more organized effort to bring women along to match the city’s progress.” ~ Sue Stohlmann

“We are a united tapestry of generations, genders, ethnicities and faiths. It is our duty to march forward together! That march begins with education. Education leads to change and that change must be informed change.” ~ Linda Moss Mines

“Everyone has a story that can empower the next generation with the knowledge, empathy, and understanding to compel the changes that need to happen in our community.” ~ Laura Hessler


CLICK  to see the Women GroundBreakers Storytelling videos

CLICK for more information on the STEM Women Study Guide

CLICK for Global Leadership: Southern Women Lean In – by Deborah Levine


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