Sisterly bond is their link to achievement

Success: Family, friends and faith play a big role in these women's lives.

January 16, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sometimes we meet over long lunches at the Cheesecake Factory. At other times, a performance of the Baltimore Symphony or a play.

But wherever my sorority sisters assemble, you can pretty much count on smiles, laughter and support. That, and enough loud chatter to warrant earplugs.

Tonight's venue is the Enoch Pratt Free Library for a book signing. The topic is one we intimately understand.

So far, I am the only one in my circle to have read Monique Greenwood's new book: Having What Matters: The Black Woman's Guide To Creating the Life You Really Want.

I suspected, however, the theme would intrigue this quintet of 30-something professionals. All are members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., an international service organization for black women. Greenwood, the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, encourages a self-critique with questions like: What brings you joy? What is success? If you had just one day to live, how would you spend it?

I posed these same questions and more to my longtime friends. Their responses were funny, thoughtful, sweet, intelligent - just like the women themselves.

"For me, the definition of success is ever-changing, because you're always evolving," says Dr. Tracy S. King, a dentist. Like most in the group, she attended Hampton University, a historically black school in Virginia.

"I think you can do just about anything, especially if you visualize and have the ingenuity. But it's a constant balancing act."

Her life is daily testament to this. Especially with a husband, two toddlers (Jason, 4, and Camille, 2 1/2 ) and three jobs- private practice, consulting and working as an assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland Dental School.

"It can be rough at times," admits King, who views a monthly book club as an escape from her busy home life in Northeast Baltimore. "But I have a husband [attorney and accountant Martin King] who tells me often that he loves me. I enjoy my children ... just seeing what they learn each day, their new capabilities. That inspires me."

Dr. Melanie Burke Delaney gets her inspiration from her deep Christian faith. That, and her husband, James, who shares her career as a dentist. The couple lives in Northwest Baltimore.

"I am so grateful to God just to get out of bed in the morning ... that I am allotted that opportunity," say Burke Delaney, who also is a pianist.

Asked what she would do with 24 hours to live, she replies:

"I'd pray, first of all. Then I'd spend the rest of the day with my husband and mother doing all the things we enjoy, like a good meal ... and playing cards!"

Melanie often spends time with her best friend, Lisa Green Hall, a Baltimore native who now lives in Washington.

Hall has an MBA from Harvard University, and has worked on Wall Street and in other high-powered positions.

"I have friends from business school who are now millionaires," says Hall, a policy director for Fannie Mae, which finances home purchases, "but I see that some aren't successful in other areas of life."

These days, she gets the most pleasure spending time with her new husband, Randy, a computer specialist. Together, they enjoy the company of family and friends.

She adds, "Everyone has different goals. What's important is finding and maintaining balance among those priorities you've set for yourself."

Shelley T. Merritt is the analytical member of the group. Her life is working, she says.

"I like that I have friends I can talk to and not be berated or criticized," notes the electrical engineer who lives in Jessup. "I like that my family is alive and well, a full spectrum - young and old."

Merritt is still single, and for now, cherishes her freedom.

"I enjoy being an independent person, having a home that is a refuge. There is peace and tranquility in my life. Those things are important to me."

Seeking peace, reducing stress - that's a message Dr. Trudy R. Hall says she hammers home to her patients.

"Emotional components can be a factor in physical pain," says Hall, a physiatrist - a physician who specializes in physical medicine. While not acquainted with the group interviewed for this story, she happens to be a young black professional in her 30s. "Many of my patients are African-American women, and I see lots of aches and pains, especially in the lower back, related to stress.

"Sometimes we must learn to say no," says Hall, who works with the Urban Medical Institute at Bon Secours Hospital. "That can be especially hard for black women, because we have so many expectations for ourselves. And people expect a lot from us as well."

The sorority sisters all agree that for many African-American women, there is an added pressure to succeed, to do it all - sometimes informally known as "the black woman's syndrome."

For instance, black women have historically not had the luxury of staying at home. Working is more often a necessity than an option.

"We are socialized to put a lot of factors in our happiness equation - love, career, finances," says A. Jai Bonner, a lawyer in Baltimore. "As a double minority, it can be inherently more difficult. We have to work that much harder to reach the status that we aspire to."

In spite of the challenges, Bonner says she is happy and fulfilled.

Her three-year marriage to fellow attorney Jerry Jones is strong, she says. They have a home in Woodstock, where they entertain often. They have close family ties and are grounded spiritually.

Meanwhile, she is encouraged by the smart, savvy and beautiful women who are part of her world. "I do think black women can have it all, or the things that matter," Bonner says. "I know because I live it, and see it in all of my friends."

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