Four Women Honored in Inaugural Eastern Shore Trailblazer Awards

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Four Shore women were awarded the Eastern Shore Trailblazers award in an inaugural event, held virtually, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Submitted photo,

By Carol Vaughn —

Four women who excel in different arenas were honored Tuesday in the inaugural Eastern Shore Trailblazers event, held virtually in celebration of Women’s History Month.

The event, sponsored by the NAACP Northampton County branch and Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, featured the honorees answering questions about their experiences and about the role of women in the community.

A link to a recording of the event will be available on the CBES website, www.cbes.org
Honored were Peaches Dodge, Finale Norton, Nancy Russell, and Ava Gabrielle-Wise.
Dodge was honored for her work with the Eastern Shore Coalition Against Domestic Violence, helping empower victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Norton was honored as the first Shore woman of color to run for state legislative office. Finale also is a former Bank of America executive who headed the Mid-Atlantic’s markets and now, in retirement, is an active volunteer in Shore initiatives.

Russell was honored for her decades keeping the Shore informed through radio station WESR.

Gabrielle-Wise was honored for three decades of dedication to improving housing on the Shore and beyond.

Each received a plaque featuring a depiction of a bold red rose created by artist Diana Davis. The rose symbolizes beauty in strength, “the inner strength it takes to be a barrier breaker, to lift up others, to stay in the fight, to lead the way as a trailblazer,” said Donna Bozza, of CBES, who presented the awards.

“We honor you as exemplary examples of the generations of Shore women who have shaped our progress and strengthened our community,” Bozza said.

Jane Cabarrus, of the NAACP Northampton County branch, said the organizations plan to make the awards an annual event.

“To all of the backs that have built our bridges, to all of the shoulders that we have stood on, we can look back and look forward and say, ‘We’ve got real power, sister power, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia,” Cabarrus said.

Peaches Dodge. Submitted photo.
Finale Norton. Submitted photo.
Nancy Russell. Submitted photo.

The honorees answered four questions about themselves and women’s roles in the community:

How did you get involved with the work that you are currently doing and what keeps you motivated?
Dodge said she became involved in ESCADV after reading a newspaper article saying the domestic violence shelter was in danger of closing for financial reasons.

“I simply said, ‘Not on my watch,’” she said.

The shelter with help from the community was saved and the organization now is in a capital campaign to significantly expand its offerings and shelter space at the former G.F. Horne campus in Onancock.

What keeps Dodge motivated is, “I’m never doing any of it alone and I’m always doing it with absolutely wonderful people,” she said.

Gabrielle-Wise, chief executive officer and president at United States Sustainable Development Corporation, started out as a community organizer for the Northampton Housing Trust, which began as a CBES committee created to address housing problems on the Shore, including some 1,000 homes in Northampton County at the time without indoor plumbing.

“It was that number that brought together some of the most interesting people,” she said, adding, “In the beginning, they wanted to try to figure out how, not only to address the issues of the bricks and mortar, but they also wanted to figure out how they could work to effect change in the lives of residents on the Eastern Shore through development.

“That has been the common thread for my entire career. Development has been the way that I have expressed my desire to effect change in the lives of people.”

Norton, a Shore native who worked elsewhere for 26 years before returning to live here, said many people became interested in politics in 2008, with Barak Obama’s election.

“It was a time of inspiration,” she said, adding, “… 2016 was a different period and I think women got involved for some very different reasons.”

By 2020, Norton said, “I really did get the bug to get involved and that’s when I joined the Northampton Democratic Committee.”

When she decided to run for state office, “It wasn’t all about winning … It was about giving a voice to others; it was about raising the issues that needed to be raised; it was about making space and capacity for the next person, for the next woman. … Although I didn’t win that race, I’m sure it made a difference for a lot of women — and it made a great difference for me and the work that I continue to do right now.”

Russell said it is the listening audience that motivates her.

“WESR is a vital part of the Eastern Shore and with that comes a lot of responsibility,” she said.

She said she has even had people call her and ask her to include them in her prayers.

“I guess you could say, over time, WESR has become my ministry,” she said.

How do you view the role of women when it comes to bringing growth and positive change to the Eastern Shore?
Dodge said the Trailblazers event could be a catalyst for creating networks among Shore women.

“I really believe in networking. Women don’t do it enough,” she said, adding that by collaborating, “We can join forces and be a much stronger thing for the community.”
Gabrielle-Wise said Cabarrus was among her early mentors.

“It was women who nurtured me and invested in me and taught me,” she said.
She recalled when she was in her early twenties and the organization was in the midst of a three-year struggle to bring water and sewer to the New Road community, in Exmore. It was not going well.

At a training event for community organizers in Washington, D.C., a woman told her, “Don’t ever let your people lose.”

“It was a message that I learned then. It put a fire in me to make sure that I understood the value of voice,” Gabrielle-Wise said.

She said two words, leadership and mentorship, are key, noting, “The goal is to always be reaching back to teach another generation.”

Norton said when she was campaigning, “I had a lot of ideas … They were things that can happen, in terms that would make our communities better for everyone,” including initiatives like increasing the minimum wage, providing family leave, and more.

“I would always say we should reimagine. I went to an event and there was a gentleman there and he said, ‘You keep on talking about reimagining. What do you think you are, a unicorn?’ And I said, ‘I am a unicorn and so are all the women in this room, because at the end of the day, when stuff really needs to get done, it is women who actually get it done.’”

She agreed with Dodge that “it is through community; it is through coming together” that accomplishments happen.

She quoted President Obama, saying, “One voice can change a room; and if one voice can change a room, it can change a city; and if it can change a city, it can change a state; and if it can change a state, it can change a country; your voice can change the world.”

Norton went on to say, “We don’t have to change the world. We just have to look at things on the Eastern Shore and come together as women and make the changes that are necessary.”

Russell said she sees “a lot of small businesses being started by women in the community, and I also see that, when there’s a need, that women are stepping up to the plate,” including more women becoming pastors and women running for political office.

“There are so many areas on the Shore where I think that women could make a difference if they had the time and the desire to participate,” she said.

What advice would you give your 30-something self for the future?
“I would say be patient but keep focused,” Dodge said.

“Trust the process — to not get too upset about things that change. … The thing that you thought was stagnating you really was preparing you,” Gabrielle-Wise said.

“Be brave and to give myself more grace — and that the possibilities are endless,” Norton said.

Additionally, she would tell her younger self that when she is in her fifties, “she’s just getting started.”

“I would say don’t make a mountain out of a molehill — and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. … The second thing is, at the end of the day, when you put your head on the pillow, have no regrets — how you treat people, how you talk to people,” Russell said.

What guidance would you give young girls about getting involved in their community?
“Get involved in a church. Life is going to throw you a lot of curves. … A deep faith will take you a long way when it comes to struggles in life,” Russell said, adding, “You can’t save the world, but you can save your little corner, like the Eastern Shore — and that’s what we are all celebrating tonight. Every one of us is working to make the Eastern Shore a better place.”

“Read as many books as she can get her hands on” and seek out advice from guidance counselors about good activities to get involved in, Norton said.

“Get connected to as many organizations as you can that are doing the things that interest you,” Gabrielle-Wise said. It is there that young women will find mentors.

Additionally, she said, “A commitment to service will keep you grounded for the rest of your life. … It will serve you in ways that material things will not.”

“Follow your passion. It leads me in the right direction. It keeps me focused,” Dodge said.

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