For the last 10 years, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has awarded emerging women leaders in Kansas City with their ATHENA Young Professional Leadership award.
This year’s recipient is Michele Watley, founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a non-partisan nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of Black women through education and advocacy. The nonprofit is inspired by Shirley Chisholm’s legacy as the first African-American woman elected to US Congress.
Through Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, Watley and her team have helped register hundreds of Kansas Citians to vote and have a collective goal of positioning 5,000 Black women to step into advocacy to influence and create public policy to benefit Black women and the world.
Watley is also founder and president of The Griot Group, a public affairs and strategic communications firm that partners with clients to bring together people, institutions and resources to create impact. Some of her customers include the Missouri Department of Transportation, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, and The Hague Conference on Private and International Law located in the Netherlands.
Combining her efforts through both of these channels, Watley was instrumental in garnering support in both Kansas and Missouri for the CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair. The CROWN Act creates protection for Black and Brown individuals for wearing hairstyles like braids, locs and twists at work or school.
Versions of the anti-discrimination law passed in seven states and Kansas City council adopted their own version of the CROWN Act last year. The Missouri House passed the bill in 2020, but it failed in the Senate. Kansas Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau introduced the CROWN Act in 2020, but it died due to the pandemic. She re-introduced it earlier this year.
While work is still needed to pass the bill on the state level, Faust-Goudeau said Watley was fierce and dedicated in advocating for the CROWN Act in Kansas by organizing supporters and through her personal testimonies before the legislature.
“She was able to garner the support in organizing the young, millennial Black women to the Capitol. She was able to rally the troops,” Faust-Goudeau said. “It really does take a village to pass legislation here in Kansas, and her work was phenomenal.
“Watley winning this ATHENA Young Professional Leadership award is well-deserved,” Faust-Goudeau said.
The ATHENA Young Professional Leadership award is inspired by the goddess of Greek mythology known for her strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment and is awarded to women honored for professional excellence, community service and for actively assisting other women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills.
The Young Professional Leadership award is an extension of the ATHENA Leadership award, one of the most prestigious honors for women’s leadership in Kansas City. Sherry Turner, founder of OneKC for Women Alliance is this year’s ATHENA Leadership award recipient.
Past ATHENA and ATHENA Young Professionals include Karen Daniel and Chelsea Laub in 2020, Kathy Nelson and Caitlyn O’Byrne Waters in 2019, Anita Bajaj Newton and Adrienne Haynes in 2018, Dianne Cleaver and Mamie Hughes.
The ATHENA Awards ceremony will be held virtually Oct. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Register for the ceremony here:https://membership.kcchamber.com/events/details/athena-awards-livestream-12797.