CONCORD -- In a world vacillating between cherishing and chastising women for wanting to "have it all," the eight 2014 Contra Costa Commission for Women Hall of Fame honorees' shared a collective message: Missionary-type zeal, exercised through slim entry points and dressed in collaborative outfits, can rock the world.

Targeting families in crisis, meals for families of hospitalized patients, housing and care services for the elderly, social justice for immigrants and victims of abuse and sustaining the future of a landmark movie theater and a regional ballet company -- women's work was the strength of one, raised by the power of many.

The eight women, from all over Contra Costa, were honored at the March 20 "Bridge to Equality" dinner at the Crowne Plaza in Concord; about 200 people attended.

Walnut Creek's Diablo Ballet Artistic Director Lauren Jonas, and Linda Fodrini-Johnson, founder and Executive Director of Eldercare Services, attack their vocations with energy and emotional chutzpah. The ballet company adopts three schools in underserved communities for its PEEK outreach program.

Asked by a student, "Are you rich?" Jonas said she was rich with passion.

"I have dance -- and making it into something that will inspire you," she said she had told the someday dancer.

Fodrini-Johnson said a good leader ignites and guides passion. "Start Something," a song she kept in mind while building her company from a one-woman-in-a-home to a 250-employee operation, was coupled with her advice to "be generous and empower others."

Moraga's Edy Schwartz galvanized an entire town, when she spearheaded a community effort to raise $200,000 for the New Rheem Theatre's digital projectors. Pausing only long enough to inhale a chicken chop and paraphrase a favorite quote about how cinema is art that creates reaction, she's already working to fundraise for an elevator upgrade needed by the theater.

Ileana Arganda, a special education instructional assistant at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, decided to attend after reading an event announcement with her students. "I was teaching them how you can get information from a newspaper," she said, "and I just got so inspired, awed. Imagine these women, all in one room: I had to be here."

Already, there was a certain "science" to the environment the female entrepreneurs have created. Call them "smartup companies" instead of startups, for the mastery of cooperative business structuring they shared. The products delivered range from pirouettes to protein bars, but a promising, although still challenging, future for women leaders was the picture they presented.

Bay Area Crisis Nursery founder and executive director Sister Ann Weltz started her journey in Martinez. Her mother stayed at home, but Weltz said "every police chief, fireman, lawyer and politician knew my mother. She got a raise for the garbage workers: it's from her that I got that passion." The Concord-based Bay Area Crisis Nursery has been in operation for 33 years: "with no federal, state or county money," she boasted.

Rita Xavier rides on a flotilla of San Pablo organizations and encapsulated her massive contributions in diminutive style: "Everything I do is on a volunteer basis," she said. Nati Flores, Program Director at Monument Impact, connects people with resources and said "justice means equity; we're all human and deserve to be treated with dignity."

Pleasant Hill resident Betty Geishirt Cantrell's SparkPoint Contra Costa, with operations in Richmond and Bay Point, merged 17 service organizations to provide free financial empowerment support to women. "Great things happen when people work together. Poverty is out here in the suburbs. Join us," she said.

The Network of Care, a nonprofit delivering meal support to families of children suddenly hospitalized, was founded by Executive Director Janet Frazier. While working full-time for Chevron, she has turned the pain of losing a daughter, Stephanie, into a blessing for more than 130,000 families during the organization's 10-year history. Recalling a nurse who'd shared her brown bag lunch when Frazier stood up from her bedside vigil and nearly passed out, she said, "I will never forget the feeling that someone had done something so nice."

Today, 2,000 purple bags, filled with nonperishable food, are delivered each month to families in California and Colorado.

Keynote speaker and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen told the audience at the March 20 dinner at the Crowne Plaza in Concord that her "gateway drug" into public service was serving on Neighborhood Watch. Inspired by lessons from history, like negative, antiquated laws prohibiting women from owning property or denying them the right to vote--and positive examples, like her grandfather, from whom she learned to evaluate how things work, then attempt to fix them--Bowen said women and girls are "a force to be reckoned with." Women's work, she suggested, "is nothing more than changing the world."

The Contra Costa Commission for Women was formed in 1997 as a change agent. Educating and advising the community about social and economic conditions impacting women through conferences, public forums and advocacy, the every-other-year Hall of Fame awards recognize "unsung heroes," said event co-chair Nancie Zimmerman. Nominations in seven categories (environment, arts, community, leadership, justice, health care, science/technology) are judged by women who reside outside of the county's parameters.

Zimmerman said her only regret about this year's program was the lack of nominations in environment and science/technology. "That's something we're definitely going to change next year," she vowed.

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