published Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Cook: A league of her own

If I was a woman, I'd want to join the Junior League.

Saying that surprises me as much as it does you. Until recently, I thought the Junior League of Chattanooga was one big tea party. White women in white pearls, taking country club brunch in white gloves.

Right or wrong, that was my perception. (Yours too?)

"Those days are long gone," said Tahnika Rodriguez.

Meet the new, 21st century Junior League of Chattanooga. It looks something like this:

Each month, a group of 100 or so women meet. They discuss leadership ideas, women's issues and the best ways to empower one another.

They have long talks about the importance of service. They research and discuss the tough issues of today: sex trafficking, violence, food inequity.

For the past year, the group has been led by a powerful, intelligent, graceful woman -- Tahnika Rodriguez -- who is black. Yes, black. And she sums up the way people and groups have received her in two words.

"So welcoming," Rodriguez said.

She's also a mom. And a wife.

Other members are, too. Most are working professionals. The average age is 20-something. When they serve, they get their hands dirty by planting community gardens and working to reduce childhood hunger.

"We are the only nonprofit -- churches included -- that gives on a consecutive basis every single month to the Food Bank," Rodriguez said.

Some brief history: The Junior League of Chattanooga began in 1917, making it the seventh oldest League in the country and the only all-women's civic group around.

Yes, there were plenty of wealthy white women. Many probably owned pearls.

But my magnolias -and-tea-perception -- and yours, too -- has been a bit antiquated and unfair.

In days gone by, the Junior League had been immensely involved in the creation of T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger as well as Allied Arts.

Past presidents have been women of grace and grit, with last names you know: Lupton, Siskin, Montague, Hutcheson, Guerry. One Junior Leaguer challenged me to find an area nonprofit with a woman in leadership who is not also an active or alum Junior Leaguer.

Then, and now, its goals are two-fold.

"To develop the potential of women," Rodriguez said, "and to develop the potential of our community."

Last year, the League narrowed its service work to one main issue: food deserts. They called it Seeds of Change, and it guided their entire year.

They funded $24,000 in grants that went to teachers in schools -- "from Howard to Hixson," Rodriguez said -- who built gardens or taught about food issues. They dug community gardens for parts of Chattanooga that go without. They donated to the Food Bank, and packed bags of food for kids who'd otherwise go hungry.

"We made sure everything we did had Seeds of Change as our focus," Rodriguez said.

She works at TVA, managing a team that works in telecommunications, fiber and transmission lines. A '95 Central High School graduate, Rodriguez -- her daughter is 1-year-old Chloe -- first joined the League in 2005, but only barely.

"I was 1,000 percent apprehensive," she said, admitting to the all-pearls perception.

She joins, gets involved, and is embraced by other members. One day, walking past a wall with portraits of all the League presidents, Rodriguez thinks to herself: I want my picture up there one day.

Last year, she was nominated, and then elected, as the Junior League of Chattanooga's 97th president ... and the first black one.

"I just wanted to be part of a group doing great stuff," she said. "Even with the white gloves, they were doing great stuff."

Monday night, at the decorated Lindsay Street Hall, they honored Rodriguez's year, and then welcomed incoming president Shelley McGraw.

McGraw, a mom to almost-4-years-old Graysen, is the executive director of the tremendously important Children's Advocacy Center. Part of her work as new League president is to envision the coming years of Chattanooga's Junior League. Remember, it turns 100 in 2017.

She hopes the word will spread to a broader demographic: women of color, young professionals, women who aren't necessarily country club members.

"This is not your mom's league," McGraw said. "We've changed. We need you to change."

Would you accept men?

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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