Uplifting a Community

Ten Syracuse women share their stories of how they empower others and inspire unity

Women of different backgrounds came together for a photoshoot to display a sense of equality and support that tends to be lacking in our nation today. The photoshoot, which felt like a powerhouse movement, took place at the Guest House, a venue for events, meetings and celebrations. The resulting image reflects the women in Central New York who uplift the community in various ways — women who also need a voice or outlet to inspire others.

The Stand has been a huge outlet for me. So have local television stations and a YouTube series that I co-produce and co-host called “Visionary Minds.”

These women — Kate Collins, LaKisa Renee, LS, Catie Brigandi, Sharron Pearson, Tatiana C. Parker, Taykola Gainey, Nina Purhenn, Emily Dening and Maria Maldonado-Lewis — inspire one another and countless others, including myself. We strive to motivate others.

These amazing women have great accomplishments, goals and advice to share. Their guidance can be used in any profession or aspect of life. Women empowerment: It is in full effect and here to stay.


>Nina Purhenn
Entrepreneur, actress and fitness instructor

Nina is a motivational public figure in the community. Her passion is helping people, especially in times of need. For example, she helps through her endeavors as a nurse, by offering encouragement to her Zumba students to push through another step and by uplifting the community with her poetry.

Nina and I became familiar with each other and our efforts through mutual friends on Facebook, but we had not met in person. “You continued to show me love for my goal-orientated entrepreneur endeavors and even reached out to me and asked if you could write an article for your Visionary Minds website,” Nina said. She appreciated what I was trying to do; that’s women empowerment. “I’m inspired by my mom and daughter,” she added. “My mom is such a strong woman; she’s been through a lot of ups and downs in her life and never gave up.”

Her advice to other women who wish to inspire the community is to know their worth, chase their goals and remember tomorrow.

From left to right, Nina Purhenn, Taykola Gainey, Maria Maldonado-Lewis, Sharron Pearson, Catie Brigandi, Tatiana C. Parker, Tammy Reese, Emily Dening, LaKisa Renee, Kate Collins and LS. | Photo Provided by Rondell Parker

>Sharron Pearson
Entrepreneur, event coordinator and writer

Sharron believes empowerment is making no excuses and being relentless in your pursuits. “My inspiration comes from other women on the journey and from my ancestors who paved the way before me without any of the resources or benefits afforded to me,” she said. “My humble advice to other women: ‘How much you get is directly proportional to how hard you squeeze.’”


>Maria Maldonado-Lewis
Life coach, credit adviser and radio host

Maria is co-host and co-producer of “I Know I Can Radio and TV,” which is a platform for empowerment, life skills and inspirational messages for the community.

She says that women empowerment is someone who walks her talk and is selfless. “Oprah (Winfrey) is my biggest inspiration because she loves to help and is humble,” she said.

Her advice is to be yourself, learn who you are and love yourself first so you can genuinely give to others. “Find your passion,” she added, “and keep it real.”


>Kate Collins
Photographer, writer and mentor

Kate says she didn’t have many mentors early in her career, so she tries to makes it easier for others — including students from diverse backgrounds — by mentoring them. Kate feels it’s important to be generous with your time and knowledge in order to give back to your profession and your community.

She believes empowerment isn’t just about elevating yourself or striving to be “the best” at something. “To me, empowerment is about believing in yourself and using your talents to help others around you,” she said. “My grandmother was definitely the biggest influence in my life. She was born into poverty, but then she and my grandfather built a very successful business and were generous to everyone. My grandmother treated everyone as equals.”

Kate believes everyone has a talent. Her advice is to volunteer and use your talents to help others.


>Taykola Gainey
Dancer, print model and hair stylist

Taykola owns Dangerously Fierce, a dance company where she choreographs and teaches women 18 and older. Teaching younger girls is her next goal. She is also a hairstylist and loves making women feel good about themselves. Taykola will be seen in the upcoming movie, “The People’s Champ,” a story about local boxer Martel Potter, whose life inspired others and whose death took a toll on many in the Syracuse community.

She believes women empowerment is when women of all races come together to praise, encourage and stand by one another. “My biggest inspiration is Iyanla Vanzant,” she said. “She has given me a sense of realness that empowered me to do better for myself and then for the women around me.”

Taykola advises women to never give up on themselves. “No matter what comes your way, know that you are strong enough to get through it,” she said. “All women are naturally strong by themselves, but together we are stronger.”


>Catie Brigandi
Actress, filmmaker and makeup artist

Catie says women empowerment is about different women from different cultures and careers coming together and building each other up. “Women empower each other by working together and using each woman’s beauty and talent to become one strong force,” she said.

“My mother has always been my number one inspiration,” she added. “She taught me that you don’t need a man to be successful in life. If you want to inspire, you’ve got to do what you love. Then you will automatically spread positivity and inspiration to your community.”

A look behind the scenes of a photoshoot of women of different backgrounds who came together to display unity — an attribute that tends to be lacking in our nation today. Women met at the Guest House, a Syracuse venue for events, meetings and celebrations. | Photo Provided by Dre Hawkins

>LaKisa Renee
Actress, fitness instructor and entrepreneur

LaKisa is a fitness instructor at Southside Fitness Gym, co-owner of LSK Modeling & Events Company and an Onondaga County Health Department community health worker.

“Creating LSK Modeling & Events was a major contribution to the Syracuse community,” she said, noting that her company serves as a platform for Syracuse models, dancers, singers, actors, designers, entrepreneurs, organizations and more to discover their talents, showcase them and create businesses. “In my position as a community health worker, I assist and advocate for pregnant women/teens and parenting mothers. It’s the best feeling in the world to know you’re making a difference in someone else’s life.”

She says her mother is her biggest inspiration. “She faces many challenges on a daily basis, but handles them with grace.” She also says she is inspired by many wonderful, powerful women in her community such as business owners, political leaders, mentors, advisers and consultants.

Her best advice: “Be willing to go out into the neighborhoods, attend events, bond more with people in your community.” She also suggests that women should go after their goals and let nothing or no one stand in their way. “Be fearless, break barriers and set the bar high. People will naturally gravitate towards you and be inspired.”


>Tatiana C. Parker
Community advocate

Tatiana uses her time, skills and knowledge to help promote the quality of life for the Syracuse community.

She believes women empowerment is the process of increasing the political, economic, professional and spiritual capacity of women. “My mother is my biggest source of inspiration,” she said. “She fought through the challenges young single parents face while managing to raise four well-adjusted children.”

She adds: “The thing about inspiration is that it is organically grown from how you make people feel through your own authenticity, personal passion and dedication. I would tell women to network with experienced professionals. These actions activate you and lead to an increased awareness of your interest areas.”


>Emily Dening
Model, singer and actress

Emily is involved with the modeling and film community and has been featured in films, commercials and fashion shows. She is signed with CNY MODE, a local model management agency.

She says she’s had many women ask how she started her career. “What I tell them is to get involved. I do whatever I can to help other women follow their dreams the same way I follow mine,” she said. “Women need to build each other up. We live in a time where women empowerment should be prominent more than ever. Race, shape or size means nothing — your character means everything. We have to have each other’s backs. Real women don’t compete against each other. They empower one another.”

She feels the best way to inspire one’s community is to genuinely want to help others succeed without expecting anything in return. “It’s an inspiring thing to help others, especially when you know what it takes to work towards your ambitions and to be able to see someone else be successful. Then knowing you had an impact on that is an irreplaceable feeling.”

Business owner and Syracuse International Film Festival board member

“Starting LSK Modeling & Events gave people the opportunity to showcase their talents,” LS said, detailing such examples as casting for “Priest The Lost Son’s” movie trailer, which filmed in Syracuse, and coordinating a performance and fashion show at the Great New York State Fair Empire Experience Stage this summer. “LSK is a company that supports the community by donating to local charities such as the Determination Center, Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital and Catholic Charities Refugee Youth Program.”

LSK also has put on a charity kids fashion show on behalf of Amani Bowale African Youth Dance Team. For LS, women empowerment is receiving support from women and praising each other. “Oprah Winfrey is my inspiration,” she said. “In all her adversity, she prospered to be the mogul that she is now.”

LS believes the first step for a woman to help her community is to think about ways to get involved. “To my ladies in the world who would like to inspire your community, even the thought counts,” she said. “The fact you are even thinking about ‘how can I help my community’ is a big start.”



— Collection of profiles by Tammy Reese. To contact Reese or any of these inspirational women, email tammyreese7@gmail.com

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