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Soledad O'Brien Inspires New Jersey Women at Montclair State University

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MONTCLAIR, NJ - Six New Jersey women were honored by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez Sunday on the campus of Montclair State University as part of his sixth annual Women's History Month celebration.

With Soledad O'Brien as keynote speaker for the event, hundreds of supporters packed into the auditorium to partake in the joyous occasion. O'Brien is an award-winning journalist, documentarian, news anchor and producer. 

O'Brien spoke of the influence her mother had on her life as she delivered an inspiring and sometimes comedic message to the honorees and audience. She said, "she made clear that people will be willing to tell you all that you can't do, should do or never be able to do, but actually, it's up to you...She was right."

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O'Brien said that her mother taught her to have courage and to be brave. O'Brien said that she and her five siblings were all raised to be successful. "If she taught me anything, it was to be a fighter, especially for opportunities for others."

The honorees each took the stage and had an opportunity to receive their award from Menendez, his son, and O'Brien. 

Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Silna Zur was emcee for the event and delivered the welcome address followed by Montclair State University President Dr. Susan Cole.

Guests were also entertained by Camden's dance troupe called The Sophisticated Sisters. The Sophisticated Sisters have performed on Good Morning America, Dancing with the Stars, and NBC News Rock, to name a few. 

Camden Mayor Dana Redd, Assembly Speaker Emeritus Sheila Oliver and Congressman Donald Payne were among the notable elected officials in the audience.

The honorees were presented with the Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Award in honor of Menendez's mother.

This year’s ceremony will honor six pioneering women who have made significant contributions to the Garden State and our country in law, health care, education, community and environmental advocacy.  The awardees are:

  • Paulette Brown; President, American Bar Association
  • Kyung Hee Choi; VP Asian Health Services, Holy Name Medical Center
  • Chelsea Collins; NJEA Teacher of the Year, Woodstown Middle School
  • Michellene Davis; Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Barnabas Health
  • Siomara Sanchez; President, National Association of Cuban-American Women
  • Cindy Zipf; Executive Director, Clean Ocean Action

Davis, a West Orange resident who is the Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Barnabas Health, was overcome by emotion when she spoke of the kindness Menendez extended to her on the passing of her father. She said, "You called me...I will never forget that," as she choked back tears. 

The Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Awards were created in tribute to the Senator’s mother, who came to the United States from Cuba to give her children a better life and who passed away in 2009 after a long, courageous fight with Alzheimer’s disease.   

“My mother, Evangelina, for whom this award is named, showed me the meaning of courage, integrity and the importance of fighting for what’s right, every single day of her life,” said Sen. Menendez.   “She blazed that trail for me and I will continue to honor her and all of the women whose strength, wisdom and tireless determination to stand up for the people they serve make our country and our state a better, safer, cleaner place to live, work and raise a family.”   

Davis is the first woman and first person of color to serve as an Executive Vice President in the history of Barnabas Health—New Jersey’s largest healthcare system—where she oversees the company’s strategic messaging and corporate communications, community partnerships, external affairs, policy and governmental affairs, healthy living, community and employee wellness, marketing and the Barnabas Health Institute for Internship. 

Prior to her tenure at Barnabas, Ms. Davis spent much of her career in public service.  Under Governor Jon Corzine, she became the first African-American to serve as New Jersey’s Acting State Treasurer—where she founded the Office of Supplier Diversity and Division of Minority and Women Owned Businesses to ensure that women and minorities were especially included the state’s contracting opportunities—and as Chief Policy Counsel.  Davis also led the $2.4 billion New Jersey Lottery as its executive director and CEO, and served as a senior policy advisor in the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.

Brown is partner and co-chair of the firm wide Diversity & Inclusion Committee at Locke Lord, LLP and currently serving as president of the American Bar Association (ABA). Brown has held many positions throughout her career, including in-house counsel to a number of Fortune 500 companies and as a municipal court judge. She has also been recognized by the National Law Journal as one of 'The 50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America' and by the New Jersey Law Journal as one of the 'prominent women minority attorneys in the State of New Jersey.'

Kyung Hee Choi is Vice President of Asian Health Services at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. Prior to taking on this role, she previously retired from JP Morgan Chase as Managing Director.

Collins, who currently teaches sixth grade Language Arts at Woodstown Middle School in the Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District, was recognized by the NJEA as Teacher of the Year.

Sanchez serves as President of the National Association of Cuban-American Women (NACAW). Sanchez worked as a guidance counselor before becoming the director of NACAW's child care center in Union City.

Zipf  Is executive director of Clean Ocean Action (COA) and has served in the position since 1984. COA is the only full-time ocean advocacy organization dedicated exclusively to the New York and New Jersey region. She reviews and evaluates regional, state, and federal policies for impacts to Marine water quality and, through science and research, works toward solutions for issues of concern.

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