A woman characterized as “A gladiator, a warrior, and a guardian angel all rolled into one,” has been honored today by 100 Women Strong as their 2019 Leaders of Distinction Award. She is Mary Jo Schnell, the Executive Director of The OutCenter in Benton Harbor.
100 Women Strong Co-Chair Lynne Christiano also called Schnell “tireless and a fierce advocate,” in our community before a packed house at Shadowland on Silver Beach during the lunch hour event today.
Before receiving her beautifully hand-crafted glass trophy from Water Street Glassworks in the Benton Harbor Arts District, the keynote address was delivered by a long time friend and colleague of Mary Jo, Todd Dockerty who served as her Board Chair for three years, working side by side campaigning for LGBTQ issues across the region.
I asked Todd, who is Chief Operating Officer and owner of Dockerty Health Care Services in the community, about his message. He says, “My message is just the importance of making sure that we help each other, we support each other, and as leaders we take the opportunity to make sure we really give people around us the ability to shine as best they can.” Dockerty was first to admit that fear, trepidation and even self-loathing in his formative years as a gay man kept his light from shining for years. The bond between he and Mary Jo is very real and he called it, “A high honor to be selected to speak, and a little challenging, but I think I was asked because Mary Jo Schnell is the one being honored, and I worked with her for three years, so to me it’s an honor to be here both as a male speaking to a room full of women, and to be able to be the person who is the opener for Mary Jo’s award ceremony.”
For her part, Mary Jo Schnell says, “I am really humbled. When I first heard of it, I was really kind of taken aback and in part because it’s a humbling experience to be recognized, but also really, sincerely, because there are so many other people that are really behind the work that I’m doing. So really, it’s an opportunity to really elevate all of us together, in providing a bigger voice for the marginalized communities in Southwest Michigan, and to bring about substantive change for more inclusiveness in this glorious region of Southwest Michigan. I’m just very honored, very humbled and happy to be helping wise other folks up.”
The connection between Dockerty and Schnell is readily evident. He says, “I think Mary Jo is very special to this entire community. I am gay, and as I grew up in Southwest Michigan it was extremely challenging, so to come back here and have a place like the OutCenter, and to have served on the board, and see the people that she works with every day and the people who walk through those front doors every day it’s a huge honor to work with her. She does incredible work. I can’t imagine how it is not completely exhausting yet totally rewarding.”
Clearly, Mary Jo’s influence was felt from the beginning for Dockerty who, after moving to Chicago years ago, “returned to the area to help my parents run the family business for a six month period 17 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.” He says of the dynamic OutCenter leader, “Mary Jo is one of the most convincing people you will ever meet. I actually first met her when she called me into her office and gave me her spiel on becoming an annual donor. I became an annual donor and came back just a week later because I was so moved by what she said that I doubled our annual commitment and have continued that ever since. She is very passionate about what she does, and that was my first real interaction with her and she sold me 100-percent.”
Mary Jo has more than 25 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector in local, regional and national organizations. She began her career in the sector as the curator of a nationally known alternative arts organization in Chicago, the Randolph Street Gallery, helping to organize the annual “In Through the Out Door,” one of the nation’s first LGBTQ series featuring video, film and performances by artists whose work explored sexual identity, gender expression and more in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the latter part of the Reagan Culture Wars, and into George H.W. Bush’s presidency.
At the OutCenter she has helped to reposition the organization within the larger cultural and political context of Southwest Michigan, recalibrated fundraising efforts to diversify funding streams and based on the potential for income growth, while helping to launch the organization’s first ever formal three year plan.
Having mentioned that there are so many others behind the work that she is doing, I reminded her that they all need a leader to, and she has been that person, to which she replied, “I think there’s such a thing as being led from behind, where you’re kind of moving along with the avenues people are helping open up for you, and I think that’s a dynamic that is little celebrated in our culture.” She adds, “It is something that my mom was brilliant at, and so when I think about this award and I think about leadership, I think about her ideas about them. I learned at my mom’s knee and I’m grateful for it. She’s my hero.”
Schnell appealed to the audience to help kids to gain their deserved equal access to life and to “be a part of the solution, bigger than yourself.” She applauded the St. Joseph City Commission for being the first municipality anywhere in the region to pass a non-discrimination ordinance.
Past winners of the 100 Women Strong Leaders of Distinction honor include Judge Mabel Mayfield, Sisters Paulit and Sharon, Anna Murphy, Sarah Jollay, Denise Bohn Stewart, Margaret Adams, and Lisa Bartoszek.
100 Women Strong, for those unfamiliar with the organization, is a 501(c)3 that provides modest, one-time financial assistance to women in Berrien County who are ineligible for other community resources, but find themselves in need of emergency help. Such women must be working or going to school full time or a combination of both, and the goal is assisting them in maintaining their self-sufficiency. Essentially, Women helping women…one woman at a time.
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