The winners of the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh’s inaugural Equity Awards demonstrate the ability of women to rise above the pandemic to advance the mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.

The new awards combine the former Racial Justice Awards and the Tribute to Women to recognize winners in five categories:

Heroine Award, which honors a dedicated essential worker on the frontline of the Covid-19 crisis. Winner: Marisa C. Williams, CEO of North Hills Affordable Housing (HEARTH)

Ally Award, which recognizes an individual or a group who has taken on the role of ally, advocate and champion to women of color. Winner: Black Women for a Better Education

Bridge Builder Award, which goes to a woman whose work remains true to their ethnic heritage and roots as they champion strategic initiatives so that Pittsburgh centers and engages women of color. Winner: The Rev. Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy, associate minister for Mission Ministries, East Liberty Presbyterian Church

Creativity and Innovation Award, which honors a woman involved in the arts or social media initiatives that bring public attention to the empowerment of women, especially women of color. Winner: Brittany Boyd, founder and owner of Brittany Leanna Productions

Emerging Leader Award, which goes to a woman, age 24 or younger, whose voice and actions interrupt the status quo to make a difference in their community. Winner: Abbey Mui, founder and executive director of re: Bloom

“They are getting these awards because the work that they’re doing in the community is extremely evident,” Angela M. Reynolds, CEO of YWCA Greater Pittsburgh, says. “Everyone who’s being honored has been addressing issues of the systemic structures that we as an organization are also aiming to address, but they also see the importance of the here and now.”

Abbey Mui, founder and executive director of re: Bloom.

While the Heroine Award was set aside specifically for the pandemic, Reynolds says all the winners have stepped up to the crisis and “have been creative in their stepping up.”

Mui’s business is evidence of that — re: Bloom was born in April 2020 in the midst of the pandemic when the Carnegie Mellon University student found herself with “a lot of free time on my hands” since campus activities were shut down.

Her mother was running a daycare business in her hometown of Boston that was hard hit by the Covid shutdown. To try to help her business survive, she turned to her daughter for help updating her website, which had largely been neglected.

“It looked so bad,” Mui says. “But it wasn’t her fault. No one ever taught her how to move her business into the digital world. … And being a small business owner, she was wearing so many hats and didn’t have time.”

Helping her mom soon was turning into a full-time job “and I had finals coming up” so instead, Mui decided to teach her how to do it herself.

“And then I realized that this is actually the problem, not a lot of businesses are being taught how to use their own website.”

And thus, re: Bloom was born to connect small business owners with experts to provide accessible and affordable tech. 

Marisa C. Williams, CEO of HEARTH.

Williams is being honored with the Heroine Award specifically for the work HEARTH did during the pandemic.

“When Covid happened, the work we were doing was really around food insecurity and people in crisis,” she says. “Just because our physical buildings were not open, doesn’t mean that we stopped helping people.” 

“You have a responsibility to care for others beyond just the people that exist in your household. When we are going through a global pandemic, there wasn’t one day where I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna sit in my house with my 4-year-old and my husband.’ … At the end of the day, if we’re not figuring out how to get food and resources to people and communities that have traditionally been forgotten about then who is going to do it?”

As things return to normal, Williams hopes there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic. Because people were working from home, we got glimpses into the lives and struggles of coworkers that we never had before, she says.

“I think grace being extended is one of the biggest blessings that any manager can provide to their team,” Williams says. “We are living at work, so you have to extend grace.” 

All of the award recipients will be honored at a luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel on Nov. 5. The event will feature keynote speaker Gisele Barreto Fetterman, Second Lady of Pennsylvania. Ticket sales end at midnight on Wednesday, Oct. 27.

Reynolds says Fetterman embodies the spirit of the YWCA.

“I’ve heard her speak prior to being Second Lady and have heard her speak afterward, and she is who she is. To effect change doesn’t mean that you have to give up a part of who you are. You can be empowered as a woman to bring your true self to the table.”