Last year, the YWCA created the inaugural Equity Awards to celebrate women, particularly women of color, whose work reflects the nonprofit’s goal of addressing race and gender equity. CEO of YWCA Greater Pittsburgh, Angela M. Reynolds, told NEXTpittsburgh last year that the awards honor women who have worked diligently to address the systemic obstacles women of color deal with in the workforce.

The winners of the 2022 Equity Awards were chosen for their ability to rise above and advance the mission of eradicating racism and empowering women. The YWCA is honoring five winners in five different categories: 

Ally Award, which recognizes an individual or a group who has taken on the role of ally, promoter and advocate to women of color. Winner: Dr. Rebecca Doerge, dean of the Mellon College of Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

Heroine Award, which celebrates a dedicated essential worker during the Covid-19 crisis. Winner: Dr. Johanna Vidal-Phelan, chief medical officer for UPMC Insurance Services Division’s Quality Department, and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Bridge Builder Award, which goes to women 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: Leigh Solomon Pugliano, founder and principal consultant of Straightforward Consulting; president and CEO of the Equity Impact Center; founder and executive director of Barrels to Beethoven; and co-founder of Limelight Creative.

Emerging Leader Award, which is awarded to a woman, age 24 or younger, whose voice and actions interrupt the status quo to make a difference in their community. Winner: Luna Plaza, community organizer and social justice advocate.

Creativity and Innovation Award, which honors a woman involved in the arts or social media initiatives that bring public attention to women’s empowerment, especially women of color. Winner: Ayisha A. Morgan-Lee, founder, CEO and artistic director of Hill Dance Academy Theatre. 

“I was honored and felt that the award affirmed the work that I do each day in preparing Black and Brown students to aspire to reach their dance goals even though there are still challenges in the world of dance for Black and Brown dance artists,” says Morgan-Lee. “Hill Dance Academy Theatre addresses those challenges with strong arts programming and excellence in student preparation and study that is consistent and intentionally designed to develop artistry that exudes skills and confidence.”

In 2005, Morgan-Lee founded Hill Dance Academy Theatre when she was 21. She received the YWCA Young Business Professional Award in 2015. Morgan-Lee has spearheaded several projects that promote equity in the arts, such as managing the creation of home dance studios for young students from September 2020 to August 2022. 

“The Hill Dance Academy Theatre is showing Pittsburgh and beyond that dance is a career where Black and Brown children are achieving their career goals and advancing the artistry of Black dance,” says Morgan-Lee

Mogan-Lee says the Covid-19 pandemic challenged the dance academy but that it is rebounding.

“One of the most stressful challenges that I faced this year was the decision to reopen the Academy and resume in-studio classes for children who were not vaccinated during the continued unknowns about Covid,” says Morgan-Lee. “The decision was driven by the need for students to move away from Zoom training. Dance is difficult in person, and Zoom makes it almost impossible to connect with the faculty and hands-on technique instructions.”

While the pandemic caused various issues for the nonprofit, Morgan-Lee worked to ensure that the Hill Dance Academy Theatre continued to perform and grow by purchasing the former St. Benedict Moor School complex, a facility in the Hill District.  

All of the award recipients will be honored at a luncheon Downtown at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 4. Ticket sales end at midnight on Friday, Oct. 28, and prices range from $75 to $550.

“We celebrate the diversity, innovation and vision represented by our honorees,” says Reynolds. “The Equity Awards also present an opportunity to learn about the great work being done in our region and the people, often unknown by most, who are doing it.”