Occasionally, this stuff gets personal, real personal.
That's because though I typically write about people I know, or have worked with, and about events of which I have some personal knowledge, it's rare that the story I tell is about family, or might-as-well-be-family, (the latter so-called because we have shared formative experiences in the way siblings do).
This one's one of those, those personal ones, that is.
Last week, I attended two noteworthy events. The first was the American Culinary Federation, (ACF), national student chef of the year competition, featuring one woman contestant (of four) and, by-the-by, no women judges.
The second event was a speech by Toni Preckwinkle, President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, given at a gathering of Chicago political progressive types.
That would be that lone woman contestant in the ACF competition, my eldest niece, Caitlin Sive.
That would be Toni Preckwinkle, President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, a Chicago political woman of my generation, with whom I share a life-shaping experience of young adulthood: working to elect Chicago's first progressive and first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.
At both events, I was an avid observer.
In Caitlin's case, I couldn't wait to see how she would do in the grueling, three-hours on your feet contest with judges hovering, sniffing and peering and audience staring.
In Toni's case, I was very curious to see whether she could successfully characterize for her fellow and sister progressives her draconian budget-cutting, (not something progressives generally like). (She did.)
In both cases, I was cheering on an unlikely winner.
Toni was the outsider candidate for her job. The one the political establishment didn't think could win, and, truth be told, didn't want to win (way too much of a straight shooter, and never one to make deals that didn't benefit her constituents). Not to mention that, if elected, she would be the first woman running the 29th largest government in the United States. Who knows what that would mean!
Oh, did I mention Toni started out as a high school teacher and served four terms in the Chicago City Council, learning the ropes and waiting for her opening?
Caitlin's story is as remarkable. As a child she struggled in school, and her teen years were really tough, both emotionally and scholastically. It was only after some hard times and menial jobs, earning a GED, a year in some unfulfilling community college classes, and working as a housekeeper, that she got the culinary bug and enrolled in the culinary arts program at her local community college. But, as she said in an interview with the Times Union newspaper:
I'm very competitive. When I found out I could compete with food, I was like, 'Where do I sign up?' ... The competitive rush, the focus you hear athletes talk about -- it's definitely there.
Competitive just like Toni. Just tell me where to sign up.
Back to the ACF student chef competition: One fifty-ish woman chef, who had come over to watch the contest, chatted with me for a while about her experiences back in the day when she was Caitlin's age:
"It's a good thing the old guys are dying off. We were always 'salad girls' to them. We never got to cook [to be chefs]."
Of course, that back in the day male-dominated world -- of chiefs, (cousins of chefs?) -- was the political world, too.
Toni is one of only two women political chiefs in Cook County history. We've had only one Chicago woman mayor, and now we've got Toni running the County.
The morning after I learned Caitlin hadn't won the competition, and after I thought I might not get teary (that was a bust), I called Caitlin to congratulate her once again. I wanted to tell her Toni's story: running twice for alderman before she got elected; working hard for twenty years until she got her big chance; and then going for it like there was no tomorrow. I wanted to tell her Toni's story that that there's nothing like competition for honing your skills; becoming an expert; making sure you get the job done; staying in the mix; and having your shot at the big time.
But, before I could get to all that, Caitlin said to me: "It (losing) won't stop me." So much for needing to hear from me!
I write frequently about the sex discrimination that continues to exist in every corner of America and in every profession. I rail against it, for it's wrong. But, at the same time, I constantly encourage every American girl I come into contact with to fight for what she wants, regardless of the odds, and regardless of whether any particular fight is won. For, it is in the fight that there is the victory.
For this victory, like Caitlin in her competition last week, and like Toni in hers a few months ago, each of us needs to learn her trade, cold; practice it with discipline and focus; work hard even when the work is tedious or boring, or unpleasant; say, slicing onions and carrots, or, as Toni said when asked about the negative aspects of running for office, calling likely donors who turn you down because they don't think you're a winner.
And, when you do this, you will win.
Girls, take it from me. Better yet, take it from Toni and Caitlin: There's nothing better than beating their system, not by having to win every battle, but by always being at the front lines. Hats off, please, to Toni and Caitlin for showing us this way this week.