Niles West senior Cherie Animashaun aims to inspire young girls at second Girls Who Lead conference


Photo courtesy of Cherie Animashaun

The first Girls Who Lead conference. The event’s second iteration will occur Saturday at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center.

Jacob Wendler, Copy Editor

When Cherie Animashaun thinks back to Super Bowl LVII, she doesn’t recall the electrifying gameplay or even Rihanna’s sensational halftime performance.

Instead, the Niles West High School senior remembers the Apple Music short film that captured Rihanna’s “Road to Halftime.” With hit song “Run this Town” blasting in the background, the film follows a young girl as she strolls down Rihanna Drive in Barbados, where the R&B icon was born and raised.

At that moment, Animashaun knew what the theme would be for the second iteration of Girls Who Lead, a conference for young girls in Illinois and surrounding states: “Run This Town.” The conference aims to inspire leadership and confidence.

“It was just really beautiful to see that representation on screen, and I’ve definitely wanted that feeling to be embodied in Girls Who Lead,” Animashaun said. “It’s meant to show the girls that they can run the classroom, run the career field they want, that they can be in charge and that they can really lead the lives that they want to live.”

Animashaun, a published author and founder of the nonprofit Her Rising Initiative, came up with the idea for Girls Who Lead in 2020. At the time, she noticed a national climate of division that was detrimental to young girls. 

Last year, the event came to fruition in Evanston with almost 100 attendees. The second conference will take place this Saturday at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center.

Animashaun and others will host workshops focused on career fields such as STEM and the arts and offer seminars on confidence and mental health — two topics she feels are missing in other leadership spaces.

“We have Girls Who Code and different programs like that, but nothing that really addresses: How do we view ourselves? Do we love ourselves? How do we talk to ourselves?” she said. “So, I wanted to address all those things at the same time.”

Animashaun said she hopes this year’s event will reach more girls and touch on new topics, including cosmetology and skin care. The conference will also include more opportunities for the girls — some of whom may be driving multiple hours to attend — to bond and connect, she added.

After meeting Animashaun through the nonprofit Girls Play Sports, Kimberly Holmes-Ross, the community engagement director for Evanston Cradle to Career, encouraged the Niles West High School senior to apply for one of EC2C’s Community Building Grants. These stipends of up to $1,500 support free and accessible projects that strengthen local communities.

Animashaun applied for and received a grant and used it to fund the Her Rising Initiative. EC2C also sponsored the Girls Who Lead conference last year, Holmes-Ross said.

“(Animashaun) can command a room and lead the group in such a thoughtful and respectful way,” Holmes-Ross said. “It may be because she’s not far in age from them, but she just has such a special connection with these middle-schoolers.”

While Animashaun said she hopes to eventually bring Girls Who Lead to communities across the country, much of her activism so far has taken place locally. 

As president of Niles West’s Black Student Union, Animashaun worked with the faculty on the Curriculum Standards for School Improvement committee to develop District 219’s first African History course.

Animashaun’s work was recently recognized by both the Princeton Prize in Race Relations and the prestigious Coca-Cola Scholarship. Ore Lawson, one of the volunteers at Girls Who Lead, said Animashaun’s leadership skills and passion are an inspiration to her.

“She’s just not doing it for the recognition … She’s doing it because it’s something she’s passionate about,” Lawson said. “She’s very passionate about wanting girls to be able to know that: ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want and whatever you put your mind to, as long as you’re ready to work for it.’”

After graduating from Niles West High School this year, Animashaun will attend Cornell University’s Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy in the fall. She said she hopes to apply her passion for teaching others in academia or government in the future.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to be in a position where, if someone has a problem, I have enough power … (or) resources to help them,” Animashaun said. “So I see myself using education, being a professor and also (in) government, to rewrite policies or use the funds to help those kinds of people.”

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Twitter: @jacob_wendler

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