Listening to Brigid Doherty talk about her work is enough to inspire anyone to feel more hopeful. Doherty, whose enthusiasm and optimism seem boundless, is the executive director of the Western New York Women's Fund. Created in 1999 by the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the Fund seeks to eradicate the barriers that keep girls and women from reaching their fullest potential. Today the Fund is a member of the Women's Funding Network and one of more than 135 Women's Funds throughout the world. In a little more than a decade, it has become a leading local advocate for issues ranging from affordable childcare to girls' education to combating teen pregnancy and family poverty.
According to Doherty, 30 percent of local families live in poverty, and in roughly two out of three of these families, women serve as the heads of the household. "Currently 17, 000 single mothers and 33,000 children are living in poverty," she explains. Her dream? A productive community where all women and girls are given the opportunity not just to survive, but to thrive.
The Western New York Women's Fund identifies key issues and groups that can achieve real progress. The next step is networking with potential collaborators. "We are not doing any programming," she points out. "We build relationships and spread the word." Indeed, by publicizing certain issues and connecting groups with funders, the Fund acts more as an "issues ambassador." Doherty spends much of her time out in the community, meeting and talking with people who might be willing to listen and help.
One successful program that has benefited from the Fund's advocacy is Structures in Science at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Eighteen 5th and 6th grade girls from the Charles Drew Science Magnet School participated in a unique hands-on science program. Held during the summer, it was a collaboration involving the Buffalo Public Schools, University at Buffalo and Buffalo Museum of Science. Denise Luka, Principal for PS 59 Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School explained the program's main purpose: "Girls typically shy away from science, but this program gives them the opportunity to get excited about the opportunities in fields related to science and what the future holds." The students were inspired during a visit to UB's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research. "We saw how the strings made the building shake like there was an earthquake," said eleven-year-old Cemone Winfrey. "And I learned to unplug electrical things during a storm because the electricity can start a fire."
Doherty attributes the Fund's success to the dedication and expertise of the talented women who comprise its board of directors. "We're pushing the rock up the hill, and there's lots of hands involved," she explains. Despite their different ages and backgrounds, the board members are united by the Fund's mission. Indeed, it's this common purpose that strengthens their bond and further energizes Doherty. "If we don't have each other's back, no one else will," she says. And while the board currently boasts an all-female lineup, Doherty anticipates bringing on male members in the future. "The main requirement is that you care about the issues that affect women and girls."
As a teen growing up in Buffalo, Brigid Doherty attended Nardin Academy, an all-girls high school where she learned to speak out and follow her heart. Her mother, a retired schoolteacher with the Buffalo Public School System, instilled in her a passion for giving back to the community. After graduating from Nardin, Doherty attended Boston College, where she majored in finance. From there she went to work on Wall Street, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. After a few years in New York, she resumed full-time study to earn her master's in business administration from Harvard University. Following a stint in education administration, she joined the Women's Fund in 2007 as executive director. Doherty sees many parallels between the relationship-building she did on Wall Street and the connections she makes with potential supporters of the Fund's mission. She draws on her background in finance and strategic investments to identify and organize priorities so she and her team can be as effective as possible in their advocacy initiatives. With Kate Foster of the UB Regional Institute, Doherty and the Fund developed Pathways to Progress, a comprehensive research report that highlights statistics about issues affecting girls and women in Western New York. Unveiled earlier this year, the report is not an end, but rather the start of an ongoing conversation with the community.
For Doherty, the work of the Western New York Women Fund's will be complete when each woman and girl living in Western New York has the resources to overcome any obstacle and realize her greatest potential. "I would be thrilled if I don't have a job in five years," she smiles.
To learn more about the Western New York Women's Fund, go to www.wnywomensfund.org.
Gwen Ito manages Marketing and Public Relations for Buffalo Seminary. This past July she, along with students and colleagues, had the privilege of attending "What She's Made Of," the signature fundraising event for the Western New York Women's Fund.