Boxing champ empowers girls at annual conference

SOUTH ORANGE — Rashidah Babb, 15, stands 5 foot, 3 inches. At 12 years old, she said she was insecure about her height. Until she came to attended her first womanhood conference.

It was at this conference three years ago she was taught to embrace her insecurity to make her a better person.

“I’ll still be my 5’3″ short self and accept my height and just make the best of it,” the Hillside native said.

On Friday, Babb and 220 girls, ages 11 to 17, attended the 2017 Fabulous Me: Celebration of Womanhood Conference at Seton Hall.

The seventh annual Fabulous Me conference is hosted by the Family Service Bureau of Newark, an affiliate of the New Community Corporation. The event is funded by a grant from the Governor’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee, and co-sponsored by Seton Hall’s Department of Marriage and Family Therapy.

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“The whole idea was to get a platform for the young girls to be able to express themselves, to learn leadership skills, to be able to groom the leadership skills they already have,” said Arti Kakkar, Chief of Health and Human Services at New Community.

Manuela Garcia, executive director of the Family Service Bureau of Newark, said her and Kakkar are really the assistants, and the Junior Female Ambassadors are really the ones putting it all together.

“They boss us around,” Garcia said. “They planned everything, they picked everything.”

School social workers and community leaders chose the diverse group of young women to attend the conference, some identified as being at-risk while others excel in school, Garcia said.

The girls in attendance chose the theme this year to be #FightLikeAGirl, something keynote speaker Mia St. John knows all too well.

St. John, a five-time world and international boxing champion, delivered the keynote speech focusing on mental health, empowerment and the loss of her son she faced in the midst of her successful career.

“I had the greatest life, and then I also had the most tragic, because there’s nothing worse than losing a child. You can’t recover from that, you just learn to live with the hand you’ve been dealt and that’s what I want kids to know, that no matter what hand you’ve been dealt in life, you find a way to live with it and to make the best of it that you can,” she said.

St. John’s son Julian, who was battling schizophrenia and addiction, committed suicide. The former boxer personally experienced similar issues, being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and as a recovering alcoholic.

St. John, a first generation Mexican-American – who refers to herself as Chicana – now runs her own organization, the “El Saber Es Poder” Foundation, which empowers those battling mental illness, homelessness and addiction.

“That gives me purpose in life. I have to be of service of help to others,” she said.

She also discussed her life thriving as a woman in the male world of boxing.

St. John turned pro in the late 90s, and said it is just as hard now as it was back then. But she said she had an advantage because she was on big networks and had more to bargain with. 

“But I tell women, don’t settle for anything,” she said. “Demand what you feel you’re worth.”

Her 25-year-old daughter Paris shared the same sentiment in her speech, reminding the young girls they are worth more than what their peers, significant others and even family tell them.

She shared stories of how music helped her through tough times, specifically artists like Sade and Banks, because these female artists write their own music.

“You can feel their weaknesses through their art,” she said. “That always inspires me, because you can still be yourself and you don’t have to have a superpower, you just have to be yourself in front of people. That’s what gives you power.”

Paris said her weakness is her insecurity, but being honest about it turned it into a super power, a tidbit of advice she gave to the young woman who were listening.

“You can transform your weaknesses. Being honest is the first step, because the goal is to not feel so weak anymore,” she said.

The girls, who all hailed from North Jersey schools, attended breakout sessions, ranging from what to do in a violent relationship, to how to heal the body, mind and spirit through breathing exercises.

Rutgers University’s Scream Theatre also performed a skit to show students the signs of dating violence.

Rachel Clapis, 21, played the role of an abusive girlfriend to her same-sex partner during the skit, a type of a abuse that is often looked over, she said.

“It’s incredibly important to do this when coming up on an age where these situations are more present,” Clapis, a Woman and Gender Studies major at Rutgers, said. “It’s important to teach young girls how to be a good friend and stand up for themselves.”

Sophie Nieto-Munoz may be reached at snieto-munoz@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @snietomunoz. Find NJ.com on Facebook.