​​Leading Fearlessly: Books that shaped the women we have become

Published by Suzanna de Baca on

Suzanna de Baca

When I was a child, my English professor aunt and my book-loving mom gave my sister and me their own set of Nancy Drew mysteries. As we turned the dog-eared pages of these books, we were mesmerized by Nancy’s ability to solve crimes that stumped adults and marveled at her bravery, smarts and tenacity. At a time when there were few women detectives or professional women, Nancy and her friends showed us we could use our brains and break barriers.

Reading is important for all children, but for girls, female protagonists provide the opportunity for us to visualize and imagine ourselves in different roles or situations. When we see other women who look like us – in real life or in fiction – daring, trying, succeeding or persevering through obstacles, we also develop the confidence to explore and experiment. Reading helps us to confront our own insecurities and to be more fearless.

Since October is National Book Month, I turned to local leaders and asked them to share a book that influenced them or helped shape their confidence.

Ruby Herrera, 2023 Iowa Rotary Educator of the Year, Roosevelt High School, Des Moines. I remember my mother reading by my bedside and the sound of her imaginative stories would soothe me to sleep. As years went by, I read books that would overlook placing my cultural identity at the heart of the story. There was a gap between what I read and my own reality. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I read “Rain of Gold” by Mexican-American writer Victor Villasenor that I finally found a book that made me feel alive and proud to be in my brown Chicana skin. Villasenor beautifully crafted stories of my Mexican-American history and our rich culture on this side of the border. I stood a little taller after finishing his book. What’s more, Villasenor was a high school dropout and had dyslexia. At a conference, I had the opportunity to hug him and confess how tempted I was to drop out in high school, too. I had stayed away from books because I was a slow reader and I couldn’t find my voice in any books. But unlike Hollywood, which loved to portray us as the villains and gang members, Villasenor placed us as the heroes of our own destiny and brought us closer to God.

What are you reading now? “Cien Años de Soledad” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and “Strength for Today for Women,” which is a daily Bible devotion and reflection short reading that I do each morning.

Macey Shofroth, community journalist, CultureALL: The Junie B. Jones series was how I fell in love with reading. I can still recite the paragraph that began each book. I learned to read when I was very young, and my mom bought me any book that kept my interest. Junie’s first-grade adventures mesmerized me. Junie was confident, curious, witty and always looking for fun. She always wore her heart on her sleeve and was never scared to share her feelings. She was the first fictional character I wished I could be. This love of reading and narrative has stayed with me my entire life, and I have Junie and her author, Barbara Park, to thank.

What are you reading now? 
“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. A group of misfit college students studying in the classics department at a small liberal arts college immerses themselves in the search for meaning beyond their everyday lives, but soon find themselves entrenched in a web of darkness they never could have anticipated.

Abena Sankofa Imhotep, executive director, Sankofa Literary & Empowerment Group: “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde. This is the book that helped me grapple with the beauty, the complexities and the contradictions of Black womanness against the backdrop of overwhelmingly male-dominant workplaces and feminist spaces that are hesitant to welcome Black women. Audre Lorde’s literary works insist that I must show up and stand in my power! “Sister Outsider” offered me the intellectual thrust that laid the foundation for the work I do today. Lorde describing the regret of her own silence had a way of emboldening me to not refuse an opportunity to speak, teach and lead with vim and vigor in the face of injustice and work at making meaningful impact in my community.

What are you reading now? 
“Unstoppable: The Nine Lives of Roxanne Barton Conlin” by William B. Friedricks. “Unstoppable” is a collector’s item – a beautiful compendium of the life of one of Iowa’s most towering powerhouses and trailblazers.

Sue Woody, director, Des Moines Public Library: Brené Brown is my go-to author when I am seeking inspiration. Brown writes a lot about vulnerability and her book, “Dare to Lead” really resonated with me at a time when we were all most vulnerable – during the pandemic. Her wisdom gave me courage to face the unknowable and embrace uncertainty. These lessons are still applicable today as our world becomes more and more polarized. This is why we need leaders who strive to find balance and compromise to bring people together. Another important concept she shares is the idea of the “rumble.” I have used “rumbling” to come together and connect as a team. It’s an opportunity to lean into a challenge and make sure all voices are heard while having the confidence to contribute my own honest voice as well.  

What are you reading now? 
I am currently reading “The Covenant of Water” by Abraham Verghese.

Categories: Leadership