Vacant buildings and influential women highlight the importance of not being overlooked

Decaying buildings and successful women don't seem like a combination that go hand-in-hand, but the significance of their merger is stunningly obvious when looking at a photographer's recent photo series.

#Overlooked is a portrait series by Shane Wynn that she says is a culmination of two ideas -- first to reveal the hidden potential of vacant spaces in downtown Akron, Ohio and second to celebrate some of the city's empowered women. She was inspired to take on the project after seeing the inside of one of the city's long-abandoned buildings, and used funding from the Knight Foundation's Knight Arts Challenge to make her vision a reality.

12 PHOTOS
#Overlooked portrait series
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#Overlooked portrait series

wathintabafazi wathintimbokodo   
(you strike women, you strike a rock)
Baluki Kgosidialwa at 711 Johnston Street 

Tell me about you!
Before coming to Akron, I worked for one of the Big Four banks in Botswana. I rose quickly through the ranks, and before I knew it I was running my own portfolio, managing the multi-million dollar accounts of about twenty-six clients. I got to a point where I feared that if I continued, I would hit that glass ceiling very quickly. So I took a chance on myself - I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to do my MBA, to make myself more marketable. I decided to do this 8,773 miles away from home, in a country where I knew no one - at the University of Akron.

What obstacles have you faced as a woman?
In my professional life, I found that negotiating a salary or a bonus as a woman was often met with so much resistance that I just wanted to give up the fight. Men still get paid incredibly more than women for the same amount of work. The labor law movement, primarily in developing countries, focuses on unions and low-income earners. No one is championing the rights of women in large corporations. I guess the idea is women in the corporate world are doing fine (sitting behind a desk in a nice office) and they can speak for themselves, so the focus shifts to those with fewer resources. What’s unique about my situation is that my parents, conservative as they we, were incredibly liberal when it came to gender roles. They never imposed different standards on me and my two brothers.

Tell me about your experience as a woman in Akron.
My experience in Akron is slightly different from that of other people in that, as an international student, I am constantly evaluating things from a relative point of view. I ask myself what is the difference between what I see here and what I know from back home. The difference is vast and speaks strongly to the power of women. I have seen women being appointed judges; running small but thriving community-based businesses and taking chances on themselves and deciding to stay home to raise their kids or have their husbands be the stay at home parent so that they (women) can be the breadwinners. As one of the leading institutions on Polymer science, Akron has the largest population of female scientists I have ever seen in my whole entire life. The world that I am from sees women as less likely to succeed if they pursue a career in science. In Akron, I have met women who are able to support their families through art-based careers such as photography. In my country, an arts- based profession (unless it’s working for an advertising agency) is viewed more as a side job similar to driving for Uber or Lyft. I think that because women are involved in so many spheres of life that support the local economy of Akron, they naturally find their way into civic discussions. They contribute immensely to the local economy and continue to have so much to offer. There is a saying in the Zulu language that goes “wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo.” It became popular during South Africa’s liberation struggle in the 1950s, and it means “you strike women, you strike a rock.” Even though both black men and women were persecuted during the Apartheid era in South Africa, the oppressors were aware and worried that women were always the most resistant to the oppression and represented a great threat. 

What obstacles do you face now in realizing your dreams?
Many of the obstacles I face are attitudinal. I will work to change these attitudes. I am confident of my capabilities. As a Fulbrighter, I am now part of an elite group. I did not make it through three assessments by mistake or luck. Getting through the US Embassy, the Department of Homeland Security and the University of Akron is no easy feat. Out of all the Nobel Prize winners, fifty three are Fulbright alumni and that is enough motivation on its own. There is work to be done in moving Africa forward and I can’t waste time worrying about whether I am good enough or not.  People will overlook you even when they don’t know a single thing about you. What you must avoid is overlooking yourself because that right there is the collapse of the most important relationship.

What was the property originally?
 A. Schrader & Sons built the building in 1921. August Schrader invented the pneumatic valve in Manhatten NY and built it in Akron to be close to the tire industry.

What did it become/ what is it now?
 Apex Electric Headquarters operated for many years at this location. It is currently Akron Building Closeouts and a few local craftsman and artists call 711 Johnston home.

What is the vision for the building? 
We are currently in the process of having the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The next step will be to apply for Historic Federal and State Tax Credits.
We are considering developing apartments and art studios/workshops.

How does the vision tie in with downtown and the rest of Akron as a whole?
The property is very visible and easily accessible at Akron Central Interchange and near the border of the University of Akron Campus.

What are the obstacles to realizing this vision?
 Capital
 

Heeded         
Suzie Graham in downtown storefront on Main St. in strip near Civic Theatre

What is your occupation?
President, Downtown Akron Partnership                 

Do you feel that woman are given opportunities in positions of influence in Akron?
Women earn their opportunities. Oftentimes they make them for themselves or for each other.  There is always room for more of that.

Can you recall a defining moment in your life when you were overlooked?
I like to think of being overlooked as an opportunity. There are any number of paths to explore when being overlooked. Sometimes it is a call to action, a push to respond to rejection or alienation by stretching and surprising yourself. To think and react differently. To say I have been overlooked gives away my power and influence. It lets someone else decide my value and deny my permission to contribute. When I am overlooked, I focus instead on what I am seeing, on what or whom I may have overlooked that is deserving of attention. When I feel most powerless, I try harder to empower others, to extend my support in ensuring that they are seen and valued. This I can do without permission or validation from anyone else. I'm no longer concerned with where or by whom I am invited to contribute; I am capable of being useful in my own right.

How do you envision the reuse of the empty spaces downtown? 
Emptiness is part of a cycle. It presents an opportunity for a new vision. Attention, pride, hope and resources bring about possibility and change. Spaces are defined by the way we choose to fill them, or maintain their emptiness. I hope to see these spaces alive and full again -fortified with new visions, pride, and possibility. There is great energy in downtown and in Akron, and the transformation of these spaces will reflect the transformation of our community.

What obstacles do you face now in realizing your dreams?
I don't know what my dreams are. I don't dream much. I like to work where I am needed, learn new things, and nurture people and processes. Reality keeps me very busy.

In what ways has Akron improved in equal opportunities for woman? In what ways do we need to improve?
One of my favorite worst memories was when, as a new mother, my supervisor/mentor told me to bring my infant daughter to a meeting when I was at a loss for child care. I was mortified, exhausted, and out of options. It was a terrifying 90 minutes, and yes, I do believe there was a diaper change required mid-meeting. While I'm laughing now, I was crying then. Not all women are working moms; those that are play a mean trade off game. Excellent employee mothers are the best time management/organization/human relations people on the planet. Compassion is critical to the success of women who are working mothers. We continue to improve as we allow for and lift up new ways of being excellent as acceptable, admirable, and desirable. Acknowledging the importance and intentionally diversifying committees, workplaces, and classrooms allows us to create more opportunities for all people, and enjoy in the many benefits of doing so.
 

Glass Ceiling     
Barbara A. Feld at 711 Johnston Street

Tell me about you!
I’m 73 years old and grateful that my family left St. Louis in 1978 and moved to Akron, Ohio.  With my husband Denis and our two children: 8-year-old Rebecca and 3-year-old Lucas, we left everything – family, friends and a marvelous neighborhood – for this unknown place called Akron. For the past 40 years, I have been most closely aligned with the arts and culture scene in Akron, retiring as Executive Director of Tuesday Musical Association after a 24-year career there.

What has been your biggest accomplishment?
Professionally, I am extremely proud of the work I did there, taking this august organization to a new level of artistic achievement, educational outreach, and visibility on the local, national and international scene. But anything I accomplished was done in tandem with my family and others from Tuesday Musical and the community who had a passion for great music, a respect for the long-honored tradition of civility, and a constant vision of the future and the students who would take us there. That job empowered me, opened doors to other exhilarating experiences, and led to my serving on other arts boards and being board chairs of several. My network was growing exponentially with every year. 

What have you done in your life that has made you feel most empowered?
I have felt empowered as a person, regardless of gender. I have been accepted for who I am, the talents I have, and the work I do. Women still have glass ceilings and I REALLY, REALLY wanted my vote for the first woman president to be the one that won the election. As we know, it didn’t, but maybe my granddaughter’s will. That’s being empowered.  

Do you feel included/invited in civic discussions? Do you feel that women are given opportunities in positions of influence in Akron? 
The doors have always been open when I wanted to meet with community, business, or government leaders. I have been included in civic discussions and these are often led by women. While I will always mourn the untimely death of Summit County Executive Russ Pry, I salute and applaud Ilene Shapiro’s victory. 

How do you envision the reuse of the empty spaces downtown?
I’m very excited about the reuse of empty downtown Akron spaces. For our downtown to come to life, there must be a vitality with residents living there, retail space, artist studios, a grocer, and walking/biking access to the incredible trails and pathways that define the quality of life we have. I want a robust artist-in-residence program in downtown Akron and believe that will happen. 

What obstacles do you face now in realizing your dreams?
I don’t sense any obstacles to the role I can play in this community. Everyone knows that if I am asked to do something, I will. My strongest desire is for inclusivity of ALL WOMEN in decision-making roles, whether they are union activists or the future female presidents of our major industries/businesses. And it will happen. There has been a great cast of women role models to follow:  Suzie Graham, Christine Amer Mayer, Marie Covington, Mary Ann Jackson, Ann Brennan, Jackie Silas-Butler, Emilia Sykes, Toby Ann Weber, Linda Conrad, Teresa La Grair, the late Ann Gates plus so many, many more. However, more are needed. The wealth of women ready to step into leadership roles is staggering. All of us must do due diligence to see that their work is recognized and their dreams become reality. 

What was the property originally?
 A. Schrader & Sons built the building in 1921. August Schrader invented the pneumatic valve in Manhattan, NY and built it in Akron to be close to the tire industry.

What did it become/what is it now?
 Apex Electric Headquarters operated for many years at this location. It is currently Akron Building Closeouts and a few local craftsmen and artists call 711 Johnston home.

What is the vision for the building? 
We are currently in the process of having the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The next step will be to apply for Historic Federal and State Tax Credits. We are considering developing apartments and art studios/workshops.

How does the vision tie in with downtown and the rest of Akron as a whole?
The property is very visible and easily accessible at Akron Central Interchange and near the border of the University of Akron Campus.

What are the obstacles to realizing this vision?
 Capital

    

Nuts    
Elizabeth Sandwick at the WhiteLaw Building, former location of the Peanut Shoppe

Tell me about you!
I moved to Akron from Connecticut with my three young children when my late husband was offered a job here. I cried for three months when we moved, but grew to love Akron. I was part of the original board to save the Civic Theatre (Formerly Loew’s Theatre). I believe in preserving a sense of history in Akron.

What have you done in your life that has made you feel most empowered?
Education has made me feel empowered. I had eight years of private education, and it changed my life when I later went to night school in Akron and used that education to become a volunteer. I was a docent at the Akron Art Museum for forty years, a founder of Progress for Preservation, member of the Junior League, and on the original board for the Ohio Ballet.

Can you recall a defining moment when you were overlooked?
I don’t choose to dwell on that. I myself am a feminist. I have a female lawyer, accountant, doctor, and stock broker. I choose to patronize female professionals. It is philosophical, not financial.

What obstacles do you face now in realizing your dreams?
Height. I want to be a six foot tall model.

(This portrait was self-titled “Nuts” by Elizabeth Sandwick)

LEO        
Stephanie Leonardi (LEO) at the Pump House

Tell me about you!
 I taught art in Akron Public Schools for eight years, and I still coach. I resigned from teaching art in 2014 and moved from the North side to the South side of Akron. I have lived into a role here in the Summit Lake neighborhood that defies any job description (Stephanie is part of an effort to transform the Pump house into an active and vibrant space for creativity and culture in the hopes that it will foster connections between neighbors)

What have you done in your life that has made you feel most empowered?
The most empowering thing to me is helping others be empowered by loving them and encouraging them to be the best version of themselves that they can be.   

Do you feel included/invited in civic discussions? 
When I resigned from teaching and spent the next two years without a “real job” or career, I struggled pretty regularly with that. That changed when I chose the work I wanted to do and committed to it. It was not about recognition, or job title, or money. I was intentional and made choices daily that reflected my beliefs. Currently I do feel invited, I do feel in a position of influence, and I hope to extend that to the youth that I am surrounded by. 

Can you recall a defining moment in your life when you were overlooked? 
YES! Multiple moments! Being overlooked is the hardest, most humbling thing, and yet the best and most freeing at the same time! The DEFINING moment that comes from it is deciding who you are going to continue to be and why.   

How do you envision the reuse of the empty spaces downtown?
Empowering the overlooked to be a part of it! The best way to reimagine these spaces is to be a part of recreating them. 

What was the property originally? 
Firestone owned the building to help with cooling of other industrial buildings

What did it become/what is it now? 
It was managed by the city and a former Firestone employee and his wife lived there until they passed. Let’s Grow Akron has used the outside space to have community gardens, to raise chickens, for programming, and a high tunnel. 

What is the vision for the building? 
The Pump House Center for Art + Culture will activate the vacant Pump House building at 411 Ira Ave next to Summit Lake, transforming it into an active neighborhood art, event, and performance space. The space will provide local youth creative educational and employment opportunities and serve as an intergenerational gathering place for neighborhood residents, hosting community meals, classes, art shows, musical performances, film screenings, and more. The project is spearheaded by the League of Creative Interventionists, led by artist Hunter Franks, with Knight Foundation support. Partners include the City of Akron, Let’s Grow Akron, and the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.

What are the obstacles to realizing this vision?
Bringing the building to code to be able to get into the space and start using it. 

Any interesting facts or information about the property you’d like to share?
The building provided water for the city of Akron at one point as a back up. The yellowish lighter brick is a signature tone of brick that Firestone used to distinguish its buildings.

Refugee        
Chandra Rai at 771 N. Main St. Akron (North Hill)

Tell me about you! 
I was born in Bhutan and became a refugee in Nepal for more than 20 years. I am finally here in the United States. I have been here for almost four years. I'm working full time at Quikey Manufacturing in Akron and going to Stark State College as a part-time student. My best accomplishment has been to be born as a woman. I am divorced, which is so hard to do for anyone in my society, that has made me feel most empowered. 

What obstacles have you faced as a woman?
Women themselves take down other women, if anyone is trying to do something great first, other women become obstacles.

Can you recall a defining moment in your life when you were overlooked?
After suffering through violence from my ex-family, I decided to give up that family. I started doing my best to change everything in a great way which still makes me feel proud and happy with my present life. 

How do you envision the reuse of the empty spaces downtown?
I have my own vision about reuse of the empty spaces, but I don't know about others. Everything is money first and then majority of people. Those who have money should have to invest money and those who have skills they need to show their talents. Having a beauty parlor, tailoring centers, different training centers with different skills. Restaurant with foods from different cultures and yoga and meditation classes for everyone including old and non-working people.

What obstacles do you face now in realizing your dreams?
Time and money are obstacles for me because I'm spending my time to earn money to fulfill basic needs and less time on my dream goals. 

In what ways has Akron improved in equal opportunities for women? In what ways do we need to improve?
Akron needs to be first place for equal opportunities. Women should be at the forefront of this movement, don't wait anyone to do it for you. All women should know about their rights and responsibilities for their own life and family. 

What was the property originally?
Office space and a grocery store, built around 1910. The property was renovated into apartments in the 1940s.

What did it become/ what is it now?
Property set for demolition. The building was under renovation when a fire next door caused too much damage to save the building.

Not Yo’ Daddy    
Cristina González Alcalá at The Landmark Building

Tell me about you! 
I am a research associate at Summit Education Initiative and I am the co-owner of Mango and The Prickly Cactus LLC, makers of Not Yo’ Daddy’s Mexican Hot Sauce.
I was born and raised in Durango, Mexico. When I was 17, I came to the United States on a golf scholarship from the University of Louisville. A year after graduating from the University of Louisville, I took a position at the University of Akron as the Women's Golf graduate assistant for the inaugural Women's Golf Team. A year later, I changed course and started working as a graduate research assistant at the University's Institute for Health and Social Policy. During that time I earned a Masters in Public Administration, a Master of Arts in Communication and doctoral work. 

What do you consider your best accomplishments? 
My best accomplishment was securing a golf scholarship to study and play golf for the University of Louisville, because it defined and opened the doors to my future. 

What have you done in your life that has made you feel most empowered?
Starting a small business has been by far one of the most empowering experiences in my life. The challenges that come with owning a business shape you and sharpen you. Just like on the golf course, in the small business journey it is you against the best version of you. Accomplishments and the occasional failures are a product of your own work and execution.

Can you recall a defining moment in your life when you were overlooked?
At 26, after completing my doctoral course work and exams, I started applying for full-time employment in Akron. I received calls to interview for several positions, most in Akron, some in Cleveland and outside Ohio. Generally, the interviews were always positive, and feedback from interviewers was also positive. However, when the discussion regarding my immigration status would take place, the interviewers were very unaware of the process for sponsoring work visas. One organization with many foreign-nationals even shared that they had already met their work visa quota. Though I was well qualified for the positions, it seemed my immigration status overshadowed that.

In what ways has Akron improved in equal opportunities for women? In what ways do we need to improve?
The Akron I encountered after “boomeranging” presented an accessible platform and nurturing environment for women to thrive. Leadership programs provide opportunities for women to develop their innate talents and abilities. Women-only organizations accelerate professional growth, strengthen networks and exalt women. These experiences make way for more equitable opportunities for women in Akron. However, these opportunities come only to those women whose lives have already tipped the balance in their favor. Improvements are still needed. Educationally, women of color are less likely to start their journey on track for success. Culturally, men and women must shed their bias that “smart,” “accomplished” and “successful” are terms more likely associated with men than women.

What was the property originally?
Opened in 1923 as the Akron Savings & Loan

What did it become/ what is it now?
The Landmark Building and the properties beside it will be built out with retail spaces at street level, and lofts and apartments above. 

Immigrant    
Maria Mancinelli at One Canal Square Plaza

Tell me about you!
I'm currently doing a Masters in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex in the U.K. I'll graduate in August and move immediately to Italy. 

What have you done in your life that has made you feel most empowered?
I've moved around quite a lot, but my most empowering moments were when I moved back to Akron in 2013. I was empowered by the people I met, the communities that, not originally from Akron, took me in and showed me what it means to start over, to create a new space. Additionally, I still feel good about learning the Italian language at 18 - after months of sitting through lunches and dinners with my host family in Italy and not understanding a full sentence. I think it was the most isolating time of my life, but also a time of tremendous personal growth. 

Do you feel included/invited in civic discussions? Do you feel that woman are given opportunities in positions of influence in Akron? 
When living and working in Akron I felt very included in civic discussions and encouraged to take part in them and create them. I did not feel that my gender resulted in me gaining any greater or lesser attention or influence, and I give a lot of credit to the Akron community for that. I was surrounded by strong, beautiful women in Akron who were influential, whether they held a “position of influence” or not.

How do you envision the reuse of the empty spaces downtown?
I am most familiar with the North Hill neighborhood of Akron and when friends would visit from out of town, that was the first place I would take them. I'd love to see aspects of North Hill extend into downtown - restaurants, groceries, shops, cultural centers. 

What obstacles do you face now in realizing your dreams?
My dreams are simpler than even a few years ago. I want to continue to work with immigrants and refugees, and I used to think that having a good career in that field meant eventually working in a multinational organization. I now feel that a more appropriate role may be at a local, more personal level.
Outside of work, I want a family and I want to be able to live close to my parents and sister in Ohio. Living in Italy will be an obstacle in itself. 

What was the property originally? 
YMCA
 
What did it become/what is it now? 
Commercial office space and residential apartments

How does the vision tie in with downtown and the rest of Akron as a whole?
 Helping to fulfill the demand of residential housing in Akron.

Impossible    
Shanice Cheatham at Selle Generator Works

Tell me about you! 
I am a mother to a 7 year-old son, Founder & CEO of Endemic Solutions LLC, model, MPH student in Health Policy and Management, and flight attendant. 

What has been your biggest accomplishment?
My best accomplishment has been finishing college and continuing my education without sacrificing my priority as a mother.  My son has been a huge motivating factor for me, and I have been able to show him that no matter what happens in your life, you do not have to let those things stop you from accomplishing your goals.  

What have you done in your life that has made you feel most empowered?
Starting my business has been the most empowering experience. (Shanice is the Founder of Endemic Solutions, a startup focused on finding solutions to fight infectious diseases in underdeveloped countries.)
 I never wanted to be in business, but after my dad got sick from a MRSA infection due to improper hand hygiene, I was motivated to bring a change in the world of infectious disease. 

What obstacles have you faced as a woman?
As a woman, I have walked into rooms with powerful men who do not think I am capable of carrying out my vision because of the way that I look and being a minority. Little do they know that my personal life has prepared me for moments like that.  I grew up in a house with six boys and my dad, so I experienced all kinds of egos. When it happens, I just smile and continue to speak with confidence and my head held high.  Once I open my mouth, I am able to grab their attention by my direct and confident tone.

Can you recall a defining moment in your life when you were overlooked?
I think my whole life had these moments, especially growing up.  I thought that having so many gifts and talents was a good thing, but I learned that people would not interact with me because they had no idea how to define me, and I would not let them.  These experiences motivated me to be who I am and not be ashamed of gifts that I didn’t choose.

hat obstacles do you face now in realizing your dreams?
I constantly hear people tell me that what I am trying to do is impossible.  My favorite response back is "I choose to live a life of the impossible because the possible is too boring."

What was the property originally?
The Selle Wagon and Wheel Company and later the Selle Gear Company

What did it become/ what is it now?
The property was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 2005 and has been renovated and revitalized as an important Akron landmark with varying space configurations available.

Shane Wynn is a Fine Arts photographer specializing in portraiture and a local enthusiast contributing photography regularly to ten Akron/Cleveland publications. 

She is currently partnering with a fellow Akron enthusiast, Karen Starr to create a book called, 'If This Wallpaper Could Talk'. The book will highlight the history and people of Akron.
#overlooked is a portrait series of empowered women in the Akron community set against the backdrop of underutilized spaces in the city. Much as woman are often overlooked for positions of influence, the hidden potential of these many vacant spaces are unactualized. Revitalizing an old property is a too often dissuasive process, similarly, although we have a rich resource in talented women, their numbers are often not represented in positions of influence as again the system that would usher them into these positions can be dissuasive. I hope to draw attention to the potential of our female population in Akron and build momentum behind encouraging women to participate. I hope for women to be seen and heard and to empower each other, also to draw attention to some amazing underutilized spaces downtown by simply revealing them to the public.  - Shane Wynn
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The underutilized spaces photographed in the series include a former Firestone pump house, an old YMCA and the Selle Gear Company building. "Many people have no visual frame of reference for what these impressive spaces actually look like," Wynn said. Some business owners gladly opened their doors to her -- but she says others, "thought I sounded crazy for wanting to shoot a woman in an 'ugly space.'"

Leaders of the arts and non-profits, a former teacher, a researcher, a refugee, an immigrant, a working mother -- all of varying ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations help convey Wynn's message that successful women aren't represented enough in positions of power in Akron. "You can look any direction in our city and have plain sight of a talented woman," Wynn added.

While some of the spaces have already been renovated and revitalized, Wynn would also like to see them be transformed into spaces for the arts, restaurants that represent Akron's immigrant population and affordable spaces for small business owners and youth centers.

Wynn collaborated with another project called Curated Storefronts and the images are now on display in storefront windows in downtown Akron and she hopes to, "remind us all to re-imagine what we may have #overlooked."

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