Another Crack in the Ceiling

A young, rising female activist shares the impact and inspiration of Rashida Tlaib’s historic win as the first female Muslim to the U.S. Congress // Photographs by Jenny Risher
Rashida Tlaib
Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, pictured at The Alley Project in Detroit.

As a community organizer and political activist, I’ve been to my share of election parties — none of which have been set to the music of my native Arabic tongue, or have united people with such diverse backgrounds in one room. As a volunteer at Rashida Tlaib’s party during the 2018 midterm elections last November, I did just that, my anxiety to hear the results quelled by a desire to freeze that beautiful moment in time.

Born as the oldest of 14 children to Palestinian immigrants in Detroit, Tlaib’s personal and professional life is rooted in metro Detroit and Michigan at large. Tlaib, 42, graduated from Detroit Public Schools, studied political science at Wayne State University, earned a Juris Doctor from Cooley Law School at Western Michigan University, and dedicated the next four years to advocating on behalf of families and immigrants through the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn.

Her trailblazing track record began in 2008 when she was elected U.S. State Representative for Michigan’s 12th district and in doing so, became the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan Legislature. She served for three terms. From there, Tlaib was voted Democratic Chair of the House Committee on Appropriations where she championed causes such as free health clinics, lead abatement, Meals on Wheels programs for seniors, education funding, and homeowner protections. She supported families in her district who were at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure by providing residents with free tax preparation, an act which saved $1 million in tax refunds. By 2018, Tlaib was ready for the national stage and announced her bid for U.S. Congress.

Despite national media attention — along with newly elected Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Tlaib’s win would make her the first Muslim woman elected to Congress — she never forgot to remind people that she was fighting for the locals.

For some, Tlaib’s Congressional election has rewritten conventional wisdom about who is electable, and who can represent this community. She serves as a voice for all women who aspire to be elected to office one day. But her win also represents a milestone for Arab-American women. Before, young women like me were advised to tone down who we were. Maybe we could have a staffer position. Now, perhaps we can be congresswomen.

Back at the election party in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, We Dabkeh’ed (an Arab folk dance) well into the night. Just moments after she won, I remember Tlaib, through tears, announcing, “as I uplift the families of the 13th Congressional District I’ll uplift [my family back in Palestine] every single day … as a proud Palestinian-American, a woman, a Muslim.”

And the List Goes On

5 more history-making female professionals to know now

Photograph Courtesy of Rosemarie Aquilina

Rosemarie Aquilina

The name Rosemarie Aquilina, 60, will ring a bell for those familiar with the Larry Nassar scandal. But the German-born judge made history long before taking the bench in Ingham County.

In April 1986, Aquilina officially joined the Michigan Army National Guard and became the first female Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) Officer. Though her father and uncle both served in the military, her decision to enlist was unpopular among her then husband and parents. As a mother of two, it was expected that she’d choose a more traditional trajectory. “My first choice was the Navy,” she says but the Navy would have required her to be available to travel for two years. “So, I did my research and found that the Michigan Army National Guard is very family friendly.”

Aquilina retired honorably from the service in May 2006. Ultimately, the experience prepared her for her law career. As part of her National Guard training, she says she learned not only international military laws but also how to think like a prosecutor, defense counsel, and judge in accordance with the chain of command.

The service also prepared her for being the only woman in a male-dominated field and confronting the challenges that come with it in a professional setting. At the start, she admits to experiencing resistance from men in the service, but says she was treated equally once she was sworn in, eventually becoming the most requested JAG.

Resistance to her position would continue. Last August, Nassar’s attorneys appealed to have Aquilina removed from the case due to her alleged support of many of the victims. Ingham County Circuit Court Chief Judge Richard Garcia ruled against the claim.

Aquilina doesn’t want the Nassar case to be the one that defines her. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I love the opportunities of exploring new things and making a difference. I hope that whatever I choose is impactful to others.” — TWM

Photograph by CJ Benninger

Desiree Linden

In 2018, Desiree Linden, the long-distance runner who divides her time between Rochester and Charlevoix, made national headlines when she became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to win,” says Linden, remembering the brutal racing conditions during the Boston race. Temperatures dipped to the low 40s while freezing rain pelted the runners throughout the 26.2-mile race last April. “We were running into a nasty headwind, and I was pretty frustrated early on. I considered throwing in the towel a few times.”

But Linden, who was just 2 seconds shy of winning the 2011 Boston Marathon, stayed in to rally behind Sarah Sellers and Krista Duchene in hopes of finally seeing an American champion after Lisa Larsen Weidenbach’s victory in 1985. It was only as she progressed through the course that the two-time Olympian realized she had a promising chance to make history herself.

“I feel fortunate to be able to … show other American women that this can be a career.” — Desiree Linden

“I realized that we were all feeling pretty bad, but that I was actually feeling better than most,” Linden says. “So, I couldn’t count myself out.” After overtaking Ethiopian runner Mamitu Daska around mile 23, Linden sailed to the finish line. She completed the race in 2:39:54, nearly five minutes ahead of the next woman runner, Sarah Sellers.

Linden, 35, celebrated her first major marathon win with press tours, podcast interviews, and even an appearance at the Billboard Music Awards. And then, true to form, she competed in the New York Marathon last November, finishing in sixth place.

As she prepares to defend her title in the 2019 Boston Marathon, Linden notes that she’s proud to show that American women are capable of competing professionally. “We’ve had some really great heroes in the running world to look up to,” says Linden. “I feel fortunate to be able to do this and to show other American women that this can be a career and get the sport moving forward.” — KF

Photograph Courtesy of Simone Missick

Simone Missick

Growing up on Detroit’s east side, Simone Missick wanted to become an actress but didn’t know the exact path to becoming successful in Hollywood. Unlike many Tinsel Town actors, Missick, spent her spare time as a child in extracurricular activities such as playing basketball and only began learning about acting when she was in college. Ultimately, her Detroit upbringing would serve as a blueprint for her popular on-screen characters.

Missick, 36, became the first black actress to play a superhero on a major TV network for her role as Misty Knight in Netflix’s Luke Cage series as well as The Defenders and Iron Fist. “It was a tremendous honor — and then there was a bit of pressure,” Missick says. “Maybe that was something I put on myself, but in a good way, because you want to honor this woman who has been a fan favorite.”

“These characters that I’m developing are like the women I know.”
— Simone Missick

Though Netflix announced it would not renew Luke Cage for a third season, Missick is keeping busy. She could not disclose many details about her upcoming project but assures that her character will be “another strong woman on TV.”

Missick says a TV script about a woman from Detroit and a film script featuring four black women from Detroit are also in progress. With these projects, she says she draws on her own Detroit childhood and experiences with loved ones, as well as expanding the representation of common experiences of older black women. “Telling stories about women of a certain age is important because once you live a little bit, that’s where the richness of life comes from,” she says. “I feel like these characters that I’m developing are like the women I know — women in my family. My mom, my aunts, and cousins.” — TWM

Photograph Courtesy of Arianna Quan

Arianna Quan

When Arianna Quan entered the Miss Wayne County Pageant in 2015, she was only hoping to earn a scholarship for college. She’d never imagined she would go on to make history as the first Asian-American winner of the Miss Michigan Pageant, beating out the 32 other contestants vying for the Miss Michigan crown.

“I didn’t know much about the pageant world until a few years ago,” she says. “And I had to learn everything all at once: how to do my makeup, how to take care of my body, etc.”

While watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, exercising, and perfecting her piano-playing talent helped Quan prepare for the competition, the then 23-year-old still struggled with feeling confident in her own skin. Born in Beijing to Korean parents before moving to Michigan at age 6, Quan says she often felt embarrassed by her Asian heritage while growing up in Bloomfield Hills.

“It’s about being someone [little Asian-American girls] can look up to.”
— Arianna Quan

Advocating for her platform, “Being American: Immigration and Citizenship Education,” helped her come to terms with her identity. After she was crowned Miss Michigan in 2016, Quan spent the next year attending charity events for Asian-American nonprofits, volunteering with an immigration law firm, and gradually embracing the idea of being a role model for others. “I started to realize, after attending these events and seeing little Asian-American girls who were excited to meet me, that it’s not about what I think of myself,” Quan says. “It’s about being someone they can look up to.”
Now 25 and finishing her degree in automotive design at the College for Creative Studies, Quan hopes that her presence in the automotive field, largely dominated by men, will also pave the way for other women. — KF

Photograph Courtesy of Kym Worthy

Kym Worthy

Kym Worthy, 62, didn’t have any lawyers in her family, so she decided to become the first.

It wouldn’t be the only time she’d be the first to accomplish something significant. Most Detroiters know Worthy as the Wayne County prosecutor who handles the county’s felony cases. When she took office in 2004, Worthy became the first African-American female county prosecutor in Michigan. Some of her most memorable efforts range from the 2008 prosecution of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the 1993 conviction of two Detroit police officers in the fatal beating of motorist Malice Green, and her 2009 initiative to investigate the Detroit Police Department’s backlog of more than 11,000 untested rape kits.

Though there are now prosecutors of color throughout southeastern Michigan, some of whom are also women, Worthy says she didn’t see much diversity in in race or gender within the courthouse at the start of her career.

“I had been in the criminal justice system as a prosecutor for 12 years almost,” she says, referring to the moment she learned she had become the first black female county prosecutor. “When I started, there just weren’t that many women period doing trial work. It was mainly white men.”

“When I started, there weren’t many women doing trial work.”
— Kym Worthy

Worthy lists a series of initiatives for the Wayne County prosecutor’s office that she wants to start — including the rollout of the Conviction Integrity Unit, which determines whether sound evidence suggests that an innocent civilian has been wrongly convicted of a crime, or the establishment of the Business Protection Unit, formed to defend local business owners that have experienced crime and theft within their establishments.

“There are probably five or six big things that I want to do with this office before I leave,” she says — cautiously adding that she’s not going anywhere anytime soon. “You just have to work steadily to try to get it done.” — TW