As nation mourns the death of Maya Angelou, Greenwich visit recalled

John Ferris Robben The legendary Maya Angelou held a packed audience in the palm of her hand as she spoke and read her poetry at the annual Fairfield County Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls fund-raiser.

John Ferris Robben
The legendary Maya Angelou held a packed audience in the palm of her hand as she spoke and read her poetry at the annual Fairfield County Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls fund-raiser.

Editor’s Note: Maya Angelou, legendary poet, author and playwright, died at the age of 86 in North Carolina on Wednesday. Ms. Angelou had still been an active speaker and writer leading up to her death and she visited Greenwich in April. This is a repost of that article from the Post’s April 10 edition.

 

The iconic Maya Angelou delivered an inspirational and rousing speech to a rapt audience at the 15th annual luncheon for the Fairfield County Community Foundation (FCCF) Fund for Women and Girls last week.

Dr. Angelou, widely considered one of the most influential voices today, has no shortage of accomplishments and accolades. She’s a celebrated poet, novelist, filmmaker, historian, civil rights activist, educator, and historian, and the list doesn’t stop there. She’s served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and has received three Grammy Awards. She is someone who has made a difference in the lives of countless others, and during her keynote speech at the April 3 event, she encouraged a spellbound audience of more than 800 women at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to do the same.

Singing a few verses of 19th-century gospel song God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds, she entreated the audience to be “rainbows in the clouds” for others, by helping young people who need it and giving back to future generations of women.

“If the rainbow is put not just in the sky but in the clouds, that means that even in the worst of times, there’s a possibility of seeing light. I was delighted to be asked to come and speak to your organization, because I think of you as rainbows in the clouds,” said Dr. Angelou. “But who would be here today had you not had rainbows in the clouds?”

In her speech, she took the audience on a journey, sharing some of the “rainbows” that she’d been lucky to have in her life. She spoke of a turbulent childhood, one spent being shuttled between various family members, living in a segregated state, and suffering through an unspeakable act of sexual abuse which rendered her mute for six years.

Who were her rainbows? Her children and her grandmother, among many others along the way. Things weren’t easy for young Dr. Angelou, and in her early adulthood, she got by with a series of odd jobs, including fry cook, train conductor and nightclub dancer. She remembers being 16, pregnant and unmarried, standing outside the San Francisco office of the United Nations, wondering at the lives of those lucky enough to filter in and out.

Little did she know that one day she would be among that cohort. In 1995, she was invited by the U.N. to read a poem at its 50th anniversary commemoration. That day, she delivered a poem titled A Brave and Startling Truth, which tackled themes of human rights, peace and social justice. At the luncheon, she read the poem for the audience, and gave it to the FCCF to use on its website so that it could be shared with everyone.

She further delighted the crowd by reading a humorous, satirical poem called The Health-Food Diner, which tackles a more lighthearted subject, the challenges of being a vegetarian.

Throughout her career, Dr. Angelou has deftly addressed serious subjects such as racism, prejudice and human rights, while steadfastly holding on to a blithe wit and lively sense of humor. She’s used her voice to advance social causes and be a true spokesperson for women.

She thanked the FCCF’s Fund for Women and Girls for its work, for being “rainbows” in the lives of countless women. Since its inception in 1998, the Fund for Women and Girls has helped more than 5,000 women and girls through Fairfield County. It has awarded more than $4 million in grants to local nonprofit organizations, and guided women of all ages to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

One major way FCCF has made a difference in the lives of women in Fairfield County has been through a program for low-income mothers that helps them achieve economic security. The fund launched the Family Economic Security Program at Norwalk Community College (NCC), which aims to help women gain the education and skills they need to advance in their lives, build solid careers, and support their families. At the luncheon, two alumnae of the program shared their stories and candidly spoke of the impact the fund had had on their lives.

“I wanted to come here today to say thank you, I owe a tremendous amount. … You have helped me build a better life for me and my children,” said Stacy Reid. “On behalf of myself and other students in the program, thank you for your generosity and for believing in us.”

“Because of you, I’ve learned to believe in myself and go after my dreams. I was first able to voice my dream of becoming a writer to my mentor at NCC. … So because of you, I’m now fulfilling my dream and I’ve written four books for children,” said Teresa Robbins. “Thank you for helping me to complete my education, believe in my dreams and help others like me. You have truly changed my life.”

It was apt and fitting for a woman who has changed the lives of so many to address supporters of FCCF that day. Dr. Angelou has put a rainbow in the clouds, and it’s up to us to follow in her legacy.

 

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