September 15, 2003

Telling their stories

Elizabeth Cloud

Nearly 100 women convened Sept. 9 at Miller-Ward Alumni House to hear the stories and life lessons of two women close to the heart of Emory: Bobbi Patterson and Bridgette Young.

Prefaced by a catered dinner and candlelit tables, Patterson and Young settled into a living room-like setting to share their stories for the fifth annual “Telling Our Stories” event hosted by the Emory Women’s Center.

The event, dedicated to celebrating the untold stories of women, offers an intimate environment in which two successful Emory women share their personal histories and the insight they have gained along the way. Every year, the featured speakers exchange their stories in a conversational setting.

Patterson and Young were a perfect pair to compare and contrast their experiences: They are both reverends active in religious life at Emory.

Patterson has been a senior lecturer in religion since 1996 and directs the Emory Scholars Program. She is no stranger to Emory, having earned her doctorate from the University after attending Harvard for her master’s of divinity.

Young, associate dean of the chapel and religious life, is a former executive who turned to ministry in 1991. She earned her M.Div. with honors from Gammon Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center.

While both women have a background in and are heavily involved with religion, each experienced a very different journey toward success and to that aspect of their lives.
As Patterson began, she said, “This room is full of stories we have all shared, and I see so many women here who have been leading this community for so long, and we have all taken journeys to get here.”

Patterson and Young described an interesting contrast to the beginnings of their pathways to success: Patterson is a white woman raised in the South who moved North, while Young is a black woman raised in the North who moved South. Growing up, they faced different but comparable struggles.

Patterson always had an affinity for religion and went to divinity school at Harvard during a time when being religious was “very uncool,” as she put it. In that aspect, she was different from many of her fellow students, and then to those with whom she shared her religious inclinations, she was further cast as an outsider because she married at a young age while still in school—something else she said was dubbed “uncool.” Later, men in the clergy questioned her decision to go into ministry.

“One man said he knew why I had chosen the ministry,” said Patterson, adding that the man in question said Patterson felt she couldn’t live up to a male relative who was a doctor. “‘So that’s why you chose the ministry’ he said. What he didn’t know is that I came from generations of professional women, and the ministry is what I wanted.”

Young, too, has faced challenges associated with being an outsider throughout her life. Growing up as an African American female, she said of her successes, “I have been first or only in almost everything I’ve done.”

“I was highly driven and motivated,” Young said. “I was an overachiever. Growing up I always heard, ‘You’ll have to work twice as hard to get as far,’ so that’s what I did. I thought I had to be the black woman.”

Young spent 10 years in corporate management, where she was quite often the “only woman” or the “first black woman” to achieve certain things. When she entered the ministry, that didn’t change; she faced many similar situations and often felt conflicted. She had worked extremely hard to achieve her goals but said she struggled with being the token person in various positions.

“People always said, ‘We need you to pave the way,’ but often what they were really saying was, ‘Well, here’s ours,’” Young said. “It never helped that for so much of my life I have wanted to please people.”

Her turning point came when she said “no” to a bishop’s offer and instead decided to go to Georgia Tech to work with college students, which she felt was her true calling. It was her first solid step in the direction she felt was suited to her—and, of course, it brought her eventually to Emory.

Both women talked at length and agreed that they found happiness in large part by learning to say “yes” to themselves—a lesson they imparted on the women who came to hear their stories.

Summing up the evening, Young asked Patterson how she felt now that she had “stepped into her power as a woman.”

Patterson replied, “I think what I am doing says part of it. Part of my power comes from my actions, part from my silence—the part of me that has learned to appreciate