The profile below is part of the Ms. Blog’s “Telling Her Story” series for Women’s History Month. Check back throughout March for more profiles of women doing great things in their communities.
Life for me is an unbelievable circus, where we are called to perform the daring feats that those before us were afraid to try.
—Shanta Lee Evans-Crowley
Shanta Lee first came to my attention at a spring fundraiser for the literary arts where, around us, writers drank French champagne and feasted on Godiva-dipped strawberries. With her twisted hair and infectious laugh, I loved Shanta immediately. And, on account of her modesty, it was months before I learned that this sparkly dynamo with the magnetic personality was one of Southern Vermont’s foremost advocates for children, the arts and sustainable business.
But it wasn’t until we began writing together in a Tuesday-night salon, where she was hard at work on her memoir, that I learned what an unsung contemporary hero Shanta really was. Born to a teenage mom and a young dad in his 20s, her mom often laughed at her daughter’s dreams. While growing up, Shanta was made to repeat a mantra. “Who do you think you are?” her mother would ask. “I am nobody,” Shanta would promise her mother. “I am nobody. I am nobody.”
Despite this and the drug dealers and gang violence of Hartford, Connecticut’s inner city, Shanta beat remarkable odds when she rose to the top of her class, even as she awoke pre-dawn to help her mother deliver newspapers at 3 or 4 in the morning. In the afternoons, when her mother was too frustrated to take care of her severely autistic younger brother and her father was at work, Shanta became his second mother, quitting gymnastics so she could make sure he got on the school bus.
Not popular and never the top pick for games during gym and recess at school, Shanta was mocked for her high grades and good attendance. Told by a classroom teacher that she “stuck out like a sore thumb” because of her gold-star behavior, Shanta vowed to “make my own cool,” hitting the honor roll every semester and getting inducted into the national honor society in high school. While some of her peers became teenage moms, Shanta applied for scholarships and loans and earned admission into Trinity College in Hartford, one of the best small colleges in the nation. “I think the reason I succeeded and what kept me going,” Shanta says, “is that I did not want to end up like my mother, living in the same apartment building and afraid of life.”
While at Trinity, she majored in women’s studies and maintained a high honors GPA, promising herself that no one would ever make her feel small again. During this time, she began to give back to others what she had needed so badly growing up, founding two after-school academic mentoring programs where college students were matched with middle schoolers at Hartford Magnet Middle School. The summer of her junior year, she stopped going home. “Everyone is given a map at birth,” Shanta says, “but you don’t have to follow it. And ever since leaving home, I ripped up the map I was given at birth and decided to become my own cartographer.”
After graduating from Trinity, she created a statewide internship program and worked her way up to public affairs manager at Planned Parenthood, an organization that, among other things, provides teenage girls with education and support who may have otherwise become moms too early. While working full-time for Planned Parenthood, Shanta went back to school, earning her graduate business degree at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
Now living in Vermont, a state where only 1 percent of residents are African American, Shanta has been unafraid to jump in and raise the cultural ante, even if those around her don’t necessarily look like her. She has already made a significant impact in the state: she developed a social justice course for Oak Meadow Independent Learning School that raises cultural awareness for children throughout the state; coordinates the Slow Living Summit, which focuses on sustainability, community and mindfulness within a fast-paced society; became the director of development at Windham Child Care Association; and was just recently nominated as president of the Arts Council of Windham County, an organization that fosters art and culture in Southern Vermont. Shanta is the cofounder of Wildy Creative, a website that encourages, inspires and connects creatives around the globe. She is also is a media and PR maven—and a Ms. blogger!—working with authors, businesses and others to gain exposure in the world.
“There is this famous Langston Hughes quote about dreams,” Shanta says. “‘Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.’ My life has been about dreaming and doing regardless of someone telling you what you can or can’t do, who you can or can’t be, what you can or can’t have. How did I do that? I became adept at becoming deaf to my naysayers.”