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Women’s Center keynote speaker urges not to let others label you

Patrice Gaines is a journalist, a mother, a public speaker and co-founder of a nonprofit. But when the keynote speaker for Women’s History Month added this sentence, ears perked.

Patrice Gaines in front of her mugshot

“I am a convicted felon. There is no period at the end of that sentence.”

Gaines delivered her talk titled “In a World of Labels, Who Am I?” to engaged audiences on the Portsmouth and Norfolk campuses. The event was part of a series planned by Tidewater Community College’s Women’s Center for the month of March to celebrate the theme “Women Inspiring Imagination through Innovation.”

The oldest of seven children, Gaines was charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin and possession of a needle and syringe – “felonies,” she noted – at the age of 21. She had a 2-year-old daughter at the time who she could only stare at through the jail window.

By attending community college at night, Gaines realized she had a gift in writing and was selected into a summer program for minority journalists. Eventually, she landed at the Washington Post, where her honors included being part of a reporting team that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has since written two books: “Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color” and “Moments of Grace.” She is co-founder of the Brown Angel Center in Charlotte, N.C., which assists women who have been incarcerated.

Along the way, she has been labeled numerous times, starting with her race. “I went from colored to Negro to black to African-American,” she said.

2013 Women's History Month keynote Patrice Gaines

Patrice Gaines delivers her talk titled “In a World of Labels, Who Am I?”

Allowing society to label you is dangerous, she said, as those labels change at the discretion of others. “Don’t listen to the collective voices who say who you are. You come up with that definition. You know who you are.”

Gaines credits her faith for helping her decide who she is today, which she says is a label others can’t change. She also turned her burden into a gift, by founding Brown Angel.

“You’re here to learn academically, but you’re here to learn so much more,” she told TCC students. “Don’t miss those lessons that aren’t in the book. Only you decide how you will turn your burden into a gift.

“You have much more power than you realize. You get to decide ultimately who you are. Today is another day to write a new sentence about yourself. You place the period wherever you want