Women’s History Month Panel on March 22

On March 22, 2019 at the State Department’s Diplomacy Center, AAFSW members and guests enjoyed an outstanding panel discussion featuring four accomplished, powerful DC-area women who spoke about leadership, empowerment, and achievement, as well as the forces that influenced them. Each speaker was introduced by Jan Du Plain of Du Plain Global Enterprises.

The first panelist, H.E. Ambassador Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, has been serving as AU Ambassador since December 2016, A native of Zimbabwe, Ambassador Dr. Chihombori-Quao is fully committed to reinforcing the longstanding and deep historic, cultural and economic relations between Africa and the U.S.

Prior to her appointment, Ambassador Chihombori-Quao was a family medicine doctor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she had been practicing medicine for the last 25 years. Dr. Chihombori-Quao is known internationally for her efforts to improve healthcare systems, particularly in countries in Africa, and to promote women’s rights around the globe. In 1996, South African President Nelson Mandela presented Dr. Chihombori with an Achievement Award. This was her first major distinction, which has been followed by many others.

During her presentation, Ambassador Chihombori-Quao asserted the importance of informing Americans and others about the enduring negative legacy of colonization on Africa. She encouraged her listeners to google the infamous 1884-85 Berlin Conference, during which European powers planned to carve out chunks of Africa for colonization and exploitation. This resulted in the arbitrary drawing of borders with no consideration for the ethnic groups within them—which causes strife to this day. Even when European countries granted independence to their colonies in the 1960s, some of them imposed harsh financial policies that continue to put African nations at a disadvantage. Until the negative effects of colonization and post-colonial policies are rectified, Ambassador Chihombori-Quao insists, African nations cannot realize their full potential.

The next panelist, Annie Simonian Totah, has been a leading defender of human rights, a vocal advocate of Armenia, Artsakh, and the Armenian American community, and fundraiser in local and national politics, as well as a staunch supporter of cultural, charitable, religious, and education programs in the Washington, DC area. With the encouragement of her late husband Sami Totah, Annie has also spearheaded countless Jewish initiatives, and has served as a bridge between the Armenian and Jewish communities.

Annie grew up in Lebanon and is a graduate of the American University of Beirut, with a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. Her life as a community leader and activist has been a “journey of dedication.” She is known for her ability to conceive and produce spectacular and unique events for dozens and dozens of charitable causes like CARE, The Washington Ballet, Heifetz Music Institute, and more.

Annie spoke of the inspiration she drew from her strong-willed, compassionate mother. Annie’s commitment to her Armenian heritage was evident, and she spoke of the trauma still felt today by her people after the tragic events in the early 20th century. She hopes that the U.S. Congress will one day officially recognize the Armenian genocide, a recognition that has been hampered for decades due to politics.

The third panelist, Jenny Bilfield, was appointed Washington Performing Arts’ fourth President and CEO in April 2013. In her first year, Jenny broadened Washington Performing Arts’ profile by launching the Mars Urban Arts Initiative to promote connections between professional and amateur DC artists, and initiating new commissioning projects with composers and performers

From 2006-2013, Jenny was Artistic and Executive Director of Stanford Lively Arts and Artistic Director of Stanford Live (its successor organization) at Stanford University. Prior to joining Stanford, Jenny held numerous leadership roles in the arts throughout her 21 years in New York City.

Jenny spoke eloquently on how, as a musically gifted child, support from her parents made all the difference. While at first her parents were not exactly sure what to do with her gifts, they always did their best to make sure she got the best available training. She began playing the piano at age three and later received training with renowned teachers such as Sylvan Levin (Associate Conductor to Leopold Stokowski). She began composing at age ten, and pursued studies with Edward Bilous, Jay Reise, and Samuel Adler. Jenny attended Manhattan School of Music Preparatory Division and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Music at age 20.

Jenny emphasized her commitment to the mission of Washington Performing Arts, especially its mission to launch and nurture performing artists, and maintain important arts education partnerships with the D.C. public schools and diplomatic community.

Our fourth panelist, Anne L. Howard-Tristani, has had a long and distinguished career in Government Relations, International Public Affairs and Higher Education, with professional experience and accomplishments in the public, private and non-profit sectors. During her career she has worked at a senior and executive administrative level for two major Hispanic Serving Institutions of higher education, the state university and a private university, in Puerto Rico; for the U.S. Secretary of Commerce; for a U.S. Congressional Committee, an international public relations firm, a non-profit foundation and founded her own government relations firm in Washington, D.C.. She is currently working on an oral history and book project she began a decade ago about the lives and legacies of her late Uncle, former U.S. Vice-President and Senator from Minnesota, Hubert H. Humphrey and his sister, her late mother, Frances Humphrey Howard.
Anne’s talk focused on the remarkable life of her mother, Frances Humphrey Howard. Frances had an unusually long and varied career for a woman of her time, which included working as an assistant to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1940s, and being tapped by Mrs. Roosevelt to serve as a UN director in the 1950s. She also served as a Foreign Service officer, and had a long career at the National Library of Medicine. According to Anne, her mother’s wide-ranging career and dedication to public and community service has always inspired her.

After the panelists’ presentations, a lively question and answer session followed.

Barbara Reioux
AAFSW Office Manager