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MSSD Alumnus Michelle Banks Recognized as Top Achiever among Deaf Women

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Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) residential educator Michelle Banks is also an award winning actress, writer, director and producer. On June 4, Banks and 19 other deaf women who are leaders in their fields were honored as one of "The Pearls," at an event held in Studio City, Calif. sponsored by The M Projects.

The idea for recognizing the achievements of deaf women originated with Sheena McFeely, a deaf woman and entrepreneur and owner of The M Projects for event planning. McFeely dreamed of finding a way to highlight the achievements of deaf women. She found inspiration in watching Oprah's television special, "The Legends," where Oprah honored outstanding African American women who serve as great role models in their professions. From this seed she developed "The Pearls," an event where deaf women could gather together and be recognized and from which would a video and personal interviews with the recipients would be broadcast on the Internet.

"A pearl is an object of beauty, admiration and rarity, which these women are," said McFeely. "This event will show not only to the world, but little Deaf girls everywhere it is possible to be a lawyer, actress, business owner, political leader, or animator. After all, each Deaf girl has a pearl within that is waiting to be revealed."

In an interview recorded that weekend, Banks told how she had developed an interest in performing at a young age. As a child she watched a movie called Sounder starring Cicely Tyson and asked her mother, Bernadette Banks, who worked for many years at Gallaudet University, " ‘What do you call this?' I asked my mom. ‘That's acting,' my mom responded back. It got me thinking, I like her and I want to be like her."

Banks grew up on the campus of Gallaudet starting as a student at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, then MSSD, where she began to hone her performing arts skills, and then at Gallaudet where she studied for a year before enrolling as the first deaf student at the State University of New York, where she received her bachelor's of arts degree in drama studies. After graduating, she founded Onyx Theatre Company in New York City, the first deaf theater company in the United States for people of color. Her work with Onyx for eleven years earned her the Cultural Enrichment Award from Gallaudet and the Distinguished Service Award from New York Deaf Theatre. Her television credits include a YAHOO! commercial, ABC's 10-8, Showtime's Series Soul Food, UPN's Girlfriends and Lifetime's Strong Medicine. She has also starred in the movie, Compensation, directed by Zeinabu Davis, which has been acclaimed at film festivals worldwide.

Banks said of the "The Pearls" awards gathering, "I really cherished the time I spent over the weekend with these goal-oriented women. We went for walks, swam, chatted, and ate together. We shared how we each balance the responsibilities of family and career. We talked about growing up deaf and how our families perceived us. For me, The Pearls award recognized the special beauty inside of each woman-a beauty to be treasured."

Today, Banks shares her lifetime of expertise with the students at MSSD where she takes an active role in the Performing Arts Program. She enjoys supporting and inspiring the upcoming generation of deaf and hard of hearing artists and entrepreneurs. This spring she will direct the MSSD spring musical production of Guys and Dolls.

The 2011 Pearls:

  • First Ofs/Founders: Gertrude Galloway, Claudia Gordon, Lizzie Sorkin, Ashley Fiolek
  • Advocates: Marlee Matlin, Cheryl Wu, Leah Katz-Hernandez, Jules Dameron
  • Artists: Mary Rappazzo, TL Forsberg, Amy Edwards, Michelle Banks
  • Business: Myrna Orleck-Aiello, Moon Feris, Mara Ladines, Rosa Lee
  • Hidden Pearls: Karen Putz, Melissa Rich, Erica Hossler, Laura Lopez
  • The Black Pearl: Marcella M. Meyer
Find out more about Michelle Banks and the other Pearl awardees at the "Pearls" website.