The Empowerment Project Journey Ends On A High In NYC

Oh hey, it’s Dana! It’s certainly a bittersweet moment here…our last blog post for our last city on this glorious trip…

HELLO, beautiful Big Apple! That’s right, we’ve officially made it to our last stop on this wild cross country ride, ending exactly where we want to be…in New York, the city that never sleeps (we’re fitting right in here then).

TEP in Times Square

After fastening our bags to the top of our new, shiny van (who we named “Vivs”, she needed a lil Jersey/NY flare) we realized it would be the very last time we’d be crawling around on top of the roof to secure our trusty duffels. A wave of nostalgia washed over us, as we flash-backed to all those 5:00am mornings where we painstakingly dreaded the hundred pound dead lift to get the bags to the roof, the one Seattle parking garage we almost scraped everything off, and trekking through the Rocky and Smoky mountains knowing our goods were hanging on for dear life. Through it all somehow we managed to get here, everyone in one piece and all of our possessions intact. Thinking about all the things that could have gone so very wrong on this trip, our arrival to the east coast was nothing short of a miracle.

TEP in New Jersey

As we left DC and headed north, we felt the overwhelming urge to really warm up for the NYC experience, which meant playing Sinatra’s,  “New York, New York”, Alicia Keys’, “Empire State of Mind” and of course, Billy Joel’s, “New York State of Mind” on loop for the 4 hour drive. We were excited to take in the energy of the city, and what would inevitably be the perfect way to end this journey in interviewing two more incredible women, Vy Higginson, an icon in Harlem’s Gospel community, and Nana Meriwether, Miss USA 2012.

We were welcomed with open arms and puppy kisses (thanks Cherry!) to the beautiful home of Jeanniey and Chris, who offered to put us up for the 3 nights we were there. They live in Montclair, Jersey, a picture-perfect little town about 30 minutes outside of NYC, and it was an ideal setting for us to rest up and prepare for the bustling city life for our 2 shoot days. Chris joked that our total-home-takeover was like living in a sorority house, and I can’t say that he was far from the truth…

We got settled and decided to part ways for the night – Ashley met up with a good friend of hers in Brooklyn, Vanessa and Alana went into the city to explore (first timers!) and Sarah and I met up with Ashley Cicconi, Sarah’s best friend and a gal that I’ve always loved-to-pieces and fell in love all over again when we were bridesmaids at Sarah’s wedding. She took the Megabus in from Boston and somehow found her way to meet up with us in Montclaire. We couldn’t have been more elated to see her! We celebrated our reunion in the only way we know how to roll: a trip to a delicious greasy-spoon diner, frozen yogurt, and all-out gagglefest, ending in the princess bed that Jeanniey and Chris’ daughters, Giovanna and Kristina (thanks you wonderful gals!), had graciously given up upon our arrival. The perfect way to begin the trip!

The next morning we knew would be our only opportunity to film our final interviews with one another reflecting on the trip, where we’ve been, where we hope to go. It was all so emotionally beautiful to think about how full and kind life had been to us the past 34 days. A box of tissues later, we headed into the city, catching glimpses of the Manhattan skyline from the highway – and paying the $13 to cross the George Washington Bridge made it official: we had made it to NYC!

TEP Driving to NYC

We drove into Harlem and immediately understood why it’s considered a mecca for music and the arts – the sounds of Gospel filled the air as we made our way to the Mama Foundation for the Arts, which is housed in an incredible 5-flat building in the heart of the borough. The wonderful Bill Coyle, Vy’s PR guy had helped to orchestrate the shoot, and he led us to the 5th floor to setup.

Amongst mahogany bookshelves filled with music icons and endless stacks of old, classic records, we couldn’t help but think that we had stepped into a very important part of Harlem’s history, and one that Vy had helped to shape in the lifetime that she had spent there. She is the true definition of a pioneer and a woman that has blazed a trail for all those after her. She was the first woman to work in ad sales at Ebony Magazine, the first woman on prime time radio, and most importantly, is the Creator, Writer, Producer, and Director of the longest running off-Broadway show in American history: Mama, I Want To Sing (30+ years and counting!)

Mama Foundation For The Arts

In 1998, she created the Mama Foundation for the Arts, to preserve and promote Gospel, Jazz, and R&B to future generations. When she arrived on set, it was like a beautiful, glowing light had entered the room, and she had such a way about her that we were immediately swept up into her fire. There are just some people that carry such power, such confidence, that you know you are in the presence of greatness. Vy was one of these women.

After we wrapped the interview, we waited for the Gospel for Teens evening rehearsal, who were preparing for a competition at Radio City Music Hall (a huge deal)! Hearing Gospel sung up close and personal is almost like an out of body experience. The force and meaning behind the lyrics, the passion of the performance, we had never felt anything like it. Truly one of the most memorable parts of this trip. We ended the night singing our way down the street to dinner, wanting to sample what Harlem is best known for…soul food! We headed to Sylvia’s, deemed the “Queen of Soul Food”, and filled our bellies with collard greens, mac and cheese, fried chicken, ribs and corn bread. It was the perfect end to an incredible day. Thank you Harlem for treating us so well!

Vy Higginson

TEP & Vy Higginson

Hey Guys it’s Sarah here – October 2nd was our last shoot day and last interview, can you believe it? After spending an incredible day with Vy Higginsen it was time for our final interview with Miss USA 2012 Nana Meriwether! We drove in from New Jersey and our energy was high. Vanessa yelled out the window to strangers passing by: “We drove here from Los Angeles!” She got a few responses and hi fives, but otherwise it was only amusing to us. But it’s true, the feeling of being in the last day of our journey in the incredible New York City, I think we all felt re-energized by the whole experience. We arrived at Nana’s building and loaded our equipment in the lounge area and set up for the interview.

Nana was warm and friendly and the nostalgia set in that this would be the last time we would set up all the gear together. We had a fabulous mentee on set that day, Brooke Tonelli, a friend of Ashley’s from the casting world. She wanted to learn more about the camera, so I jumped right in and started to refresh her memory about the things she learned in film school years ago. Brooke was the perfect final mentee, she was excited to be there and had been following our journey along the way.

TEP & Nana Meriwether

Nana’s interview was a welcomed surprise. One might think that a beauty queen would have very rehearsed answers and not be very honest or genuine but Nana was completely the opposite. She was very relate-able and has a great story about her background and path to the winning her crown. Nana told us about how she was a shy kid growing up, something that I personally identify with. So to see her blossom into not only a beauty queen but a public figure despite her shyness, is very inspiring. She made it clear that becoming Miss USA was not her only life goal and she is currently studying to take the LSAT and go to law school. She started her own non-profit, the Meriwether Foundation to help African countries, since her roots are in South Africa.

For someone with so much beauty, she truly has all the brains to back it up! She reminded us that we all have insecurities and she mentioned how becoming Miss USA is truly a great job opportunity for the next year of your life. I will think of it now as one big, scary, sparkly job interview next time I see it on TV. Nana couldn’t have been nicer and we celebrated the conclusion of our final interview on the roof of her amazing SoHo building.

Nana Meriwether

We spent the rest of the day touring the city and enjoying our final moments on the trip. We walked down to the vista of the Statue of Liberty and took pictures, hugged and enjoyed the smell of the ocean. Vanessa and Dana bought some souvenirs and we gradually made our way back to New Jersey to pack up our stuff and clean out our minivan for the last time. We headed back into the city for drinks and dinner at Planet Hollywood in Times Square and pranced around like the tourists that we were. Vanessa had never been to NYC before, so it was fun to see it through someone else’s wide eyes. Alana hadn’t been since she was 12 and only briefly, so this was a very special experience for her too. We took a cab down to the West Village and danced the night away in celebration of our amazing film. We stopped in Washington Square Park to dip our toes in the fountain before calling it a night.

The next morning we said farewell to our gracious hosts, Jeanniey and Chris Mullen in Montclair, NJ and drove to LaGuardia. We returned our tired rental car and counted up all the miles we drove – 7,128 miles!

In total: We were shooting for 34 days, conducted 17 incredible interviews, over the course of 22 states, and we drove 7,128 miles! 5 women. 1 minivan. (well 2 minivans if you count the fact that we had to switch vans near the end)

Unbelievable! How did we do all that? Saying goodbye to the girls was so bittersweet as I knew I would be saying hello again to my husband after 5 weeks apart. These four women are truly my lifelong friends and we will always share this incredible experience forever. We have made something truly unique, and I can’t wait to share it with the world Spring 2014! Stay tuned for our official trailer by the end of October/early November!

If you would like to book a screening of “The Empowerment Project” at your school starting in April 2014, you can email

This whole journey has been so many dreams come true, and we thank you for sharing it with us.


The Empowerment Gals

TEP crew New Jersey


  1. This post brings tears to my eyes, but happiness to my heart! So proud of all of you and what you have accomplished. I have enjoyed all the posts and pictures, just teasers to the grand finished project! Even tho we got to see you all having fun and enjoying every minute, I know you worked your behinds off, lugging equipment and all the packing and setting up, stuff we don’t really see. I wish you all the very best going forward, knowing this project has changed each of you for the better! After this long on the road and being here, there, and everywhere, it will be hard to get back to your “normal” life again. God bless you all for making my life more interesting and fun!
    Love, Gma

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