2018’s Five Fierce Females of Lake Highlands

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Gina Riley is Hamilton Park’s unofficial manager. Her parents were one of the first homeowners in the neighborhood in about 1957, and she’s returned there to care for her childhood home. Besides her 35-year career in finance, Riley is the community liaison and special events organizer for Hamilton Park. She is actively involved with Hamilton Park Preservation Foundation, Hamilton Park Pacesetter Magnet School and New Mount Zion Baptist Church. As if she wasn’t already busy, she also volunteers with local seniors.

Why she started volunteering:

I started volunteering at Willie B. Johnson Recreation Center back in 1993. I did that primarily because of my daughter, now 34 years old, Gia. I wanted her to have interaction with community. As she grew up, she went with me to provide resources for the community, host special events and provide outreach to seniors, single moms and those who had been struggling with addiction.

Her motivation:

I attribute what I do to my mom. My mom, Bessie Riley, now deceased, was in the first group of African American cosmetologists for Hamilton Park. Where the post office is now, there was a Hamilton Park Village filled with African American shop owners. We just had a bunch of entrepreneurs back then. So getting involved and getting out of my comfort zone was one of the things I sought after. You can either be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. I’m the person who looks at how it’s going to impact all of us. 

You can either be a part of the problem or a part of the solution.

How she helps seniors: 

When I’m not doing my thing in the community, I’m delivering and serving seniors that can’t get out. They’re homebound or facility bound. I do pamper parties. My daughter is a freelance makeup artist for MAC Cosmetics. We get together and do little things that are going to make them feel as beautiful as they’ve always been. 

If she could, she’d have dinner with: 

I have to say Denzel, because I like to be in the presence of intellectual, smooth operators. We have this saying, “Oh man, he’s so Denzel.” Him or Patrick Swayze. Both of them just have the air that “I’m here, I’m in the room, and you need to be thankful I’m in your space.” 

She treats everyone like family: 

When I introduce someone that I’ve come into contact with — whether it be a partner, a resource, somebody I’m serving — I say, “This is my Auntie Jo,” my aunt from another mother. There’s a strong love there when you create partnerships and relationships. 

Best advice:

How is it going to benefit all? Are we going to be consistent? Can you sleep at night when you’ve made the decisions you’ve made? 

Her goals for her neighborhood:

Our future is making sure Hamilton Park hasn’t been wiped off the face of the earth like other African American communities have been. That’s why we determine our future; we vet the people who need to be vetted. We have a say-so at the table. We will not let our precious Hamilton Park become anything but the best of what we’ve always known it to be. We have an obligation to our elders and ancestors to keep it intact and make sure it’s just as beautiful and competitive as it was intended to be.

How she handles discrimination:

You can’t do anything except for make people understand that you are responsible for how you’re perceived. You are responsible for how you react. You hope that when you are in the midst of adversity, you’re able to let the person see your worth. I look at those as opportunities. A lot of times, even in my day-to-day work, there may be someone from another generation or who was taught differently. At the end of the conversation, there’s respect, because they see me for who I am, not just the color of my skin.