They Inspired Me

When I was younger it was rare that I see people like me–that’s to say, black men and women– in leadership positions, and when I did, it was exhilarating. When I moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 2000, I was inspired by a large delegation of diverse leaders. I aspired to be like them, and I sought out challenging, fulfilling experiences that would help me become a community leader who could help others like me have an impact. At the same time, through my work, I met a group of smart, funny, well-dressed women who knew each other through the Junior League of Lafayette. The more I learned about the League, the more I saw it as a great stepping stone toward reaching my dream of becoming a leader and change maker. Several years later, I joined The Junior League of Lafayette after returning to my hometown in 2004.

My Provisional Year

During your first year of membership, members are called a provisional because your only role is to learn about the community and the League. It’s a difficult process, which many don’t complete because it’s so involved. It didn’t take long for me to notice that there weren’t many people in the League who looked like me, but I put my reservations about that aside because I was excelling in the Junior League of Lafayette. At the end of the Provisional year, all of us Provisional members were nervous about what their first placement or job would be as an active member. It turns out, I didn’t have to worry because that year, the Lafayette chapter elected its first African-American President, Angela Morrison, who was a well-known leader. I was sitting outside with friends when I got a phone call from Angela asking if I would serve as the Step Up Chair for Future Planning. Future Planning is the strategic planning term used by the Lafayette League and would put me with the decision makers. I thought to myself, “are you kidding me?” I quickly said yes knowing that it also meant I would get to sit on the prestigious League board during my third year as a member.

Moving To Austin, Texas

In 2008, I moved to Austin, Texas and transferred to The Junior League of Austin. Lafayette has about 500 women in its league. Add 2000 more and that’s the size of the Austin roster. I remember walking into a meeting thinking I’ll never crack this nut. I also remember being shocked that for a city as large as Austin, there was so little diversity among League members.

My Hard Work Paid Off

It didn’t take long for my enthusiasm and hard work to be noticed. I was blessed to serve in many roles, including Communications Vice President, Membership Vice President, 80th Anniversary Event Chair, and Capital Campaign Chair. You’ll find me in several board pictures on the wall of the League’s Austin headquarters but you’ll never see another African-American in the picture with me. In its 84 years of existence, the Junior League of Austin has never had an African-American president. And only one woman of color has served as President. That honor belongs to Sandy Alcala. Sandy is a force to be reckoned with and a forward thinking leader. Her accomplishments as a president are quite long and include purchasing land for a new headquarters, which is now under construction. Sandy was the most amazing sustaining advisor to me when I was the 80th Anniversary Event Chair.  I can’t imagine how the cocktail party would have turned out without her invaluable guidance.

The Lack Of Diversity

The lack of diversity motivated me to apply to serve on the Association of Junior Leagues International Board of Directors nearly three years ago. AJLI is known for having the smartest women in the League, a majority of them former presidents. Since I never served as president, many people cautioned me I wouldn’t get selected.

The Beginning Of A Journey

My husband and I were at dinner when Dona Ponepinto, Chair of the Nominating Committee, called me. I stepped outside the restaurant to take her call and walked back to the table with tears in my eyes. He asked me if I was okay. Looking like every woman who wins a Miss America crown, I told him I made the board. You see, it wasn’t about me making the board, though that was extremely humbling. I saw my nomination as the beginning of a journey to create systemic change around diversity and inclusion, as well as to inspire other minority women to step into leadership roles in leagues across the country. For reasons I’ll never know, I lost several friends in the Austin League when I made it to the AJLI board. I choose to show them grace and think they are women who don’t fully understand my intentions. Maybe they can’t because they’ve never walked in my shoes.

AJLI Board Retreat

The first AJLI board retreat came really fast, and out of the gate, I found myself on the Diversity and Inclusion work group. It was fate that my assigned board mentor, Audrey Ring, would be work group chair. When Audrey first called to tell me that she was my mentor, she told me that she had never heard of white privilege but her time on AJLI’s board helped open her eyes to that reality in her life and community. I hung up and called my mother to ask her, “do you think she knows I’m black? I mean, she probably couldn’t tell from my voice.” It was shocking to hear someone like Audrey talk about white privilege, and Audrey has been a champion of D&I on our board. When her term ends in June, I’ll probably have Kleenex at hand. I truly love her like family.

Diversity And Inclusion

Audrey has been a fearless leader over the past two years, and because of her, we have tackled some difficult conversations at the board table, including racism, white privilege and equity. When I’ve thrown out ideas about how to make the League more inclusive, she’s said yes every single time. AJLI will soon join many Fortune 500 companies by signing the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity and Inclusion. I asked that we create an accelerator fund that would provide grants to leagues who want to elevate their work on diversity, either by recruiting more diverse members or by embedding principles of the AJLI diversity and inclusion principles into their community projects. We are currently looking for funders for this project and hope to roll it out soon.

My time on the AJLI board has helped me see the problem isn’t at the top. I had applied for the board because I thought it was a systemic problem that could be fixed in the boardroom. It turns out that the board is only part of the solution. The other half of the problem is within each individual league whose leaders must embrace diversity and inclusion and commit to change.

I’m so proud that AJLI’s staff are championing these efforts. They have asked each League to sign a D&I pledge by June 30th. Many Leagues have risen to the challenge and have signed; I’m hopeful that we’ll hit our 100% goal. At the recommendation of our workgroup, AJLI commissioned a researcher (who is a former league member of color) to survey women who identify as diverse  to learn more about why they have either remained engaged or left their League. That includes diversity of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability and religion.

No More Waiting For Change

And League members who are women of color are done waiting for change. They want leaders who look like them and they want to keep diverse members engaged and be able to recruit more of them.  Recently, several of these women organized a Women of Color affinity group in an effort to feel connected and help each other, especially women serving in leadership roles.

Now I’m shifting my energy to helping Leagues who want to do this work and be a partner to their diverse members but don’t know how. I’ve told many I’m available via phone or email to answer their questions or share experiences. These opportunities keep me going and serve as a reminder to me that many are committed to this work.

Progress In On The Way

I even stand ready to help my own League. Recently, the Junior League of Austin’s  2018-2019 Leadership Slate was announced and when I saw pictures from Facebook it was like someone punched me in the gut. My heart ached for days and I even talked to Audrey and our D&I workgroup about it. There were very few women of color, and the ONE I could easily see was in the back row. After a couple of weeks of thinking what to do and how to initiate change, I emailed the president-elect asking to meet with her to help with her own D&I plan. I hope it’s an offer she accepts. My intent isn’t to pick on any League, especially one that I LOVE like Austin’s; however,  I do want to start a conversation so that one day soon we have a long list of leaders who are diverse. There are many such women who are active members and who might one day be president including Earind Jackson Carter, Shannon Creekmur and Dionne Barner. I stand ready to help them when their day comes. I know it will soon, and I’m heartened by steps the Junior League of Austin taken recently, from adopting a commitment statement to establishing a D&I Task Force and moving forward with an assessment. See, progress is on the way.

As I am writing, I had flashbacks to serving on the Executive Committee in my own League and at our retreat having to say out loud that we placed women for two hours and not one was of color. It’s such a fine line that someone like me walks- being a champion for an issue or being the squeaky wheel. It’s a risk I’m willing to take any day for what I hold as a core value and belief for myself.

Back To My Question…

I also won’t stop recruiting young women to join Leagues just ask the women that I mentor. It’s always first on my list of professional organizations they should join and support. I have received so much from my time in the League and I want others to experience the opportunity for growth. There’s a saying, “what got you here won’t get you there.” AJLI knows it and many Leagues know it. These #firestarters are doing the work, so no one ever has to ask, “is there anyone like me here?”

Author’s note: Just a couple of days after writing this piece, I received an email from Earind Jackson Carter that she was elected by The Junior League of Austin as one of two members who will serve as Board Member-at-Large. Indeed, progress is on the way.

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