Black women leaders share success stories at congressional caucus event in Flossmoor
When is it appropriate to take risks? How do you overcome barriers? And, as a leader, how do you find balance?
Those were among questions directed to a panel of high profile black women at a Congressional Black Caucus on Women and Girls forum Saturday at the Flossmoor Community House. The event, presented by Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, a caucus co-chair, said the goal was to help other African-American women achieve success. The panel included leaders in health, education and business.
The caucus is the first and only one of 430 registered congressional caucuses and member organizations, devoted to making issues facing black women and girls a priority shaping public policy. It was formed by Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.; Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y. and Kelly. Coleman and Clarke also serve as co-chairs. The caucus has presented 14 events across the country dealing with a variety of topics, including gender diversity in STEM, mental health, maternal mortality and missing black women and girls. Kelly said she expects the caucus to release a report within the next year.
The event Saturday was the first caucus event hosted by Kelly in the south suburbs. Her office has hosted several smaller forums and two symposiums in Chicago, including one focusing on health care challenges and global economic power of black women. It also dealt with discrimination and stereotypes black women face in media.
In Flossmoor, some stories centered on overcoming adversity.
Britney Robbins, founder and CEO of The Gray Matter Experience, a Chicago-based nonprofit that teaches black high school students about entrepreneurship, shared a story of a barrier she faced while working at another organization, where she thought she had a great mentor.
“I had a boss that immediately recognized my talent and potential, and I think initially he wanted to foster that,” she said. “He put me in positions to learn and grow very quickly.”
But things changed.
“At some point for him, I became a threat,” she recalled. “He stopped allowing opportunities for me to be in different situations to showcase my talents and skills. At a point, it just hit me he’s not going to create the opportunities for me. I’m going to have to create them for myself. So, I took opportunities I did have to learn as much as I could, to learn from people around me, to do my own research and to go around him and say if he saw this in me and I know that I have it, I can still foster these talents.”
Sylvia Jenkins, president of Moraine Valley Community College, acknowledged she was typically the only person of color, the only women or the only African-American woman in the room.
“Almost all the time,” Jenkins said.
But Jenkins said she sees her job as an opportunity to lift others up.
“We have many initiatives for our young women on campus and initiatives for women of color,” she said. “But I sit on a lot of national boards, and yes, many days I walk in the room, and I’m the only woman or the only African American woman sitting there. But that doesn’t deter me from representing the college that I serve.”
Terika Richardson, president of Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest and Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago, said in an interview that out of about 5,000 hospitals in the United States, only about 6 percent are run by minorities. So, as she pursued a leadership position in health care administration she saw few people of color.
“I had a vision of what I wanted to do, but I never saw a woman of color in the space,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be in hospital leadership. I knew I loved people. I found people who would mentor me, who were in that space. I went after understanding what they did, understanding their path and then asking if I could volunteer and help them. It was really and truly setting a path based on how they got there.
“I wish I had a road map on how my career has gone. But it wasn’t clear to me on how exactly to get to the C-suite, so I worked with other people. I feel like everything I learned were different avenues that got me here.”
There often is no clear-cut path, said Jenkins, who stressed, you have to be prepared to take on responsibilities when they come.
“The other thing is learn to work with people,” she said. “Treat people the way you want to be treated and the way they want to be treated, and regardless of how much education you have, or what position you are in life, don’t let your ego take over because what I do is not about me. It’s about all the other people that I’m here to serve.”
Flossmoor Village Trustee Diane Williams, a president emeritus of the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that assists individuals with criminal records, told the gathering: “I do believe that every experience prepares you for the next and clarifies what you see going forward.”
She also advised that it’s important to always be open to learning.
Regarding risks, it’s important to be strategic, said Cheryl I. Procter-Rogers, president and senior consultant with Lincolnshire-based A Step Ahead PR Consulting and Coaching.
“That’s not being reckless,” she said. “Do your homework and research. Think through the hard questions.”
Seek the opinions of others and not just those who are cheerleaders, she added.
“Then, when you make the leap, you’re doing it from a strong foundation,” she said, adding, have a plan B, C and D.
Panelists advised while building a career it’s important to take a break.
“Multi-tasking is overrated,” Procter-Rogers said. “What’s most important is to have balance.“
You can always say no, but don’t leave it there, she said noting, “Say, I can’t do that, but this is what I can do. Clearly, being organized is going to be crucial, but you are empowered to set boundaries.”
She puts do not schedule times on her calendar, noting “sometimes its 30 minutes. Sometimes it’s a full day. It’s important to have that quiet time to think about what’s next for you.”
“I had an epiphany six years ago,” Richardson said. “I have two kids. I have two hospitals, and I’m trying to ascend the corporate ladder saying yes to everything. My marriage was suffering. My children were suffering. I was exhausted. So, I stopped. I paused the calendar.”
She began shading her calendar by priorities, and she started putting herself in as a priority and examining how much time she was giving to herself.
“When you see that visual, it quickly allows you to revamp,” she said. “If I’ve got 30 minutes for myself in the entire work week, then there’s a problem.”