Women of Color, Unite!
With its third annual conference, Spelman College builds
on its 125-year legacy of producing female leaders
By Kimberly Davis
At a time when divisive issues like race, class and immigration reform have become the hot topic of the day, leadership and dialogue on these issues can make all the difference.
That’s why Spelman College spent two days exploring not just how to lead, but also how to include others in the conversation. The 2006 Leadership and Women of Color Conference: Building Bridges Among Us and With Others, was held last month at the college’s renovated Sisters Chapel and at the Georgia World Congress Center. The conference was designed to examine and identify skills that can aid in the critical bridge-building process to foster change in the global and domestic sectors.
“Spelman College was founded in 1881 by women who were, by definition, bridge-builders,” says Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum. “They believed that if you educate a woman, you can educate the world.”
The third annual conference, organized by the college’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, or LEADS, brought together approximately 1,000 people from different races, cultures and countries. The gathering is the major focus of LEADS, which is responsible for program development from the perspective of African-American women in the areas of leadership development, economic empowerment, advocacy through the arts, and dialogue across difference and service learning, says Dr. Jane E. Smith, the center’s executive director.
“The leadership center is Spelman’s strategy for identifying leadership models through the experiences of African-American women leaders,” says Smith, herself a Spelman graduate. “We can’t do that by ourselves. We must be inclusive. … We want to create conversations that allow us to see ourselves not only through our eyes but also through the eyes of others.”
One of the major tasks for LEADS is to examine the individual stories of Black women leaders to see if any patterns emerge within their different leadership styles. In essence, the center is working backward to see what makes a great leader. In the larger sense, women in general — and women of color in particular — struggle to compete because corporations and organizations fail to recognize or validate their unique strengths and abilities. Finding ways to make those strengths more noticeable is a charge that Smith finds particularly important.
Raised in Albany, Ga., Smith recalls her father telling her that she had a duty to help those that were less fortunate. “Those people are your responsibility,” Smith remembers her father saying. To be able
to extend that focus to help women of color help themselves is an immense and worthy undertaking, she says. The conference this year was particularly relevant to Spelman because the college is celebrating its 125th anniversary.
“Spelman is working very hard to be a leader in the discussion of women of color,” Smith says. As a historically Black women’s college, it is our responsibility to be a part of the leadership in that discussion. But we’re not just going to run this discussion ourselves; we’re going to bring other women of color with us,” says Smith, who was previously CEO of Business and Professional Women/USA, a national membership organization that promotes equity for women in the workplace. She also served as the president and CEO of the National Council of Negro Women.
It was the commitment to include other minority women that helped draw a diverse group of women to the conference. That diversity included not just racial and ethnic variety, but multiple political and social ideologies as well. Featured speakers included U.S. Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and Vabah Kazaku Gayflor, minister of gender and development in Liberia, which recently elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa’s first female president.
“It’s all a valid experience,” Smith says. “[Women of color] are everyone!”
Smith, who started her career as the assistant to the president of Spelman in 1975, says that while the conference has experienced great success, organizers are being challenged by the numbers. College administrators don’t want the conference to get so big that it becomes more of a symbol than a vehicle for change. Smith says she also wants the conference to be more inclusive. The vast majority of conference attendees were African-American, but Smith says she wants to see growth among other women of color, specifically American Indians.
“We are after a specific result,” Smith says. “We want women and men to leave this conference with a unique set of skills for building bridges.”
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