These three leaders are so passionate about helping others that they made the nonprofit world the center of their careers and, in many respects, their lives.
Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole
Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC
Johnnetta Cole has served as president of two colleges—Spelman College, where she was the first female president, and Bennett College For Women. She was also the first woman elected to the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises. Since 2009, she has been the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
Diversity Woman: Why did you choose to work in the nonprofit sector instead of in Corporate America?
Johnnetta B. Cole: The nonprofit sector is where my passion rests. After all, I am an academic and an anthropologist. Working in this arena has not cut off my ability to interact with Corporate America.
Today, in my position as the director of the Museum of African Art, I am obviously interested in building partnerships with Corporate America as well as with not-for-profit entities like other museums. Clearly, from the moment I discovered anthropology to this very day as museum director. there have been crossroads at which I had to make decisions. But I’ve always found that taking the road where my passion is the deepest will inevitably lead to the best choice and the greatest satisfaction.
DW: What are some actions we can take to improve the lives of the next generation of women?
Cole: Even though we’re in the 21st century, it’s amazing how many folks still have some pretty old attitudes about women. People think, “If we hire these women, we’ll lose them because they’ll run off to have babies.” Yes, women will have babies, but deciding whether to hire somebody on that basis is simply not rational. We are the principal teachers in a child’s early years, so we could make a lot more progress if we changed how we socialize the next generation. But I know that teaching positive attitudes alone will not do it. We also have to work on laws, policies, and projects for everything, from making sure that women are candidates for all kinds of leadership roles to making sure that we protect the laws that call for equal rights for women.
We also need to turn far more often to younger people. Imagine what would happen if every time a woman in a leadership role attended a major meeting, she took a younger woman with her. So if we begin to transfer the knowledge we have, we simultaneously acknowledge that wisdom does not wait until one is old.
DW: Where do you hope we’ll be 25 years from now in terms of progress for women in our communities?
Cole: Well, 25 years is both a long time and a very short time. Twenty-five years from now, imagine if someone said, “There’s no longer a need for a historically black college for women called Spellman or Bennett College for Women.” This would mean that all educational institutions had figured out that they couldn’t do their jobs well without women. In our work with corporations, we talk about the business case for diversity; I think there’s a pedagogical case for diversity. And it would say that all colleges and universities are welcoming campuses for women and in particular for black women. Twenty-five years from now, wouldn’t it be terrific if we no longer had to ever say, “You know, she’s the first woman to … ?” It would be no more, because we would be in such numbers, in so many places, that it would simply be the way it is.
DW: What advice was given to you that youíd pass along to the next generation of leaders?
Cole: After I told my grandfather I was going to be an anthropologist, he said, “How do you expect to make a living doing that?” He was a very successful businessman with very little formal education. I went to my mom and cried. She said, “He gave you some good advice when he asked how you planned on taking care of yourself. It is a question every woman should be able to answer.” My mother went on to say that the moment you cannot answer that question, you subject yourself to all kinds of unhealthy circumstances. She told me that the single most important thing I could do is follow my passion, but I also had to do it well and figure out how I’d feed and take care of myself.
Dr. Elsie Scott
President and CEO, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Washington, DC
Before Elsie Scott was named president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in 2007, she worked in the rough-and-tumble world of law enforcement. She developed training programs and held management positions in Detroit, New York City, and Washington, DC.
Diversity Woman: Why did you choose to work in the nonprofit sector instead of the corporate sector?
Elsie Scott: My parents were civil rights activists. From early on, they instilled in us that we owed something back, and that we were on this earth to serve. My father wanted me to be a lawyer because he felt there was a critical need for more attorneys to help people in the African-American community. However, I knew I wanted to do something in education or the nonprofit world. I started my career as a college professor, but I was having trouble getting funding for my research. The perfect opportunity arose when I saw an ad from the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) for a research director for a project on hate crimes. My work at NOBLE opened other doors that led to a career in law enforcement.
DW: What are you most proud of professionally?
Scott: I’m proud that I was able to become a recognized and respected professional in law enforcement as black woman with a PhD but without a police background. Those are not the things that you commonly associate with law enforcement. Despite this, I have been successful in bringing about positive change in police work in the U.S. I’m also very proud that, as executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, I helped that organization through a financial crisis and became an effective fundraiser. Without training and background, I was successful in keeping them in the black.
DW: What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders?
Scott: I find that so many young people don’t really understand right from wrong. I think that’s the reason they end up getting in trouble. When I conducted police training and teaching at the police academy, we’d give these scenarios, and the trainees would have to decide what they would do. Some would really stumble on what would be the right thing to do. It worried me, because they could be faced with an ethical dilemma that could be a life-and-death situation. I would like for young people to think about things like what line they will not cross—the line that is a deal breaker. I’ve seen a lot of young people who don’t think about those situations until they are forced to.
DW: What are the most rewarding aspects of your current job?
Scott: What I enjoy most about my job is working with young people and providing them with scholarships, fellowships, and internships. Some have never been to Washington before. So I am very happy when I’m able to provide those opportunities. Many of the internships around Washington are secured by wealthier kids and by people who buy their way into internships. Our internships primarily cater to kids who don’t have as much and who may not get an internship otherwise. We’re helping a whole generation of young people get exposed to opportunities that they couldn’t afford if we did not go out and raise the money to allow them to participate.
DW: What are some actions we can take to improve the lives of the next generation of women?
Scott: We need to lead by example, because we are modeling for young women. As women, we have to make sure that when we get into positions of power or policy making, so that we can enact proper pregnancy policies, child care policies, and other policies that have a real impact.
DW: Looking forward 25 years, where do you hope things will be for women?
Scott: There will be a female president in the United States by then, and I expect that women will have filled high-ranking positions in corporations. I hope that we won’t be talking about “she’s the first woman this or the first woman that.” It will be standard practice.
Some things will have to change for that to happen. For example, to this day, most of the time women are the primary caregivers of children, and this has been holding women back. Too many women have to make a choice between career and motherhood. If we can somehow make the workplace more accepting of mothers—whether they be married or unmarried—women won’t have to make a choice between children and job. Because we don’t want a whole generation of children raised by television and video games, we have to find a happy medium for women to be able to invest in the lives of their children and have a satisfying career. We have to recognize the reality of life: Most women work. How will we still raise healthy children, mentally and otherwise, while allowing women to reach their full potential? So in 25 years, I would hope that we will have solved that problem and that we will have the child-care facilities and all the other things in place that are necessary to make women active participants in work life as well as in family life.
Dr. Paula Whetsel-Ribeau
First Lady, Howard University, Washington, DC
With a lifelong devotion to teaching and working with students, Dr. Paula Whetsel-Ribeau has three decades of experience in education, including a stint as assistant vice president of student affairs at Bowling Green University. She has been the first lady of Howard University since 2008.
Diveristy Woman: Why did you choose to work in the nonprofit sector instead of Corporate America?
Whetsel-Ribeau: I’m approaching 30 years in education—14 years in K–12 and 15 years in higher education. It’s always been about students and their growth, and how to put their learning into practice. Students need someone to help them do that—whether it means my working with teachers, faculty, or peers or my working directly with students. It is not a natural process. When I worked in the student affairs arena, I realized that 80 percent of the students’ time on a campus is spent outside the classroom—so why not be involved and engaged in inspiring and in stimulating ways to help them learn more about themselves and the relationship that has with their passions and career choices? When I came to Howard University, I accepted work on campus in a volunteer capacity because it energizes and motivates me. Student learning and their growth and development are a passion of mine.
DW: What have you done as first lady of Howard University?
Whetsel-Ribeau: One of the major programs that I lead is Alternative Spring Break, in which students spend their vacation helping others across the country for a week. At first, students went to New Orleans to volunteer after Hurricane Katrina. Three years ago, we expanded the program to include other cities such as Detroit, Atlanta, DC, and Chicago. And I make a stop at every location. The students do not stay in hotels. They take sleeping bags and stay in churches or gyms or whatever can accommodate a group of 50 to 55. By leaving luxuries behind, they connect a little bit more with the people they are serving than if they roll out of a nice warm bed. Last year, 350 students from a variety of majors and programs participated. When the students come back, they talk about how the experience has fundamentally changed their lives. This year, we have a pilot program going to Haiti, where 20 students will volunteer.
DW: What can be done to improve the lives of the next generation of women?
Whetsel-Ribeau: I’m going to be really blunt about this. I couldn’t find the words to say it, but Dr. Maya Angelou said it best: Let the jealousy go. I see this envy thing going on with our [female] undergraduate population, and I get especially concerned because sometimes I have seen the most menial jealousy ruin relationships and leadership opportunities. Women must start being more connected with each other, understanding each other better, and mentoring each other. In my opinion, if we were more supportive of each other, it could impact an entire generation of women. Also, I think that coming together and mentoring each other are ways to continue to break through the glass ceiling and build another generation of leaders.
In addition, we must continue to talk about balance between home, work, and community, particularly as our college-age population asks critical questions regarding family responsibilities and how they will impact their work life. We have to intentionally create meaningful discourse that promotes gender equity and the empowerment of women. My fear is that we’re not having these important conversations. That is the reason that I started an initiative at Howard University called Howard University—Women As Change Agents. We truly believe that with this kind of initiative, we can transform the culture in positive ways for the women on our campus.
DW: What advice would you pass along to the next generation?
Whetsel-Ribeau: For the most part, I believe that women sell themselves short when it comes to their self-esteem. The idea of feeling good about looking in the mirror and feeling good about who’s looking back is so fundamental. I know it’s a little more complex than that. It’s also about knowing who you are and what gifts and talents you bring to the table. Not feeling good about yourself, which for me is a form of self-hatred, is damaging both to yourself and to those around you. It’s very difficult to be successful and effective when your self-esteem and concept of yourself are low. We must address this fundamental topic before we can move into other areas that deal with interpersonal relationships, careers, and community. That’s what I tell my students. DW
Jenny Mero is a frequent contributor to Diversity Woman.