By: Brittany Packnett
My mother turned 60 on May 31. It was a typically celebratory occasion for our family — several of her sisters, nieces and nephews were present, along with her fiancée, my only brother, and myself. In the style of our large, joyful, loving family, we dined, laughed, and each toasted my mother, one by one, to congratulate her on this milestone, share our hopes and prayers for her future, and most importantly, thank her forthe gifts she has given us.
It was a unique challenge to find words to match the depths of my mother’s inspiration in my life. I address large crowds often, but at this precise moment, I was overwhelmed by the daunting task of summarizing a life full of sacrifice, courage, and leadership.
As I later shared with my other family known as #BlackTwitter, my mother is significant not simply because she gave me life, but because she consistently defied expectations in her professional and civic life. As a result, I never had to seek external role models to aspire to: the most powerful leader I know is my mother.
My mother’s story isn’t typical. By her early 20’s she was an accomplished educator and social worker, leading trainings around the country. My father, a young minister, met her when she was leading a national workshop. By her 30’s, she had established an emerging legacy of community and civic leadership and had created the first Multicultural Relations and Student Support center in her university’s history. By age 41, she became a widow, lost her own father just three months after my dad, and had to postpone her doctoral studies as the now single mother of two young children. In her 50’s she walked across the stage to become Gwendolyn Packnett, Ed.D. If that weren’t enough, she capped off her 50’s by becoming an ordained Baptist minister — something still refused to many women across various faiths and denominations.
The lessons she taught me are the ones that mothers teach their daughters daily — defy the odds. Defy them with grace, tenacity, sacrifice, and care. When I led my first workshops as a teenager, I modeled myself after my mother’s teaching style. When I managed my own 3rd grade classroom as a Teach For America corps member, her lessons were the most critical ones. When I became an executive director at age 27, I knew how to lead authentically in the community and the board room because she had done the same. As I began to address more crowds, it was her gift for language and rhythm that influenced me the most.
Most significantly, as I face the challenges of being a woman of color in public positions of influence and responsibility, it has been watching her face down the same challenges that gives me the courage to keep leading. Women of color do not seem to fit America’s archetype of leadership: just 6% of the United States Congress is comprised of women of color — and none of them are American Indian. Women of color aren’t fully represented in media, the arts, the tech sector, and make up just 0.4% of S&P 500 CEOs.
That’s right — there are just two women of color leading S&P 500 companies.
And let’s be clear: that is not just a loss for women of color, who have yet to experience the kind of equity in leadership that our talents deserve. The fact that so few women of color are leading the charge in critical industries is a global loss.
From Fannie Lou Hammer demanding the seating of the Mississippi Democratic Party in 1968 to Delores Huerta securing rights for farm workers across the nation, women of color have permanently and positively shifted life for all Americans — not just other women of color. Their accomplishments are evidence that when women of color lead, everyone benefits. Though women of color have often pushed to the sidelines of historical social movements, we are fighting back against erasure and silence in today’s movements for racial liberation, educational justice, and gender equity. One needn’t look further than activists like Ms. Cherno Biko, trailblazing director Ava DuVernay, or the indomitable Malala Youdafzai for what women of color bring: resilience, brilliance, rich perspective, and a unique sense of dignity.
Despite unparalleled and repeated trauma to our bodies and the continual devaluation of who we are and what we bring, women of color are still here, setting the trend, leading the market, and establishing the pace for industry. The level of persistence that lives in us is matched only by the intrinsic value we bring into the spaces we lead.
Like my mother before me, we needn’t wait on the pathway to be created — we can blaze trails on our own. And we can leave our textured hair, curvy hips, double sun kissed skin, brilliant minds and big hearts just as they are when we do so. We already have everything in us we need to lead — and the world wins when women of all color seize our power and take the world by storm.
Lead on, sisters. Rumble.
On June 14, the White House will convene people from around the world for the United State of Women, a large-scale effort to both celebrate how far women and girls have come and all that still remains to be done. This post is part of a series leading up to the event that will discuss the challenges that remain ahead of us — and what we can do to overcome them. Visit here for more.
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