Throughout our history, Black women have drawn strength from a deep well inside them to overcome injustices, and wield power and influence to improve people’s lives. Take Rosa Parks, for instance. She was a quiet woman, an introvert. Not the kind of person one would expect to take a stand that would energize protesters and change the course of a movement. But one fateful day she found her voice and said ‘No.” That simple but fearless refusal to bend to segregation became a game-changer in the movement for racial equality.
Ms. Parks and other women from her generation seem to have been anointed with super human strength and an unflappable resolve to fight the status quo. But I believe that what dwelled in these women lives in countless other women right here in Chicago. Unfortunately, too often, we fail to tap into the leadership potential of Black women. And when we don’t we miss out.
Empowered women are game changers. As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month in March, it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are women in our communities, churches, families and workplaces who have game-changing potential and proclivities. Yet, 13 years into the New Millennium, corporations, governments, political parties, clergy and yes, even some civil rights groups, continue to leave Black women out of the conversation.
Black women want to lead. Whether it’s in their homes, their communities, their churches or in the business world, modern women want their shot at the big chair, and it’s time we give it to them.
Chicago is a city in crisis with escalating gun and gang violence, high dropout rates, and no immediate solution to the high jobless rate among teenagers and young adults. During Women’s History Month, we’ll be reminded of influential Black women whose lives and legacies challenged the nation to live up to its principles. Three women come immediately to mind: Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz and Myrlie Evers-Williams. These women shared a similarly tragic fate in that each was married to a charismatic civil rights leader, became a widow when her husband was assassinated and continued to work for the movement and wield whatever influence she had to change oppressive laws and policies.
These women drew on their own sense of self- preservation – and each other- to keep husband’s legacies alive. But they also became leaders in their own right, finding their unique voices as they pursued justice and social change.
Another woman recently thrust into the national spotlight by tragic circumstances also comes to mind: Cleopatra Cowley- Pendleton, whose 15-yearold daughter, Hadiya, was killed Jan. 29 in a senseless shooting. Since then Ms. Cowley-Pendleton has emerged as an activist in the anti-violence movement. It is not a role she sought but neither has she run from it, adding her voice to those advocating for tougher gun laws.
“It’s my job to keep talking,” she has said in recent weeks.
It’s essential that we acknowledge the women whose shoulders we stand on, who dared to challenge the status quo and inspired change. Were it not for them, I would not have had the opportunities that I’ve had. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that gives women great leadership opportunities. More than one-third of the chief executives at Urban League affiliates across the nation are women. Many of them lead Urban Leagues in major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And I’m glad to serve in Illinois with sisters in the movement like Theodia Gillespie and Laraine Bryson who head Urban Leagues in Aurora and Peoria, respectively. These women were identified, valued, selected and empowered to make a difference.
Being an empowered woman does come with great responsibility but great outcomes. Among the business benefits of empowered women in leadership roles: increased organizational productivity, better financial results, and greater growth potential. Women are also risk takers. Studies have shown that women investors, for instance, take no fewer risks than their male counterparts and in certain business settings, women, in fact, are greater risk takers than men.
Today, our communities face major challenges including underfunded schools, violence in our streets, and the lack of job opportunities. Now, more than ever, we must continue tapping into the deep pool of talented women who have shown, throughout history, that they are more than willing to step up to the plate.
At the Chicago Urban League, we are committed to supporting and encouraging Black women to pursue leadership and to empower them through business ownership and career development to be the game changers history teaches us that they can be.
Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League