By Dr. Tonya Jackman Hampton and Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale | April 23, 2020
Dr. Tonya Jackman Hampton and Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale conducted this interview for Women’s History Month. Just before publication, with the COVID-19 global pandemic on everyone’s minds we asked Dr. Cole to share some of her thoughts about the pandemic and women’s contributions. The following is a glimpse into the life of an African American icon and former Principal Consultant and dear friend of all of us at Cook Ross.
Q) Who were your favorite sheroes growing up?
A) Many African American women say their best friend or their main shero is their mom or grandma. For me, I can say the same about my mother. What I remember admiring about [my mother] Mary Frances Lewis Betsch, was that she was strong and if I use todays language, I will say she was a feminist.
A second shero [was] Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. She was not only a shero, she was also a mentor for me. Mary McLeod Bethune and my great grandfather were close associates and friends. She became the founder of Bethune Cookman College now University. My great father Abraham Lincoln Lewis. was the founder of the African American insurance company. When my great grandfather died in 1947, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune gave the eulogy. Imagine what it is like for me to be the chair of the organization that Dr. Bethune founded. In addition to serving as the founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) she as a co-founder of United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
Q) Why do you think it’s important for organizations to recognize Women’s History Month?
A) I dream of the day when we will no longer have certain days and months when we celebrate a particular under-represented community. We will no longer have black history month, women’s history month, pride day, indigenous people month. [Now] we have a month because we have yet to do two things, every day of the year – 1) to acknowledge the contributions of women in our full diversity and 2) to say what these human beings, called women, contribute to contemporary society.
Now there is something about the language, I would like to change, the part that says “history”. How wonderful it would’ve been if it would’ve been called “herstory” month. There is an African proverb that captures my point. “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, and the lioness, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
So, the importance of women’s herstory month is it allows us women folk to tell our story. Society, will not have done all of the work until we understand what is really meant by the term women. For too many folks when we say women, we do not mean trans women. We only mean cis women. When we say women, we put unbelievable emphasis on white women, ignoring women of color. When we say women, our first [thoughts] are not of a disabled woman, or women of the Islamic faith, or a woman who is in her 70, 80, or 90s. And so, for me, the ongoing challenge [of] herstory month is to make sure it is about all of us who identify in very specific or fluid ways with being women.
Q) What do you see as key signs that women have been successfully included within organizations?
A) I want to respond to this question in a world context. The United Nation’s 5th sustainable development goals say, “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” I like going there because when you [go] into the [global] context, it is saying you cannot be a developed nation unless you are achieving equity and empowering all women and girls.
1 in 5 women and girls, worldwide, between the ages of 15 and 49 report experiencing physical or sexual violence. This figure does not include women who have experienced violence but remained silent about it. Women don’t have equal access to pay or representation in political and economic venues. Women earn college and graduate degrees at a higher rate than men, but we’re still concentrated in certain majors. [And] it gets on my last nerve when I think we’ve never had a women president or vice president.
I was recently at the United Nations campaign called the Red Card. This campaign involves giving a Red Card to all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. The red card is given in soccer when there is a [serious] violation. I’d even ask you, if you’re interested, to to go online and sign up because we are trying to get a million signatures to raise consciousness about issues of violence and discrimination against women and girls.
Signs of progress – Sexual harassment in the workplace is finally being addressed in some places. I know California and maybe other states by law require a publicly traded company [to] have women on their boards. [There are] flexible work arrangements [that] benefit men and women.
Organizations have targets. I have no problem using the word quota because if you are trying to change something, you need to know what you are trying to change. There is more acknowledgment that when we say women we don’t just mean white women. Certainly, we are seeing more women in CEO positions and University presidencies, as Heads of Museums, so yes, we have made progress, but we have, oh, we have so far to go!
As James Baldwin [said] “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. There is progress in that some folks are now facing the reality of discrimination against women and girls.
Q) What do you see as some of the major challenges facing organizations aiming to achieve gender equity in the workplace?
A) First, is the fact that organizations are isolated from the society in which they exist and operate. In my view we are, at the moment, expressing in slightly new ways old isms. That is how I would define my own country and so many parts of the world; racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. all of that old vile stuff is being expressed and honored with 21st century language and often using today’s modern technology.
At the same time that we are hearing new versions of this old vile stuff, we are rapidly [moving] to re-segregation our schools. There is wide-spread gentrification, [what]we used to call “Negro removal”.
A second challenge is that power and privilege feel good to those that have it. And that is what we are talking about in my view when we are talking inequities, or the absence of justice. Somebody is having a whole lot of power and privilege and it feels good. A major challenge facing any organization that wants to achieve gender equality is that we have not come up with something to replace power and privilege. It is up to Diversity &Inclusion practitioners to invite this kind of inquiry. [We] need to try to figure out how to make sure men know that gender equity does not mean men will lose everything they have always had. It is not a ezero-sum game. What is it going to be like when we achieve gender equality? Draw me a picture, write me a song or a poem.
And, I think it is a major challenge when we think that there is a quick fix. When you are talking about changing patterns, changing beliefs, changing actions that are centuries old, it is going to take a might long time. I think we have to admit that there are no quick fixes here. [The] stuff of gender-based bigotry and discrimination is old, complex, widespread and hard to change.
Q) What advice do you have for the next generation of change leaders advancing gender equity?
A) I cannot respond to your question without saying that, we elders, need to hear advice and good counsel from the young’uns, my term that is respectfully and affectionally used for young people.
When I was asked two years [ago] to stand for election [to] the position president and chair of NCNW, I agreed to do so based on two charges to myself and the membership. That wherever issues of social justice are on the table, NCNW must be there. [And] second, that NCNW must become a more intergenerational organization. We never [have] been able to afford generational splits, but we sure cannot afford them now.
And so, I have trouble just spewing out “this is what you young’uns should do.” I am much more comfortable in situations where I am exchanging ideas with young’uns based on being [in] my eighth decade of life. We are not going to make progress until I am also willing to listen to the advice the next generation [of] change leaders have for me, and when we work it out together.
To answer your question, I would say to any generation [what] I would say to my own generation, and indeed to any generation: 1) Know what has happened before you came into the world. Because as the old folks who grew me up in Jacksonville FL, [said] “you cannot know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” If you see yourself as a change agent or leader, you need to know what happened before you came into the world; what is the history and of immobility and change. 2) Practice self-care. And one of the reasons I didn’t learn it [when] I was young [was] I thought I was invincible. I wish that when I was young, I had adopted a meditation practice. In order not to so easily fall off the wagon with daily exercise, I wish I had been more conscious about tightening the seat belt on the exercise wagon. I wish I had learned to eat healthily as I do now much earlier in my life. 3) You have to honor your integrity and your basic values. As a leader you have to stick to your principles and values like white on rice, like black on coal. 4) Yes, believe in yourself but believe equally in the power of collaboration. 5) Don’t let anyone steal your passion for social justice. 6) Find joy in all the good work that you are supposed to do.
Q) What is the role of women in the time of COVID-19?
A) Before I respond to this question, I want to share something that I recently learned. In 1964, June Almeida looked into her electron microscope and saw a round grey dot covered in tiny spokes. She and her colleagues who were peering into the microscope also noted that the pegs formed a halo around the virus, much like the sun’s corona. What June Almeida saw would become known as the coronavirus. June Almeida who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and dropped out of school when she was 16, played a pivotal role in identifying the coronavirus. Today, she is finally being recognized for virology breakthroughs she made a half century ago.
I also feel compelled to acknowledge that in the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting people who are African Americans, Latinix and Native American. And this disparity in the rates of illness and death that people of color experience from the coronavirus is the result of systemic racism and classism. And what about differences in how this virus is affecting women and men? We do know that in the U.S. the coronavirus is killing more men than women. To explain this, scientists are looking for clues in differences in social behavior, work roles and sex chromosomes.
Now, finally to your question. I cannot give an easy answer to your question because it is posed as if all women occupy the same places in a society, have the same challenges, and respond to those challenges in the same way. As I am fond of saying, if you have seen one woman, you have not seen all of us. However, it is safe to say that women are more often than men caregivers in their home and in professional roles. Thus we can say that during this pandemic, women are no doubt bearing a disproportionate amount of responsibility for home schooling children, cooking meals, cleaning homes, caring for elderly and sick family members.
Q) What might Dr. Bethune have said about what we should focus on?
A) Were Dr. Bethune with us today as we face the challenges of this horrific pandemic, she might well say what she once said. Namely, “In each experience of my life, I have had to step out of one little space of the known light, into a large area of darkness. I had to stand awhile in the darkness, and then gradually God has given me light. But not to linger in. For as soon as that light has felt familiar, then the call has always come to set out ahead again into new darkness.”
And were she asked what should African Americans do about the persistence of racism, here are words she spoke years ago: “If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs.” If you have seen one woman, you have not seen all of us. Click To Tweet
Q) Who are, for you, the sheroes we have lost to the coronavirus?
A) When I think about women we have lost to the coronavirus who are sheroes to me, I first think of the many women who have been on the front line of battle against this pandemic: nurses, doctors, other hospital workers, and service workers.
Q) Although women only make up 7% of the world’s leaders, the most responsive and successful global leaders in addressing the pandemic are women. What does this tell us?
A) What this tells me is captured in one of my favorite African proverbs: “When women lead, streams run up hill.” Yes, I do believe that women often have unusually creative and effective ways of leading.One of my favorite African proverbs: 'When women lead, streams run up hill.' Click To Tweet
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole is an American anthropologist, educator, museum director, and college president. Cole was the first female African-American president of Spelman College, a historically black college, serving from 1987 to 1997. She was president of Bennett College from 2002 to 2007.
Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale has more than 30 years of experience leading learning-based interventions in over 48 countries across 5 continents. She provides transformative consultation to organizations and leaders across industries including finance, manufacturing, technology, education, and healthcare.
Dr. Tonya Jackman Hampton is a strategic executive and consultant in Human Resources, Talent and Organizational Development, and Diversity and Inclusion. Tonya holds nearly 25 years of professional experience committed to sustaining work environments and cultures that promote inclusion and engagement by relying on diversity of people, perspective, and experience to achieve the company’s mission, goals, and values.