Marquita Davis knows about taking leaps. Her late father was a member of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division and a semiprofessional football player.
“I mean, how many people jump out of planes?” she said.
Now, Davis has taken her own leap. The former Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO) executive director is heading to Seattle, Wash., to take a position with the prestigious Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“I’ve been in Alabama for 28 years. I’ll be 50 [years old] next month [and], while I don’t think I’m old, there are many people [my age] who are looking [toward] retiring [and] would not take this kind of chance,” she said. “They would not move from Alabama … to Seattle at this point in their career, but I want to have a larger impact on children. This, to me, is the way I can do it.”
Davis will serve as deputy director for early learning with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She will assist with grant funding and provide support to programs and initiatives addressing high-quality education for young children.
Davis’ new job will continue her life’s work: giving children, particularly those who are disenfranchised, educational opportunities. Her drive comes from “finding a way to have the greatest impact on the smallest citizens.”
“[People are] interested in being businesspeople, engineers, doctors. That’s all really great, really wonderful, but we still need people who care about young children,” she said. “The notion is that everybody should focus on all the things that bring about money—[and] money isn’t a bad thing—but I think you can have a good life and change the lives of others for the better. … The end goal is [to find a way to] … replicate high-quality programs and expand [them] across the country where [they] will have an impact.”
Leap of Faith
Originally from Peoria, Ill., Davis said she got her love for early education from her mother, a retired kindergarten and first-grade teacher. Her free-spiritedness comes from her late father, who was a member of the 82nd Airborne and a semiprofessional football player.
After graduating with a degree in social work from Northern Illinois University in 1989, Davis went to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University—becoming the fourth generation of her mother’s side of the family to attend a Historically Black College and University (HBCU)—to continue her education.
“[Even though] I didn’t have any family or support system there, I packed everything I had in my U-Haul and in my little red Escort and headed to [Huntsville, Ala.],” she said, adding that she received a master’s degree in child development and family studies from Alabama A&M.
The leap to Alabama paid off for Davis. In addition to earning a PhD in early childhood education and development from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she served in the administrations of former Alabama governors Bob Riley and Robert Bentley. Under Riley, she was the director of Alabama’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program and commissioner for the Department of Children’s Affairs. And under Bentley, she was commissioner for the Department of Children’s Affairs and became the first black woman to serve as the state’s director of finance.
“I worked for two governors with whom I had no real political affiliation at all,” Davis said. “That was scary. I took on being the finance director for the state of Alabama, the first black woman [to hold the position], even though I had this early childhood background. But I said [to myself], ‘I can make those dots connect. If not me, then who? Why not me?’
“When I went back to the JCCEO, [where] I had [served as] Head Start program director [prior to working with Riley and Bentley], there were some really trying times. I really had to muster up a lot of courage to lead that organization and to take some of the bumps and the bruises that came along with being in leadership.”
Asked what she’ll miss about Birmingham, Davis said, “The people and the relationships that I have been so blessed to make and create,” including those with her friends and godchildren.
“I’m also going to miss the sense of community and people who really purposefully want to be examples for the rest of the country. I’m going to miss the food and watching the city burst and be birthed into something else,” she said, calling Birmingham “a big small town.”
“Being in a big small town, it’s easier to find your fit,” she said, adding that Birmingham was where she could “just be Marquita.”