They are elected officials and educators, mothers and daughters, sisters and sistas. They advocate on causes that range from breast cancer awareness to domestic violence prevention. Whatever the issue, there are numerous women in Birmingham who work publicly and privately on matters that have an impact on the lives of all the city’s residents.
Recently, some were honored during the Metro Birmingham National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and by Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies (BBBB), a nonprofit that raises awareness about breast cancer in the black community.
“We are a culture that celebrates accomplishments because that sets standards for others to aspire to,” said Metro Birmingham NAACP President Hezekiah Jackson IV. “When we take an opportunity to recognize people who are accomplished role models for others, it makes a better society for all concerned.”
BBBB Executive Director Brenda Phillips Hong said members of her organization provide support “no matter what.”
“If it’s a phone call, if it’s a trip to the hospital, if it’s a mammogram, if it’s whatever … that’s what we do in this community, and we feel good about doing it,” she said.
BBBB last month honored Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, a breast cancer survivor who is active in raising awareness.
“Many women are taking a more active role in the community because we are born leaders, and we’ve had to step up in order to keep our communities and families together,” she said. “It’s so important to support a group like BBBB because it sends a clear message: ‘If I can make it and get through this, so can you.’”
‘Much Is Required’
Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney Lynneice Washington, a breast cancer survivor and the first African-American woman elected district attorney in Alabama, expressed similar sentiments.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” she said. “Most people do not come from a home with a silver spoon … so when we are blessed enough to do well—and to do well is not always indicative of being rich, but just being in a position through which you can help others—I feel like it’s our responsibility to our community, to our children, to show them positive things so that they have something to grow on.”
State Rep. Juandalynn Givan (D-Birmingham), a past NAACP Woman of the Year honoree, said women in leadership make a profound difference.
“Women lead differently because women tend to think and feel differently,” she said. “We see the world through a different optic because we wear so many hats: we’re daughters, we’re mothers, we’re counselors, we’re caregivers. We’re typically the ones who are always there, who have to bear the burden and carry the heavy load, who go that extra, extra mile.”
“When you love differently, you breathe differently. God made us for that purpose … to be helpers and caregivers. We are born nurturers, … we are able to carry and give life. The power of women in leadership is a magnificent thing,” Givan said.
‘A Higher Standard’
The NAACP has hosted the Annual Salute to Wonderful Outstanding Women (WOW) program for the past 17 years, Jackson said, and the event serves as a forum for role models and to highlight positive people. It’s important that the event is formal, and he is adamant that gowns are worn.
“Our hostesses are from the Olivia House. Most of these are young ladies who are in drug recovery and haven’t seen positive women. These young ladies have never been to a prom,” Jackson said. “They only see things on television, they see things on the internet, they see things on devices … so we dress them up.”
Some of the women say they’ve never been dressed up before, he added.
“[They say,] ‘I’ve never had a reason to have a good dress. I don’t go to church. I don’t go anywhere where they expect me to have a higher standard. I don’t own any lipstick. I don’t have a handbag.’ So, we have all the women and men dress formally” to serve as role models, Jackson said.
The women honored have very fascinating stories about where they began and where they are now. This exposes women from challenged communities to success, said Jackson, citing Barbara Allen, who was honored last month as the NAACP’s 2017 Woman of the Year.
Allen, former interim superintendent of Birmingham City Schools, grew up in public housing in Titusville, attended Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in Huntsville, and did graduate work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
“It’s important to give back to the community, especially the community where I grew up, to let others see that that no matter where you grew up you can become the individual you want to be,” Allen said. “I always thought it was important to give back to the community because growing up I saw so many elderly people giving back.”
Allen spent 39 years working with Birmingham City Schools—15 years as a teacher and 24 as an administrator—and ended her career as interim superintendent.
“Education is the foundation of everything because you can’t do anything without a basic education,” she said. “My passion is working with children, basically high school students, and older adults. That’s why I do Meals on Wheels and anything I can to assist older adults.
Giving back can be done several different ways, said Allen, president of the Tri-County Links, Incorporated, which provides services in St. Clair, Jefferson, and Shelby counties.
“I do voter registration, trying to encourage high school students to vote. I read to the students [and] tutor … in Birmingham City Schools. I’m an adjunct instructor at Lawson State Community College, … [where] I teach classes in the business and information technology department.”
‘The Best of Them’
Each of the women have their own stories to share. Givan said she doesn’t mind being a role model, but she doesn’t want anyone to follow in her footsteps.
“God made these shoes that I wear specifically for me,” she said. “I say to young people all the time, ‘Don’t be like me, be better than me. This job that I have, God made it for me. Everybody has a job to do, everybody has a job that is uniquely theirs. Be the best you that you can be. Don’t always walk around trying to emulate anyone. Find that thing about yourself that makes you the best.’ There is something great inside every individual in this world if they choose to see the greatness.”
Givan added, “There is good in the worst of them and there is bad in the best of them. I tell young people, ‘Stop and look within yourself.’ … Beyoncé says in a song, ‘I woke up like this. I’m flawless.’ And I always teach these young folks about being flawless, and I tell them to ‘wake up like this.’ I tell them to wake up in it, be flawless.”