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Students, Friends, Colleagues on ‘The Gift’ That is Odessa Woolfolk

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From left, former mayor Richard Arrington, Odessa Woolfolk and current Mayor Randall Woodfin as the City of Birmingham presents Woolfolk with the prestigious Putting People First Award. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)
By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times

Gloria A. Dennard was a student in Odessa Woolfolk’s 10th-grade history class at Birmingham’s Samuel Ullman High School, and she remembers that the renowned educator and activist taught with ease, authority, and conviction, yet was also personable and friendly, often tempering her lessons with humor.

“She had an impact on me,” Dennard said, adding that, because of Woolfolk, “I always wanted to learn as much as I could.”

Dennard went on to be an educator, teaching English, Spanish, and journalism at a school in Florida. Eventually, she returned to Birmingham, earned a degree in library science, and was later selected to be the first Black director of library media services for Jefferson County.

After Dennard returned to Birmingham, she and Woolfolk reconnected. “She became my mentor and my friend,” Dennard said.

Woolfolk pushed Dennard to get active with prominent organizations, such as Leadership Birmingham, Leadership Alabama, and The Women’s Network.

“She was always encouraging me to do community service and help improve the community, to care about what was going on and do something about it,” Dennard said. “Don’t just talk about it.”

Neal Berte, Ph.D., who served as the president of Birmingham-Southern College for nearly three decades and was the Founding Chairman of Leadership Birmingham, considers Woolfolk a gift to the city.

“There really are not enough superlatives to describe [Woolfolk’s] contributions to the good of this community and our larger world,” he said.

When DeJuana Thompson was tapped to be the interim president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights institute (BCRI), Woolfolk who played a pivotal role in the founding of the BCRI helped Thompson feel she was the right woman for the job.

“I’m somewhat a nontraditional choice for president and CEO of the BCRI,” said Thompson, the founder of Woke Vote, an organization that mobilizes Black voters in the South, and a presidential appointee for the administration of former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joseph Biden in 2015 to serve as Senior Advisor for the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“The greatest lesson [Woolfolk] has taught me so far is there is room for my brand of leadership, as long as my leadership is authentic and excellent,” said Thompson, noting that Woolfolk assured her that she would be successful in leading the BCRI because she’s a true community advocate, has a love of history, and has a vision for moving forward.

“She basically made me feel like I couldn’t fail,” said Thompson, who added that what she admires most about Woolfolk are her commitment to the mission of the BCRI and her love of people.

[Woolfolk] is a brilliant strategist and a master at building and maintaining relationships, and that has served her well,” Thompson said.

Using wisdom gleaned from Woolfolk, Thompson set priorities for her time in office to be mission-centric and relationship-focused.

“Everything I do must be intentional and consistent,” Thompson said. “These are the ways I pay tribute to her leadership every day.”

Samuetta Nesbitt, senior vice president of public relations and community affairs at United Way of Central Alabama and one of Woolfolk’s close friends, recently took to the podium at AWAKEN: Building the Beloved Community—Celebrating Odessa Woolfolk.

Hosted every October by the City of Birmingham’s Office of Social Justice and Racial Equity, AWAKEN honors a citizen with the prestigious Putting People First Award. At this year’s event, which was held in the auditorium of the Birmingham Museum of Art during Magic City Classic weekend, Nesbitt declared that Woolfolk was an influencer long before social media existed.

“I have so much respect for the way she navigates the mine fields of community service,” said Nesbitt, who has served with Woolfolk for several networks and organizations.

No matter how contentious committee meetings would become, Woolfolk kept her cool.

“What I most observed was that she came with just the facts,” Nesbitt said. “She didn’t argue, but she challenged everyone with facts.”

When Woolfolk posed for a photo with Birmingham mayors Randall Woodfin and Richard Arrington during the recent event, the symbolism served as striking proof of Nesbitt’s claim. As Woolfolk stood flanked by Birmingham’s first Black mayor, now 87, who was first elected in 1979 and served for 20 years, and the city’s current mayor, now 40, who in 2017 became the youngest person elected to the position in more than a century and was re-elected for a second term in August, anyone in the room could see that her influence spans decades. Woolfolk’s impact is not fleeting like a trending tweet or TikTok video.

In a statement prepared for AWAKEN, Arrington said, “With passion, she fights for many causes she believes in yet always manages to keep the needs of others first and foremost in her heart.”

A message from Woodfin echoed those sentiments: “[Woolfolk’s] early work in community development laid the groundwork for many organizations that are thriving today. We are privileged that the city of Birmingham is the place she loves and has so generously shared her time, talent, and passion.”