Strong women leaders
By JAMES CRAVEN, The Herald
In a world and time of instant gratification and “me-generation” politics, four local women of color have bucked the odds to become leaders, role models and examples of what can be done if one has the desire and the will.
The women, Shirley Black, Paulette Fox, Elizabeth Nkonoki-Ward and Doris Kurtz come from disparate backgrounds and have diverse political viewpoints. Their educational backgrounds cross the spectrum from some college to a doctorate in education and their politics range from right-of -center Republican to Democratic liberalism.
There are, however, common denominators.
For each of the women, race, as a factor in either success or failure, is not a viable measurement of how a person will do in society. Instead, these competent and powerful women emphasize attributes that come from family, friends and functionaries in the workplace.
Paramount to all of them are the equally important trifecta of parental concern, exposure and community. All four are mothers and stress the importance of having parents who not only cared but made the time to involve their children in the workings of their everyday lives while allowing them the space to grow; the responsibility of leaders in the community to expose themselves as role models and that the reintroduction of community values is the foundation for developing our youth.The Governmental LiaisonA product of Vidalia, Ga., Shirley Black came to New Britain in 1960 after graduating high school. She never left.Black spent her working career with American Hardware as a machine operator which gave her a good livelihood and a sense of community in her adopted city. After retiring in 2002, Black decided it was time to give back to the city and its people.Always the community activist, she became involved with local unions and the problems of labor and management relations.As she raised her family in the Pinnacle Heights projects, she found she had a knack for working with people and convincing them to get involved.At the urging of friends and politicos, she took over a seat on the Common Council in May 2005, finished the term and successfully ran two more times.“It’s been a good match for me,” she says. “I like people and I like to do good things for them.”Black says that being on the Common Council has more significance than just making decisions on municipal budgets and funding. As a black woman, she recognizes that she has a responsibility to be a role model for all members of the community.“I try to treat all people fairly,” Black says. “I want people to know that you shouldn’t judge someone before you get to know them. Treat people like you want to be treated and you’ll go further.”In New Britain, with its fluctuating ethnic populations and slow economic times, Black sees a population of youngsters who are getting lost in the shuffle. She is an advocate for bringing back tighter family units and community involvement.“A lot of kids don’t have parents at home and they are on their own,” she says. “Children need a strong figure in their lives. You can’t always do what you want but you do have to do what’s right.”While she may be able to influence adults as a city councilor, in retirement she also is a school crossing guard and uses that position to reach youth.“I hear what they’re complaining about, talking about or how they’re doing in school,” she says. “I tell them about how valuable it is to study and learn as much as they can. I tell them to have a dream and keep working on it.”The Black PantherRaised in the North End of Hartford, Paulette Fox is the executive director of Opportunities Industrialization Center of New Britain which has been operating employment and training programs in the city 1972. A city resident for more than 23 years, Fox credits her success on a strong family and, not to any small amount, her own radicalization during and after her college years.“By having strong African-American role models who I observed and were active in the community, I learned what it is to give back,” Fox says.A former member of the Black Panther Party, Fox maintains that, while massively misunderstood outside of the black community, the Black Panthers were by and large formed as a progressive political organization whose aim was the education and uplifting of minorities.The daughter of a parking lot attendant, Fox says her father taught her the value of work and its relationship to a good life.“Through my father and mother I was taught to work hard and enjoy the company of people,” she says.After graduating from Weaver High School, Fox attended college at Eastern Connecticut College, now Eastern Connecticut State University, and for the first time ran into racism.“I was one of 50 black students on campus,” Fox says. “I experienced prejudice for the first time.”As she took in the college experience she found herself exposed to the black-power movement at its height.“I became a Black Panther,” she says. “We did the Freedom School in New Haven and many other positive things.”For Fox, the time was one of finding out where she belonged.“Between contacts with the hippies and the Black Panthers, I began to see that I needed to be more involved in the black struggle,” she says, adding that she briefly dropped out of college but quickly found that education was the best way to make a change. “I wanted to save the world but realized to do so, meant being knowledgeable and well-informed.”After college she taught in Hartford and later in Glastonbury with Project Concern, a program that helped bussed students deal with the cultural problems that came with the program.“I was allowed to be creative and started the first Human Relations Club in the school,” Fox says. The club allowed students of different races and different socioeconomic status to mix together and find out something that had been hidden to them.“They were all the same,” she says. “Teenagers all have the same concerns, problems and issues.”Fox says that realization helped her to be able to reach out to more people and to make exposure part of her curriculum.“When you watch people of different ethnic backgrounds come together, you find out how quickly the stereotypes fall away,” she says. “I want people to experience that diversity, that exposure, to what they don’t understand.”The Community EducatorIf anyone has a doubt that Doris Kurtz, school superintendent and holder of a Ed.D. was meant to lead, then they haven’t met her.At the helm of one of the larger school districts in the state for more than eight years, Kurtz is known as a micromanager who wants things done right — which is to say, her way.“I can work with another way but you have to show me it’s better,” Kurtz says during a recent visit to the House of Arts, Letters and Sciences (HALS) Academy.As a leader in the field of education, Kurtz knows she is a role model and acts accordingly. While many superintendents of a school district with half the 10,000 students that Kurtz oversees would spend a large amount of time ensconced in their office, she is constantly visiting schools.“I want the students, black, white, brown, whatever, to know that I’m here, I’m watching and I care about what they’re doing,” Kurtz says. “Example is the easiest way to be a role model because they see you with your flaws and your achievements.”Kurtz says she doesn’t believe in trying to be perfect because people see through that quickly. Instead, she believes that preparation is the best way to teach people.Brought up in the middle-class factory town of Chicago Heights, Ill. by parents who dealt with both good times and bad as manufacturing hit hard times, Kurtz said her parents’ view of parenting never changed.“I had very strong parental guidance and my parents were both big role models for me,” she says. “Work ethic, pride and respect for ones self and ones heritage were very important in my home.”Kurtz says race was not as big a factor as were family name and values.A teacher who loved to teach, Kurtz says she never intended to go into administration because she did not want to lose the close contact with students. Her supervisors, however, had other ideas for her. Asked to take on more responsiblepositions, she began to see that the loss of close contact was replaced by a higher responsibility.“You begin to see the bigger picture,” she says. “You touch more than the kids you see that year and you also get to teach the adults.”As an urban center, the city is home to a population made up of many residents in the lower socioeconomic strata, and as such has problems not seen as commonly in surrounding communities.“We all have the same problems, but we just see more of them,” she says. “It’s about knocking down urban barriers and allowing people to see, through you, that you can be what you want.”Kurtz says she has high expectations for herself, and that it allows her to have high expectations for her students and her teachers. She stresses that being resilient, being resourceful and working hard are the keystones of success.“You never stop being a teacher if you really lead, and you never stop being a learner because you can always learn from others,” she says.The Voice of a GenerationAs understated as she is well dressed, Elizabeth Nkonoki-Ward’s calm demeanor belies the passion of a woman who sees clearly the ills and complacencies of modern-day society but knows that leading quietly can sometimes be the best way to reach others.“One of the basic things I see is that a lot of the younger parents are working so much that they don’t get to spend time with their children, which is extremely important,” she says, “but you can’t just walk up and say that. There are so many bad influences and negative images in the media that we all have to take responsibility for the children.”Nkonoki-Ward teaches at Central Connecticut State University in the Educational Opportunity Program and gets to see first hand what a lack of role models can do to students.A music student at the Danbury Music College, (now the Ives School at Western Connecticut State University) she was the first African-American to be accepted to the school’s music department. Interestingly, Nkonoki-Ward did not run into any overt racism.“I have been the only black in so many situations,” she says. “Generally, I have been blessed because most people treated me with respect when they got to know me.”One schoolmate did ask her if she should be called, “Blackie,” and when told no later became a close friend.In 1971, while researching and writing an article on the role of African-Americans in New Britain, she found out she had avoided many of the base-racism that so many other African-Americans experienced.“I had a good support system and tried to carry myself well,” she says.Nkonoki-Ward recognizes that as a black, female Republican she already is in a minority’s minority.“Most blacks were Republicans when I grew up,” she says. “In America, you can vote any way you want, so what you call yourself isn’t as important as what you do.”Although not overtly political, Nkonoki-Ward says she found her way by being a responsible person who raised her children in a way that would allow them to grow and become good people in the community.A stint on the New Britain Board of Education in 1985 allowed her to fulfill a desire to step up and set a standard for students in the community. Today, she serves on community organizations and enjoys her work with the New Britain Symphony.“New Britain is a unique city in many ways,” she says. “We have excellent schools and teachers but we must do more to reach out to the younger generation and make sure they have the guidance and leadership that will allow them to realize their true potential. That’s our responsibility to the community.”Four women, four views, one outcomeAs New Britain continues to grow, diversify and attract new people of different cultures, the ideas of these four women will continue to reverberate throughout the community.Without overt criticism, they call on parents, family members and neighbors to realize they are all members of a larger community and that the expectations and opportunities open to future generations rely heavily on not forgetting traditions. But they also remind young people to look ahead to a future with a black president, a black family in the White House and a new and evolving belief that the credo, “All men are created equal,” has never been more true.“I think a lot of younger people really haven’t had a chance to absorb what the election of Obama means,” Black said. “In time, it will make a difference.”Fox, who deals with people looking for training and wanting to make a change in their lives, sees the Obama presidency as providing something for people to aspire to.“Having him as a reference point can only be good. Not everyone wants to be president, but everybody wants success and now they can see a black man who is a success,” she said.Whether it is Kurtz’s philosophy of “leading through education,” Nkonoki-Ward’s belief that it’s best to “focus on the positive in yourself and your community,” or Black’s admonishment to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and “never let anyone take away your dream,” or the more pragmatic approach of Fox, these women have spoken out and plan to continue to do so.“Don’t use your color as an excuse,” says Fox. “But don’t forget it either. Be proud.”