Honoring MLK Day with Leslie Morris '75

January 18, 2016

Leslie Morris

We caught up with Leslie about Women of the Dream, Inc. and why Martin Luther King , Jr. Day is so important.

What was your major at Simmons and what is your current job title?

I graduated with a BA in sociology. My current job title is Founder and CEO, Women of the Dream, Inc.

Tell us about your organization.

Women of the Dream (WOD) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of economically and socially disadvantaged girls, ages 12-18, in the city of Camden, NJ, considered one of the poorest cities in the country. The mission of WOD is to educate and empower socially and economically disadvantaged girls to make healthy choices in every aspect of their lives by providing personal growth and development services through one-on-one and group mentoring, workshops and career development programs. We envision a world in which all girls and young women, regardless of race, ethnicity, income level or social status, are nurtured and empowered to reach their fullest potential.

What are some challenges that still remain for women of color in the workplace? What's your advice to students entering the workforce?

I think one of the challenges for women of color in the workplace is trying to discern what’s sexism and what’s racism – or a combination thereof. “Was I not promoted because I am Black or because I am a woman?” asked one of my colleagues in corporate America. According to research conducted by Catalyst, some of the challenges include a greater sense of “outside status,” racial and gender stereotyping, lack of access to high profile assignments and missed opportunities for candid feedback.

At WOD, we inform our girls that they must be ready to compete in the global marketplace. No matter what their chosen profession might be, they must have certain skills that will allow them to compete in the job market – with men and other women who may have had more opportunities and resources. We also expose our girls to STEM careers because understanding technology is becoming an expectation in all roles within the workforce. Many of our girls have the aptitude for math, science and technology but don’t know it, or don’t know the many options that are available to them in the job market. They don’t know women of color in these fields, and they are not being exposed to STEM careers through schools or other avenues. I think it's important for girls to have some idea early on of what type of careers are available beyond the more traditional careers for women such as nursing and teaching.

What's the most rewarding part of your work?

It's rewarding to be able to expose the girls to new environments – places beyond their immediate neighborhoods and city. I'm preparing to take 4 girls with me to participate in the Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast being held at Simmons. One of the girls is interested in applying to Simmons. The trip will provide the opportunity to learn more about Simmons through interaction with her peers and a tour of the campus. It’s said that imitation is the highest form of flattery! How rewarding it is to know that one of my participants is interested in attending my alma mater.

Any tips on work/life integration?

There is nothing fulfilling – in my opinion – about going to work every day merely to pay the bills. If your job is not your passion, then identify an avenue that will bring happiness and fulfillment. Sometimes it takes a few twists and turns in life to discover what’s truly important. I documented some of the twists and turns in my own life in my autobiography, How Ya Like Me Now!

How did Simmons help prepare you for your career?

Simmons helped me to find my voice as a woman. I always said that had I attended a co-ed school I would not have done as well academically. As a result I ended up graduating with honors from Simmons. I was also fortunate to have attended Simmons during the height of the civil rights movement when there were more Black women on campus than at any other time period. Although there were times I was unsure of myself, and felt out of my element, I was also motivated by the presence of so many smart and ambitious Black women who knew who they were and where they were going in life.

Tell us about the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There is so much I could say about the importance of this day. There are many who do not understand or accept that a day has been set aside to celebrate his life and legacy. It is a day for all people to remember that whatever differences we may have in terms of ethnicity or culture, MLK brought hope and healing to people throughout the nation and the world. 

What will you speech at the Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast focus on?

MLK’s fight for justice and equality opened the door to educational opportunities for poor, Black kids like myself who had the intellectual capacity and motivation to attend college but lacked the financial resources. As a child I remember wanting to meet him but had to settle for watching him on our small Black and white television in the Seaview Manor housing project in my hometown in NJ. And when he made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, I was transfixed by his words. For my mother, Martin’s articulation of his dream for all of God’s children gave voice to her dream that her children would have opportunities denied her in the Jim Crow south. 

What made you choose Simmons?

I didn’t choose Simmons. Simmons chose me. I had never heard of Simmons College until a Black woman named Brenda Franklin came to my high school in 1971 to recruit smart but poor Black girls for admission to Simmons. Thankfully my guidance counselor gave Ms. Franklin my transcript and I was called out of class to speak with the woman recruiter. The trajectory of my life probably changed at that very moment. After I was admitted, I was totally committed to taking advantage of this once in a life time opportunity, despite my fears and doubts. I will always believe that I was destined to attend Simmons.

What's your Simmons moment?

I loved being surrounded by other Black women who were well on their way to successful careers. I felt proud to be among Black women who were going places!