Campus & Community

Celebrating Black History Month in an Anniversary Year

A collage of women who have spoken at Simmons

Each February, Black History Month serves as a moment to honor the rich history and contributions of Black people and to recognize the scholars, activists, and everyday leaders who have shaped and inspired us. Just as important, it is an opportunity to learn and discover new aspects of Black history, art, and culture.

This Black History Month also happens to be Simmons University’s 125th anniversary year. In this context, I have been reflecting upon the many women associated with Simmons – past and present – who have not only influenced our immediate community, but whose work and contributions had and continue to have far-reaching impacts for our world.

Over the past 125 years, Simmons women have been leaders, helping to advance equity and social justice in a myriad of ways. I think about Lydia Brown, the first Black student who graduated from Simmons in 1915. She helped pave the way for future students, while also showcasing everyday leadership as a translator in World War I and a public-school teacher. I have also read about civil rights and public health advocate Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee '1920, who helped pioneer the way for Black women in medicine – fighting against racism and working to improve access to healthcare in underserved communities. And, many of us recall the iconic Gwen Ifill '77, '93HD, a trailblazing Black woman journalist who wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions.

These are just a few examples among the generations of women who are part of the Simmons community, women who have helped to shape the world we enjoy today. As impressive as their accomplishments are, I am also struck by the everyday leadership these individuals brought to their work.

It is the concept of leadership that my co-authors Susan MacKenty Brady Janet Foutty, and I discuss in our best-selling book Arrive and Thrive. We analyze seven impactful practices to help women navigate leadership. Each of these practices are epitomized by Black women leaders associated with the Simmons community, and their different approaches offer an important blueprint to help us learn and grow. These are:

1. Investing in your best self – leading from the best part of yourself by embracing the physical, mental, and psychological qualities that allow individuals to thrive. Educator and Marketing Executive Karen Thomas ‘77 describes Simmons as a place where she could invest in her best self, a community “where I learned to dream some of my biggest dreams and hone the tools to make them come true.”

2. Embracing authenticity by bringing your whole self to work with intention and ease. “By definition, your authenticity is your competitive advantage. Nobody can be you the way that you can be you,” says Vice Chair, Managing Director and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley Carla Harris, who participated in the 2023 Simmons Leadership Conference.

3. Cultivating courage by committing to action while acknowledging and overcoming fear. Former CEO of Young & Rubicam Advertising Anne Fudge ‘73, ‘98HD says that “It takes courage to show your humanity. I believe courage is the quiet strength that truly helps separate the real leaders from the wannabees.”

4. Fostering resilience by working to overcome setbacks and emerge stronger than before. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, in her memoir Becoming, talks about her roots and how she found her voice. She also spoke at the 2018 Simmons Leadership Conference, and discussed our responsibility to fight for the vision we want to achieve. Part of fostering resilience is a willingness to “look one another in the eye and ask ourselves who we are and what we’re willing to do to achieve those goals and what are we willing to sacrifice.”

5. Inspiring a bold vision by enlisting others on a mission that motivates them to create a future that does not yet exist. In our book Arrive and Thrive, Tory Burch Foundation President and Simmons University Board of Trustees member Tiffany Dufu says that “to inspire a broad vision, you must be comfortable with your ambition and have conviction.” She goes on to describe what it means to have a vision – it is this ‘idea of what the world needs that trumps what everyone else on the planet is doing and, in some ways is the best idea to move forward.’”

6. Creating a healthy team environment by personifying your organization’s values and standards while creating a supportive and collaborative environment. Chairperson and CEO of Phelps Prescott Group LLC Paula Sneed ‘69 who has been named one of the 50 most powerful women managers, discusses how she views herself as team leader with a management style that “is participatory and consensus-building. I encourage all of my people to seek innovative, creative solutions. I tell them, ‘Yesterday’s good isn’t good enough for today. We always have to seek the new opportunity in everything we do.’”

7. Committing to the work of an inclusive leader by modeling the way for others as you create a culture of equity and inclusion. Award-winning Journalist Michele Norris, who has moderated and participated in Simmons’ annual Ifill Forum has championed this idea of being an inclusive leader. In her latest book, Our Hidden Conversations, she asks readers to engage with issues of race and identity and the various ways in which Americans see and interact with one another.

As we continue the hard work of building a more just and equitable future, I am honored to recognize a few of the Black leaders who have not only arrived, but whose leadership has enabled Simmons and our communities to thrive.

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Lynn Perry Wooten