Shaping the community: Women of color talk about making a difference

"They were there doing amazing work, and no one knew what they were doing."

LaSheila Yates, chief diversity officer for Cedar Rapids, at the downtown library on March 18, 2017, helps unveil a timeline documenting the history of civil rights advances in the city. “There are many women in Cedar Rapids who have a career and are community-focused that care about people,” she said. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
LaSheila Yates, chief diversity officer for Cedar Rapids, at the downtown library on March 18, 2017, helps unveil a timeline documenting the history of civil rights advances in the city. “There are many women in Cedar Rapids who have a career and are community-focused that care about people,” she said. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — African-American women who were prominent leaders in their professional lives and in the community shared their thoughts in a special report a year ago in The Gazette on leadership and advice for the next generation.

Now a year later, The Gazette followed up with some of the women to talk about what leadership and being a mentor means to them.

Negative stereotypes of African-American women abound, said LaSheila Yates, chief diversity officer for the city of Cedar Rapids.

On sitcoms, movies and in pop culture, Yates said she often recognizes a trope of “this angry, black, nasty woman who has a career and doesn’t care about anyone else.”

That stereotype doesn’t translate here.

“There are many women in Cedar Rapids who have a career and are community-focused that care about people,” Yates said. “I haven’t seen them get angry. I’ve seen them passionate about what they do. I’ve never seen those women act like that. They have represented black women in a positive light without even thinking of it first.”

Showcasing African-American women as role models is vital for not only children and young adults of color, but is important in building a sense of community, Yates said.

Growing up in Louisiana and attending a historically black college, Yates said she was surrounded by a diverse group of professionals, community members and educators, many of whom were women.


“There was a lot of mentorship, and they affirm your identity as a black woman, teaching how to learn in a world where there are differences,” Yates said. “When I came to Iowa, those women, they were like hidden figures. They were there doing amazing work, and no one knew what they were doing.”

If no one can see some of the pioneering work black women are doing in the community, how can the younger generation aspire to do the same or even rise beyond their feats?

“If your face is not available and they don’t see you represented, they don’t see their sense of identity being reinforced,” Yates said.

Here, in question-and-answer format, are more such faces and stories:

Dorice Ramsey, Executive director of Jane Boyd Community House


Q: You mentioned in the previous article that people often viewed you as a leader. Why is that?

A: I think we all have something in ourselves that along the way was nurtured ... maybe a curiosity. As a leader, you always have to be curious. When you think you know everything, you’ve lost your way. Maybe others thought if I pour what I know into this person that this person could possibly be someone that could take us to the next level. That, to me, is what true leadership is about — that you’re willing to learn a new way of doing things and taking that information and moving forward.

Q: You mentioned that you had to learn some hard lessons about leadership techniques. What were those?

A: In my mid-20s, I was taking over an organization where the people that would be reporting to me were my mom’s age. I didn’t take into account that other people bring their experience into a situation. That is really where I had to take a step back because literally all the staff left. I really tried to make sure the work environment I supported was one where people felt like they had a voice. Leadership ... it’s about when you’re going along that leadership path, bringing other people along with me. Make sure you are looking at the wisdom that’s in the room and ... incorporate that.

Q: Why is it important to have role models and how can young women of color find them?

A: Our babies that are in this community, they need to see someone like them in a leadership position. That’s why I do what I do as executive director of Jane Boyd Community House because people need to see ... you are not limited by your circumstances, your ZIP code. For African-American women, we don’t have access to the networks that would help propel our career. More people are willing to open up those networks. The barriers of access are still there, but there are ways to get around those. I tell people to get out there and network. Take (your) passion and find a board that serves that.

Q: What can we do to make our community more inclusive?

A: There is a larger, more diverse voice in our community. If we want people to feel like they belong to a community and call this a home, things in a community have to reflect our culture. What are those things that show Cedar Rapids welcomes me with open arms? You’re going to have those people who are showing themselves that no matter who you are or what you say that (because of) the color of your skin, you will be shot down. What’s going on in our country has opened the eyes of a vast majority of our community who didn’t see the barriers that stopped communities of color. Now, they’re starting to see those systemic issues and value the voices they hear. ... For anybody that’s coming up, just make sure you’re educated on the facts and don’t be afraid to let your voice be heard.


Kimberly Fitten, Executive director of Born2BeU and family and consumer engagement facilitator for the Cedar Rapids Community School District 


Q: Can you tell me more about Born2BeU?

A: Born2BeU was generated four years ago. The vision was to provide brown girls in a secondary environment with proper mentors so they can see there are other brown women excelling in life. It’s also building the self-esteem of students, inspiring them to enroll in advanced placement classes ... just a gambit of the total person. When you go to a school that is predominantly of the dominant culture, you can get lost, like all students. It started as a mentorship group of juniors and senior (females) who had to have a certain GPA so they could, in turn, mentor sophomores and a partnering middle school.


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Q: How have you impacted someone as a role model?

A: When I first started teaching, it was really important for me to dress above the standard of the building I was in. I wanted every brown child to see this is how you dress professionally, this is how you command presence. One of the students was failing my class. I had her stay after school and she was like, “I’m not smart like you and I”m not rich like you.” I shared with her a very important story that changed my life. My mom prepared the last thing of food that she had in the cupboard, put it in a bowl and put five forks in it for her kids. Later on in the night, my brother got me up and said, “Mom’s crying because she went to bed without food.” I promised myself that I would never live in poverty, nor my children; that I was going to create a better life. That story empowered (the student) to graduate and become something. These jobs that exist for these kids, we don’t know how to prepare them for it but we can prepare their minds to be limitless in the possibilities.

Q: How can Eastern Iowans create more leadership opportunities for young females of color?

A: When people understand who they are and find out their talents and passions and use their experiences, they can change their homes and neighborhoods and communities. You’re either leading in a positive way, or you’re leading in a negative way. That’s our responsibility (as role models) to make sure we are visible, to make sure we are giving back and sharing our experiences, to make sure we are reaching out to somebody else. Because (some students of color) are not the majority, they think that it’s OK to excuse themselves from being great. They don’t have the mindsight to see past that. It’s everyone’s responsibility to light the path for someone else.


LaNisha Cassell, Executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa


Q: You mentioned in the previous article that you define leadership as influence. How do you see yourself influencing others and what drives you?

A: I try to lead through example. With my team, I don’t try to make them do anything I can’t or won’t do myself. Each day is a new day when it comes to success and failure. My faith gives me boldness and humility. One of my favorite verses is from Colossians 3:17 — “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.”

Q: What are some of the ways you see yourself and the organization influencing the community?

A: Highlighting the inclusivity of history. For so long we had been taught separately. We learn about some of the great inventions ... and then hear later that this particular African-American had a significant role in that story, but it wasn’t taught together. We’re bringing awareness to the shared history. My daughter been excited about aviation and learning about Amelia Earhart. I said, “Have you heard of Bessie Coleman, who was another aviatress who was a contemporary and was never able to get her pilot’s license in the United States because she was African-American?’ She went to Paris and got her international pilot’s license probably a couple of years before Amelia Earhart. These are things we hear about that we hear the stories and they’re shared separately. African-American history is a part of American history, as well.

Q: As a woman of color, do you think it’s important to have a role model?

A: When I was growing up (in suburban Maryland near Washington, D.C.), my role models were my mother and my father, teachers. I grew up in a community with a lot of diversity. People of color were in all facets of my life: my doctor, the county executive, the council, all the people who were influential were people of color. Those are things that are important, and I don’t think I really knew how much until I had my own children. I want my daughter to see herself being able to achieve success in whatever she wants to go into. Being able to share with her my husband and my success but also sharing other people of color’s success (is important). There’s quite a few people here that we have pointed out to her.

Q: What may be some barriers stopping women of color in Eastern Iowa from reaching their goals?

A: It almost sounds like this idea that women of color are looking for something special. We’re looking for everything that everybody else is looking for. We’re looking to have the same opportunities that everybody else has, to feel welcome and invited. I want to not walk into a room and feel a cold shoulder, and I haven’t felt that since I’ve been here.


Anne Harris Carter, Alliant Energy’s director of energy efficiency


Q: How were your leadership abilities fostered?

A: My dad was known as the first black doctor in Cedar Rapids. When I was born, my parents had just finished building a home in a neighborhood where there was a petition to keep them out. I grew up very aware that I was a minority. I grew up in a neighborhood where at the time we were the only black family. In school ... I did violin and took piano lessons, and there weren’t a lot of other black students in orchestra. Part of it for me was that there weren’t a lot of other students around me. I was looking primarily to my siblings who were doing a lot of leadership roles in the community. That idea of making a contribution and even in the face of adversity moving forward was very much a value my parents gave me.

Q: Did you have African-American role models in your career and do you consider yourself a role model?

A: In the corporate landscape today, there are three black CEOs (of Fortune 500 companies). They all happen to be male. Over time there have only been 15. That’s not a big number. Just as I grew up being black and only one of a few, that’s very much been my career experience, as well. That’s not a criticism, that’s reality. It’s not that a mentor or role model has to look like you, but it can be helpful. It’s this idea that if there aren’t people that look like you, it’s hard to imagine your possible self. Now, it’s humbling to think there probably are people that look to my generation as role models. I take that seriously. I also did diversity and inclusion strategy for about 15 years, so part of my job was to facilitate conversations about race or differences that could make people uncomfortable. When we share experiences and perspectives, it makes us stronger as a team and stronger individuals.


Q: How do can we make workplaces more inclusive in Cedar Rapids?

A: There’s very much a need to have a group of people with shared experiences. When there aren’t a lot of people in your organization that look like you or have shared experiences, it takes extra effort from the outside. That plays into retention for corporations. At Alliant Energy, we have employee resource groups. Networking (within the company) through social things is another way. External networking, where we connect employees across companies is a second. The third is volunteerism. I serve on a couple of boards, and I think there is an increasing realization that most of the people on our board look the same. What do we need to do to draw more people of color or individuals new in their career? I think that is starting to change. But the idea that there are black professionals here in Cedar Rapids is not widely recognized. I think it goes back to that critical mass. Here in Cedar Rapids, I’m keenly aware that — because we have fewer large metropolitan areas and have a strong rural culture — I meet people all the time that have never worked with a black person. That reality of being one of the few is magnified.

Q: How can we continue to talk about issues of race in Eastern Iowa?

A: My 28-year-old daughter, when the Ku Klux Klan rally happened in Virginia last summer, it was the first time I’d heard her say she literally had recurring nightmares. To see the torches and see that come to life is something that’s a trigger. This still is present reality. My son is at a relatively small (college) with a small black population, he feels compelled to model what it means to be black as opposed to some of the images that might be dominant in the media, the negative stereotypes. While I’m accustomed to having tough conversations, there are still some areas I don’t feel quite as safe. My heart aches for my children knowing that’s still a part of our dominant culture. From a race standpoint, we never dealt effectively with the aftermath of slavery, then jumped forward to Jim Crow or civil rights. There’s still stuff swirling about in the atmosphere. Dialogue is important. Being able to have those conversations is really critical. Where it can be frustrating is the action is slow and coming, and from a hiring and recruitment standpoint it’s still slow and coming. It does take extra effort.”

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