Women and Leadership: The Women of Influence Barely Spoken About

Black women, young, old, and in between, search for other Black women who model the tenets of leadership they aspire to become.

By: Dr. Joanne Barnes & Jake Hreha

Black women, young, old, and in between, search for other Black women who model the tenets of leadership they aspire to become. As they search the pages of history books, the positive role model is nowhere to be found – or is a one-line footnote. Often discouraged, a young woman will ask, “Where are the women who look like me, who have paved the way, the trailblazers?”

Some find answers, others do not. During the month of February, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom celebrate Black History Month (other countries in the world host this celebration at different times), but during this month, those who choose to participate are enlightened by the many accomplishments of Blacks. Sometimes celebrated are inventors, athletes, healthcare professionals, civil rights icons, musicians, and more. It's a time to take a look back on African American history, influential black women, historic black men, and the legacy they have left on people and this country. Then on March 1, as suddenly as these remarkable individuals come to light, their stories cease to be told.

As a Black woman leader, I want to inspire, and to be able to share stories that will live past the 28 days in February (and if we are lucky, 29 days). I want to pass on a leadership legacy of knowledge about Black women who may only briefly graze the pages of history books, but give me strength as a leader. When Mattel created their Inspiring Women Series, I jumped in, for me and for my great-niece, Rhianna. While not all the women in the Inspiring Women Series are included below, the famous Black women mentioned below are trailblazers, who touch my heart with their words and move me to action for the greater good.

Women of Black History

Ella Fitzgerald – Jazz Singer (1917 – 1996), provided these words of wisdom, “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do.” Her foundation provides aid to children and communities through the love for music and reading.

Rosa Parks – Civil Rights Activist (1913 – 2005), shared, “Each person must live their life as a model for others.” Ms. Parks, known as the “Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Award, along with many other awards. Her life played a significant role in the civil rights movement and the lives of African Americans throughout America.

Ida B. Wells – Journalist, Activist, Suffragist (1862 – 1931), oh, how Ms. Wells moves me. She so eloquently stated, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Wells co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club in 1896 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Maya Angelou – Author, Activist, Teacher (1928 – 2014), is probably more well-known than the other women. Her words, writings, and poetry can melt the coldest heart. I never want Rhianna to think she is just normal, I want her to hear Dr. Angelou’s words “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be,” and soar to the greatest heights. Dr. Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.

Finally, Katherine Johnson – NASA Mathematician and Physicist (1918 – 2020), well known due to the movie Hidden Figures. By the age of 13, Ms. Johnson was attending high school on the campus of historically Black West Virginia State College. The words from Johnson that inspire me to lead are, “Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious!” My curiosity has challenged my state of being and helped me to find the missing pieces. Katherine Johnson was the first woman to receive credit in her division for authoring a research report.

As a Black woman, leading in a diverse world, there is another part of history that has been an intricate part of my leadership journey - Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA). Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. was the first Black letter Greek sorority founded in 1908 and incorporated in 1913 at Howard University. I have been an AKA for 25 years as a member of Omicron Phi Omega chapter. When now-Madam Vice President Kamala Harris was selected as the running mate alongside President Biden, AKA was noticed and recognized, along with the Divine Nine.

Alpha Kappa Alpha instills strong leadership values in its members and a commitment of service to all mankind. History, specifically in higher education, will discuss fraternities and sororities, yet those Greek organizations aligned with Black students are missing from the pages. Vice President Harris, the first black woman elected to the vice presidency, is not the only accomplished, notable member of AKA; the partial list below provides an overview of the many women who have made a difference and created a space for other Black women to lead:

  • Marian Anderson

First Black woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera

  • Dr. Maya Angelou

Renowned novelist, poet, educator, dancer. National Ambassador for the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, Grammy winner for Best Spoken Word

  • Suzette Charles

Miss America 1984, contemporary singer, and actress

  • Ella Fitzgerald

Internationally famous jazz singer, known as the "First Lady of Song"

  • Dr. Mae Jemison

An accomplished physician, she became the first African American woman astronaut as a member of the Shuttle Endeavour crew in 1992

  • Coretta Scott King

Civil Rights Activist, Director of Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change and Civil Rights Activism

  • Gladys Knight

Accomplished singer and actress

  • Toni Morrison

Nobel-prize-winning novelist and poet whose works include Song of Solomon and Beloved

  • Ntozake Shaunge

Author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf

The month of February will soon come to an end. The question that remains is what we will do to continue to educate our Black community and others about the culture, history, and accomplishments of Black Americans. Black individuals have had many accomplishments that go beyond one month of the year. African Americans elected to government offices, black women's rights activists, a world renowned African American tennis player, and many more are black women in history and in the world today that inspire us.

As a leader, I must openly share what I have learned and be a role model for others while teaching others to believe this quote that guides me… “I believe in my worthiness. My soul, my body, my mind are my top priority” (Author Unknown).

Dr. Joanne Barnes

Professor, Department of Leadership Studies

Joanne Barnes (Ed.D.) is a Professor in the Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership program at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) and a senior consultant with Kozai Group in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Joanne also consults in Cultural Competence and Diversity and is a certified trainer/coach in the Inclusive Competency Inventory, Inclusive Behaviors Inventory, Intercultural Effectiveness Scale, Cultural Intelligence, and Global Competency Inventory. She consults with business, healthcare organizations, boards of trustees and higher ed institutions to assist in developing cultural humility and creating a more equitable work environment. Dr. Barnes is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. Sorority, Omicron Phi Omega Chapter, the first Greek letter Sorority for Black women and holds several leadership positions in her sorority chapter.

Jake Hreha

SEO Copywriter, IWU

Jake Hreha is a graduate of Ball State University, where he majored in advertising with a concentration in media presentation and design. He is passionate about design, and in his free time he enjoys cycling, traveling, and reading.

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