Empowerment is a Muscle: Use It
or Lose It
by Carol Caley
A community activist for over 40 years, a city council member for the City of Oakland, a Vice Mayor of that city, and president of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) for over thirty years, Dezie Woods-Jones served as an administrator for the Peralta Community College District for thirty-four years, now retired. She has won countless awards and has served on dozens of committees and boards for community improvement, for civil rights, for women’s rights, and to promote youth. She's been a sought-after speaker and even had her own television show.
Q: That's quite a record. When you look back, what accomplishment stands out as your most proud achievement?
A: For me it’s not just one proud achievement but a combination of the people who’ve crossed my path during this life’s journey. I’ve been so blessed to experience profound relationships, the involvement and engagement of visionary and talented individuals who have helped to shape my life.
It’s been a journey. It’s been humbling, even overwhelming at times. It goes all the way back to my parents who believed that if you wanted to make a change, if you wanted to make a difference, you had to be involved. You could not just wait for someone else to do it for you. And back to my experiences in the civil rights movement, where I worked with individuals such as Ralph Featherstone, Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael), Julian Bond and others. These were individuals who were visionaries, committed and compassionate leaders, many who gave their lives, in the struggle and fight for justice. I had the opportunity to work with talented young people who were so committed, back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and into the early ‘70s. I traveled and spent a lot of time with the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) at their national headquarters in Atlanta, so I had that experience of working on voter registration, and voter education.
Some of our dynamic women leaders—such as Maxine Waters and Diane Watson and Shirley Chisholm—are people I’ve been blessed to know and engage with over the years. But there are also so many other women and men whose names you might not recognize, but who have been faithful, dedicated individuals making a difference in this fight for justice and making a better world. As for me, whatever difference I have been able to make seems miniscule when I compare it to what others have done.
|“We’ve got to be a voice. We’ve got to prepare ourselves. We’ve got to prepare others.”
Q: How do you go about mobilizing women to be leaders?
A: When we’re engaged in struggle, whether for civil rights or women’s rights, we grow and evolve. After leaving my work in the South and coming back to California, it was important to find a way to continue working on justice issues. The women’s movement was taking hold, and there was a group of African American women who got together in an effort to have an impact on the issues and concerns facing our community. We were all engaged in the political dialog, wanting to see more women represented in the decision-making arena, and certainly being elected to public office and serving as an elected or appointed official addressing critical public policy issues was an important part of the discussion – and for us, it was critical that we be involved.
A number of Bay Area activists, including this dynamic group of women, decided we wanted to run Ronald V. Dellums for Congress. I believe the year was 1968. People said, you’re not going to win this election (we were up against a very popular democratic liberal at that time). But the bottom line was that the women really got together, made a commitment. That was our youthful courage: we had come out of the civil rights experience and we wanted to continue our struggle and prove that we could be viable in the mainstream arena. So we formed this group that was originally called Women for Dellums, to raise dollars and walk the precincts, and do that not-very-glamorous work to get Ron elected. We were successful in that effort. That was the genesis of the organization we have today that we affectionately call “BWOPA”.
During that period, we found a lot of discriminatory notions around women’s leadership. We would say to the political leadership: let’s put a woman on this commission, or see if we can’t get a woman elected to this position. Far too often the response we would receive was, well, it’s not quite her time, or she’s not quite ready yet, or we can’t win this seat with her as our candidate. We had been the ones to help others to get elected, both black and white, but it seemed that whatever we did it was rarely our turn to run a woman for office , and certainly very few African American women. So we decided that we needed to organize ourselves, to build strong capacity for leadership, and then to train and put our own women out there as viable candidates for public office.
So that became the focus of our organization – organizing, educating, training and preparing women for leadership. We are taking that same dream that started over 40 years ago and bringing it to today. We’ve changed how we deliver the message but the message is fundamentally the same. We’ve made great strides in how we engage people in the dialog. We’ve got to be a voice. We’ve got to prepare ourselves. We’ve got to prepare others. That started our journey into building women leaders and getting them engaged in public policy. If we don’t become a part of the decision-making process for our communities, then others will make those decisions for us.
|“I watched what could occur when people had the courage to stand up to the system. For me, that was a very powerful lesson.”
Q: Early on, what led you to want to work on behalf of the community? Was there a person or event in your background that inspired you?
A: I was blessed to have parents who were activists. My father was one of the founding members of the Fresno NAACP. He was always an entrepreneur even though his formal education was only through the 10th grade. He owned a store, restaurant and a social hall where big bands came to play. He knew he could always stand on his two feet, and he always taught us that we should have the courage to stand up for what we believe. My Dad was one of the early officers in the Fresno area NAACP, and a leader and officer in our church, as was my mother. My mom always appeared to be in the background, but she was someone who quietly inspired us. She was very active in the National Council of Negro Women, and in the church and PTA. They taught us not to be whiners or complainers but to be doers: “Get involved, make a difference”.
I’ll tell you one story. Going to high school in the 1950’s in Fresno, I loved acting, and I auditioned for a play. The teacher told me, you were the best one, you were excellent, but we can’t let you be in this play because it just wouldn’t look right to have a black mother and a white father. I was devastated. I went home in tears. But the inspiration was that my father said that was unacceptable. He got some officers of the NAACP, and they went back to the school. The principal called the teacher in, and my father said, this is an educational institution, this is training. Our daughter should have the same level of training and involvement as any child, and we will not have this happen. It turned that decision around. I got the part. But more than that, I watched what could occur when people had the courage to stand up to the system. For me, that was a very powerful lesson. My parents made the decision to take on something that they could have endured— and said to me, like so many others have said, ‘Get over it honey, you will be fine, there will be another time,’—they didn’t do that. Through that seamless action, they taught me, by standing up to injustice you can make a difference.
Q: What are the top qualities you look for in a leader?
A: I’m certainly prejudiced. (laughs) I think women make the best leaders. For me, Leadership is about integrity and commitment. The most important characteristics that I encourage are to be serious and mindful about the task that you choose to undertake. Be engaged. Lead with integrity, fairness and commitment. Be passionate. So often we see people who might want the glitz and glamour of leadership, but they don’t see or understand the necessary work it requires to truly make a difference. The power of leadership is having people respect your leadership because they respect your character.
|“The power of leadership is having people respect your leadership because they respect your character.”
Q: How does being a female affect leadership? You especially assist black women who aspire to political leadership. What are their challenges?
A: When we are out encouraging and educating women about engaging in the political process, which is one of BWOPA’s/TILE’s priorities, we’ve found that there are many obstacles. Many African American women have not grown up in an environment where they have witnessed political involvement. When your parents have served on the city council, or in the state legislature or in congress, or know people who have, you take for granted that those opportunities are open to you--it takes the mystique of serving in elected office away. It takes the fear and apprehension away. But many African American women have no clue what that experience is like--they do not see those possibilities in their reach--and usually have no idea what serving in those capacities could mean for their community.
Exposure, training, increases and enhances the idea that you are capable, empowered and can achieve these goals. Political fundraising can be a challenge, but can be overcome. Many women feel they will not viable candidates because they lack the confidence that many men start off with. We convince people that, yes, you can win, because money flows when people think they have the opportunity to be successful. You have to get people to understand that they can make a difference, they can be effective, they just need the courage and confidence to exercise the power within.
We often put people who are in office on a pedestal. We think we can’t do what they can do. Part of our job and our vision has been to demystify that process, to educate and train, to make aware, to encourage and inspire. Once we do that, we can overcome hurdles. You’ve got to exercise your empowerment. If you don’t, you lose the ability to move forward. We are proud of the successes we have had, women who are in office, in corporate positions, who have been a part of our circle. Because of our network, their lives have been improved, and they continue to improve the lives of others. It’s like the domino effect. You help one, she helps another, they help two more. Empowerment continues to spread.
|“We often put people who are in office on a pedestal. We think we can’t do what they can. Part of our job and our vision has been to demystify that process.”
Q: To paraphrase the BWOPA website: “Everything is political.” Tell us about that.
A: So often, people think of politics in a narrow way, in terms of holding political office. We believe that whether you are dealing with healthcare issues, educational issues, foster care issues, or the church, it is people who are making decisions about life. These decisions are being made by those we have chosen to represent us, locally, regional, or nationally in respect to how we live, how we work, how we socialize—those decisions are political. If we are not engaged in a dialog on those issues, then others will be making those decisions for us. You’re involved, you’re just involved in a passive way. You could be engaged in an active way.
Q: Was there ever a lesson you learned—the hard way?
A: I’ve learned lots of lessons the hard way. My mother and dad used to say, you’re just a hard-headed kid. Over the years, age has seasoned my impatience. I’ve learned that problems are not best resolved by confrontation, that collaboration and deliberation are much more effective tools. I have bumped my head many times, like a bull in a china shop. There was a time, when I was younger, that I was impatient and determined to tackle any problem straight on. Sometimes this style comes across very confrontational, and then you end up in an unnecessary battle and no one wins. The lesson for me, thank God for age and wisdom, is that discussion and diplomacy is often the better solution. There are times you may have to come back to confrontation, but that’s not the first line of approach.
Q: If you could put it in a nutshell, what advice would you give to the women of Leadership California?
A: For those who aspire to be better leaders, there’s always work to be done. Leadership is really about serving others, wherever we choose to do that, whether it is in the corporate arena, the public policy arena, in our communities, or being an activist. It is the most rewarding when we find our purpose and our passion in doing the work we do, to serve others. Some of us are caught up in doing things because we have been told it is the right thing to do, or because it is a stepping-stone to something else. I would encourage us not to lose our purpose and our passion. I do not think I’ll ever get to the place where I think my work is finished. I will always have something to learn. I hope that I am fighting and struggling on behalf of making a difference until the day I die.
Trailblazers Shine Light on Road Ahead for Female Leaders
Leadership California’s new Trailblazer Award will honor the achievements of California women leaders who exemplify a spirit of exploration, passion and groundbreaking achievement, and whose efforts light the way for others to follow.
The Trailblazer Award looks back to the founding members of Leadership California, a group of women who helped others to become groundbreaking leaders.
From MLK to Obama:
“We have Come
a Long Way”
“I was at the Democratic convention in 2008 when President Obama was nominated. The New York Times was there, interviewing people who had participated in the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, people who had experienced that era. And now here we are, decades later, at the convention.
It was so funny: the gentleman who was interviewing me said, ‘why my goodness, you must have been a child, did you go back there with your parents? How old were you?’ I said, Oh honey no, I was in college!
It does remind you that we have come a long way, witnessed so many changes, and yet have grown in wisdom, in terms of being able to move forward. We still have some battles and some issues to fight.”