By Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich
Monday, May 31, 2010
The late Dorothy I. Height insisted on African American women speaking their own minds. This Memorial Day, Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich pays tribute to a friend and mentor who leaves a bright torch for others to carry on.
Shuanise Washington, erstwhile vice president for policy for the corporate giant Altria, humbly speaks of her own baptism-by-Height:
"Dr. Height made room in her life for me when I first arrived in Washington for my new post. She invited me to her office, graciously expressing her belief that I could 'make time to make a difference' and later, supported and counseled me regularly as the first woman to chair the board of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation, of which she was a founder. She made me look at myself in transformational ways as I listened to her articulate my responsibilities as a leader and a woman," Washington wrote to me in a personal message last week.
Campbell, who has also been CEO of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation for a decade, says that she came to depend on almost daily infusions of gentle advice and strategy suggestions from Height.
"I am having great difficulty wrapping my mind around the reality of Dr. Height's permanent absence from my life and from our mutual initiatives in partnership with black women," Campbell told me during the days leading up to Height's funeral. "My original awe of being in such close contact with this iconic giant evolved into a friendship in which I wanted to protect her and yet, I knew that she was actually protecting me . . . She was my rock. For this current phase of my professional and leadership life, I am her product."
Amy Billingsley, a life-long leader in education and coordinator of the African American Leadership Retreat, worked, along with her Amistad Associates partner Robin Breedlove, in marketing Height's 2003 best-selling book, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates."
"We planned, strategized and traveled with her for three years," Billingsley recently told me. "Even in her 90s, she was indefatigable, working harder than many half her age. She was determined to sign every book and she did; hundreds of them. She was especially accessible to young people who looked to her for wisdom and encouragement. She specialized in young professionals and also mature leaders. She touched me. She knew just who to call for what purpose."
Breedlove wrote me that she once asked Height how she was supposed to carry out the assigned task of "getting (the famous author) Maya Angelou on the phone." Height said: "Just dial the phone number."
Height often did exactly that, for years, usually very early in the morning, but recently, whenever she needed you, dialing the phone numbers herself from her remarkable memory.
She would start her conversations by saying "Dorothy Height," and then proceed immediately with your assignment--for a meeting, for a statistic or a citation from some obscure publication. She ended the call by simply hanging up when the conversation had gone on long enough.
I learned never to say "OK" to her after she had finished expressing a thought because that surely acknowledged that the conversation was over and the line would just go dead! She was not overly talkative but her meanings were clear. She listened carefully and she responded succinctly and with finality. She was without peer.
Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Justice, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation in St. Petersburg, Fla. She was the first executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, Inc. co-founded by Dr. Dorothy I. Height, and is a National Council of Negro Women life member.
Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, Ph.D:
The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation: