Before Joyce Ivory was president of the Charlottesville chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, she was a girl growing up in the Fifth and Dice (Fifeville) neighborhood. A Charlottesville High School track team member, cellist and a singer in the choir, Ivory looked up to a group of young women a few years older than she. Denise Johnson, current program director of City of Promise, who grew up in Charlottesville’s Westhaven neighborhood and graduated from CHS in 1998, was among that group.
Ivory, who graduated from CHS in 2002, says that Johnson and her cohort “showed us what excellence was” in a number of ways—on the track, in the classroom and in church pews—and, especially, by talking to everyone they met.
After leaving for college and spending a few years living and working in bigger cities (Ivory in South Carolina and Washington, D.C., Johnson in Richmond), both women have returned home to lead local organizations. As part of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s Paradigm Shifters series, they sat down to discuss leadership—which both women view as an act of service—in the Charlottesville community.
C-VILLE: What makes an effective leader?
Joyce Ivory: They’re forward-thinking, approachable, transformative. Leaders have to be able to pull themselves back for a second and ask, “Is this about me, or is this about our mission? Is it even bigger than that? What am I doing this for?” Transformative is a big one, though—I want to help people realize their passion and potential in life, help them find the resources to help them stand on their own two feet.
Denise Johnson: You have to be willing to build other leaders, to say, “I see these great things in you, this is where you can lead.” And when someone says to you, “I am strong here,” allow them to lead in that way. You can’t be a one-person show.
How has being from Charlottesville shaped you as a person, as a leader?
JI: Knowing Holly Edwards. She always asked, “What do you need? What can I do?” She was always among the people, so down-to-earth. She was authentic, transparent, willing to come down and level with anybody. Level up, level down, level linearly—she was one of the first people that I saw out there in the community, not looking for recognition, not looking for the notoriety or the power. She had a heart to help, to serve the community and its people.
DJ: The Edwards family impacted both of our lives. I remember seeing the Rev. Dr. Alvin Edwards have conversations with people that I thought, as a little black girl growing up in the projects, I would never be able to have those types of conversations. Seeing him stand toe to toe with certain people gave me the permission to believe that I could do it too. Additionally, the community, especially in Westhaven, allowed me to see what a real work ethic looked like. My parents and others worked hard for everything that they had; they worked many, many hours, but their paychecks didn’t reflect it. That’s where resilience comes into play. Growing up, I learned financial tips; I learned what it was like to struggle and not to be afraid of struggle, because even in the midst of struggle I was always taken care of, and I knew I could work myself through it because of the work ethic that I witnessed. I was able to see both great worlds—I saw what the world was in my own home, but I could also see what the world could be, through the exposure that I gained latching on to the Edwards family.
What are the issues you aim to address through leadership in your organization?
DJ: Westhaven is the oldest and largest [public] housing development in Charlottesville; that means that most of its residents live at or near the poverty level, under-resourced from a financial perspective. And a lack of finances often means a lack of exposure to other things, to different lifestyles that are available. City of Promise’s education-based mission was built to begin to plant seeds to say [to the kids in the Westhaven, 10th and Page and Starr Hill neighborhoods], “You are just as valuable as any other person in this community. You may not have the same resources, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be just as successful. And we will stand in the gap between, so that when you choose to be successful, we’ll be here to show you what you need.” We work to remove every obstacle that could stand in their way.
However, some people assume that, just because someone grows up poor that they are in some way lazy, or lacking in love, and it’s part of my quest to make sure that people know that being impoverished does not mean lacking in love or community or family. These are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and a lot of what I’ve learned, even with all the academic degrees that I have, the foundation started in Westhaven.
JI: Our group came together because a lot of black women, on all socioeconomic levels, feel invisible in our community—women who are floating that poverty line all the way up to women who have doctorates—we all felt somewhat alone, that there wasn’t a lot of community. And so we have this coalition of women going out to support one another as a community of black women. We’re looking to attack different issues from a political standpoint—talking with delegates; looking at issues such as suspension rates in schools; disparities between children of color being incarcerated, having to go to adult facilities and thus lacking an opportunity for education. We work with the Boys & Girls Clubs, the PB&J Fund…we have a mammogram mobile. …I advocate for mental health and self-care, too, because as much as it’s awesome for our ladies to be out there with superhero capes on, we need to empower ourselves and feed one another. We are trying to be that village in this community for black women.
What is the work that is left to be done?
DJ: With City of Promise, we’re in charge of educating two different groups [the neighborhoods themselves, plus other, more affluent people in the city]. Part of coming into this position was to challenge people and empower people on both sides of the field. Let’s really address whatever stereotypes we are bringing to this table and have an honest racial conversation, especially at a time such as now. We’re always thankful for people who want to help, but we are trying to get away from the savior mentality. We want to make sure that people are helping from an authentic space, so while we appreciate all that the community is doing for us, when you are trying to help people from a savior mentality, you’re treating people like they have a deficit or that they are lower than, or beneath them. We’re challenging that perspective.
JI: As many programs as we have to empower people, we’re also here to educate the community about these things and how people need to continuously educate themselves. Systemically, as a society, we need to stop acting like we are more progressed than we are; we need to lean into the discomfort and be honest [with each other and ourselves]. We have to stop saying “I’m colorblind” and “I don’t see race.” Let’s have a dialogue, let’s talk about it, put it on the table. …I think in light of things that happened in August, people [are realizing they] are not as progressive as they think they are; they’re living in this little rosy bubble, and it got popped. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for people to really see that we haven’t come as far as we thought we have. But I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
DJ: I think there is a group that is willing to come to the table and say, “Let’s have these conversations, let’s do what we have to do.” You can’t help how you grew up; you can’t help the things that you were fed growing up, or the assumptions that you made on either side. But you can decide what you will do from that point on. [And you can decide] to fight the systemic issues that we know exist in Charlottesville. In Charlottesville like in a few other places, certain people assume that being black equates to being poor, and being poor equates to being black. And if you [as a person of color] are articulate, if you are a different from the stereotype, then you are perceived to be an exception to the rule, and that’s not okay. We need to address the issues of affordable housing; intergenerational poverty; systemic oppression…everything that has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, way before any of us. We need to continue to break those systems down. That’s very important work that will always continue to be done.
Charlottesville’s complicated, uncomfortable history plays a role in these challenges surely. What’s the importance of educating people—particularly young folks—on this history?
DJ: There are certain stories that need to be told and re-told, so that we know our history. Not just Charlottesville history, but all history, all black history, all local history and how it impacts us. When you have that knowledge, you conduct yourself in a different way. With knowledge definitely comes power, internal power, self-love power. And power to want to better yourself and the community and your family.
What are some of the things the Charlottesville community is doing well?
DJ: There is a love and care in Charlottesville that sometimes gets swept under the rug, but it truly exists. Especially now, we’re just not in a good, positive space overall, but, in my account with the partners that have come to City of Promise to say, “What can I do?,” or, “I believe in your mission, I believe in your work. What can I give?” That willingness to do whatever it takes to make right the wrongs that have happened.
JI: People are a little more cognizant than they have been in the past. They recognize that some things have been idle and that there is work to be done in trying to figure these things out. People are stepping up, understanding that there’s no one here to save us; we have to do it for ourselves….wanting to address the affordable housing issue, wanting to go out and figure out what we can do, asking, How can we pump the breaks on this and figure something out to bring resources to our community, and retain our residents?
DJ: And retain the diversity that comes along with it.
JI: It’s still a warm community, despite some ugliness.
What could the community improve on?
DJ: A continued dialogue, a continued investment. Don’t let the situation in August fizzle out. Because, for a lot of people that were on the negative side of racial oppression, it wasn’t something that just surfaced in August. And so, we need to continue the dialogue, continue the fight, to make sure that injustices are made right.
JI: Absolutely. It’s important for stuff like that to not continue to repeat itself, that we not continue to keep coming back to this point, but we grow moving forward and kind of understanding and learning from that experience. I think that’s something that…it has some opportunity. We’ll say it that way. [laughs] There’s opportunity there.
Both of your organizations have a mission focused on young people and the community around them. Why is that?
JI: You’ve got to look at the whole person—the young person, their parents, their household. We have to dive into the mindset of everyone involved, so that [young] person can continue to cultivate on what you’re putting into the community, at home.
DJ: You have to plant those seeds; [young] minds are very fertile ground. Because they will be the group that’s charged with breaking certain barriers for all of us, we have to build them up in such a way that they are able to sustain that and fight that fight. Growing up, there were certain seeds that were planted in me that didn’t blossom until much later. But they were planted, they were in and they were ready [when the time came]. We have to make sure that these young people are always a garden.
This Q&A was conducted by C-VILLE as part of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s Paradigm Shifters series, which takes a look at how different people are making an impact locally.