First African-American Leadership Conference still thriving 11 years after being implemented
Posted: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 12:20 pm
The Messenger 07.01.09
“The most compelling aspect of the African-American Leadership Conference is that it provides an in-depth, hard-hitting, probing, truly introspective evaluation of leadership as practiced in the past and present, especially by black Americans.” — Dr. Jesse Cannon, conference speaker
The annual African-American Leadership Conference, an outgrowth of the University of Tennessee at Martin WestStar leadership program, was the first and remains the only leadership conference focused on African- Americans in the state.
Its purpose is to discuss challenges and opportunities faced by African-Americans, especially those who aspire to leadership positions in careers, public service and civic and community groups.
Since the first conference in 1998, with attendance of 80, the conference consistently attracts 150 from throughout West Tennessee. They represent an extensive list of governmental, business, industrial and educational firms and institutions and entrepreneurial ventures.
Cannon, a Covington physician, has spoken at several conferences and each time has been impressed by the relevant and contemporary topics that are presented. He points to the diligence of conference organizers to find people knowledgeable in their fields to deliver the messages.
“Unlike Middle and East Tennessee, West Tennessee has the highest concentration of African-Americans in the state and this conference is extremely important to our emerging young leaders as it allows them the opportunity to meet and talk with leaders from across the country,” said state Rep. Johnny Shaw.
Celebrating the 10th anniversary in 2008, the group initiated two awards for people younger and older than 40, respectively, who have made substantial impacts on the lives of others. Shaw received one of the 2008 awards.
Anne Banks, Brownsville Community Development director for 27 years, is one of three 1997 WestStar graduates who organized the first African- American Leadership Conference and has continued commitment to the event. She is pleased with its longevity and agrees with Cannon that the program content draws new participants each year and keeps them coming back.
“We brainstorm and try to provide the best program possible,” Ms. Banks said of the conference committee’s work, something participants can personally relate to and also take back to improve their communities.
She added she is always amazed at the caliber of resources the group secures each year to offer a broad range of knowledge and talent. The committee not only looks for those qualities in its speakers, but also chooses people who “inspire us.”
“The conference provides a forum to discuss those issues that affect our communities ranging from health, economic, educational and spiritual concerns,” Shaw said. “Attendees have a chance to see leaders that reflect an image much like their own and are inspired to strive to greater heights and serve their communities.”
Ms. Banks said the conference has been a success from the start because of WestStar’s support and remains an important educational opportunity for African- Americans at all stages of their careers.
“Over the years, the program has been very beneficial for those moving into leadership roles in career and community,” she said, adding it likely spurs others to consider making those moves.
The recent conference in Jackson was no different. Among the speakers was Beverly Robertson, National Civil Rights Museum president. She is also principal of TRUST Marketing and Communications Consortium. She completed post-graduate management courses through the Wharton School of Business.
Participants also heard from Martha Perine Beard, senior branch executive of the Memphis Region of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. A graduate of Clark Atlanta University, she received a master’s degree in economics at Washington University in St. Louis and completed special studies at Harvard and Yale universities.
Conferences also include health and fitness, civic and education segments each year.
As the medical speaker, Cannon said, “I have covered topics that illuminate the disease processes that impact the African American community most often or with more significant consequences. In so doing, I’ve tried to share details that are not often covered by their primary care physicians.”
While the committee steered the contents of the first conference, programming from that point has been based on participants’ requests. And, at first, the committee tried to find African- American speakers for all topics.
“That has changed and is becoming diverse,” Ms. Banks said.
Likewise, the conference attracts a diverse crowd, with some West Tennessee companies earmarking it for diversity training and professional development.
As with most conferences, Ms. Banks said that one of the most significant aspects is the networking that takes place among the participants.
“You don’t rise to the top of your profession by yourself and even when you get there, you’re not alone,” she said.
Conference-goers agree. Networking was most often mentioned as a major benefit.
“It’s all the networking with so many people,” said one participant, who added that she found someone this year to offer a diversity class in her community.
“Networking, I’ve met three other people in health care-related fields. We swapped business cards and are going to keep in touch,” said another.
Still another said, “This is good for my business. I have ideas now how I can make things work ... or advance with my company.”
In a group that has ranged in age from 15-75, some of the older participants have remarked that they did not think they would live long enough to see a conference dealing with issues and topics as they impact African- Americans.
Finally, Ms. Banks said the conference gives African Americans a sense of “what we mean to each other and the importance we bring to the U.S. and issues such as the economy. We’re a driving force. Some of us are not clear about that.”
Using the history the National Civil Rights Museum houses as an example, she added, “It’s not just African American history in that museum. It shows the connection that we as Americans bring to each other and what can be accomplished when we all come together.”
“The conference has been able to sustain its longevity because it strives to deal with those extremely relevant day-to-day issues that are the common thread for all Tennesseans,” Shaw said. “This conference provides a voice for the African-American community to be a part of addressing and providing solutions for those very human and basic needs.”
WestStar Leadership, Ten-nessee Access & Diversity Initiatives, Walmart, Gibson County Utility District, First South Bank, Hardin County government, the City of Covington, the City of Brownsville, West Tennessee Healthcare and the University of Tennessee Institute of Public Service make the conference possible.
The letter-writer accuses the homeschool community of trying to pass off a “pig in a poke,” but he would do better to respond with sound research and informed comments, instead of “smoke and mirrors.”
African-American Leadership Conference, University of Tennessee at Martin, WestStar leadership program