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Looking for Next Leaders Among Women of Color

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Today concludes the Third Annual Women of Color Conference at Spelman College in Atlanta. The focus this year is on how women of color can build bridges and leadership both at home and abroad. Two of the driving forces behind the conference are Jane Smith, Executive Director of the Spelman College Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, and Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman College.

Ms. BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM (President, Spelman College): Spelman has been celebrating a 125 years of educating women who change the world, and leadership development is key to what we do. Certainly, The Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement is an integral part of our vision and we wanted to have a conference, that would essentially, bring our expertise on leadership development to the wider world, and bring wider world to our campus.

So we're very excited about the international focus that this year's conference will have.

GORDON: Ms. Smith, here's what interesting about the conference. We hear so much about the misogynistic nature of our world today. I would suspect a conference like this, in your mind, is vital?

Ms. JANE SMITH (Executive Director, Spelman College Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement): Oh, it is so vital. Women of color at an African American women's intuition allows us to have conversations about skill sets, that people of color and in this case women in particular, have as we address the very difficult times around us, globally. Very important.

GORDON: Talk to us about, president, if you will, some of the issues that you will tackle during the two-day conference.

Ms. TATUM: We are very excited to be focusing on global issues. We will be having with us, the Minister of Gender and Development from Liberia, Minister Gayflor. We are excited to have with us the U.S. Treasurer, Anna Cabral; and we are going to be featuring Honorable Shirley Franklin, the mayor of the city of Atlanta, who has an international reach; Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador. We are just very excited about the lineup of folks who will be with us, who will be helping us think about global issues and the ways in which women of color can connect with one another to solve those problems.

GORDON: Jane Smith, here is what is also interesting. I have a 12-year old daughter, so I try to remain steeped in all of what is moving women and young girls forward. Even in today's time, it is so very important for us to make sure that African American girls, in particular, understand that they have the wherewithal to be in leadership positions. Often I think, we assume that they believe that, because we have moved forward in today's times--but that isn't always the case.

Ms. SMITH: Oh, no, it isn't. And that's why it is important to have role models presented in the history that we teach in the school, as well as in our communities and the celebrations of who we are and in our homes. Because young women have to understand, as long as we have disparities around gender, and then in this case gender and race, that they are as smart and can do as well as other girls.

GORDON: I want to talk a little bit about a study that you all shepherded looking at leadership in relation to black women--not only the abilities, but how the world sees the ability of females to lead. Madam president, let me ask you again about why you decided to do this?

Ms. TATUM: Every year when we have our conference, we always like to do a survey in anticipation of it, as a way of identifying what our constituents--broadly defined--are thinking about the issues that will be focused on. And this particular survey, focuses on the role that bridge-building plays in terms of U.S. leadership, and our ability to solve some of the global issues--whether it's the war in Iraq, issues related to the economy. We really wanted to have our finger on the pulse of what people are thinking. And the results, I think, have been very informative, and we look forward to discussing the results with our participants at the conference.

GORDON: We're going to go over some of those numbers in just a moment, but Ms. Smith, who in fact was talked to for this study?

Ms. SMITH: 1,100 individuals around the United States. So it's a domestic look. They represent the demographics of this country, including African-Americans; Native Americans; Latinos; those who are Caucasians--so that we would have a true representation of the voice of America. And men and women, by the way.

GORDON: Let's get through a couple of those questions and the numbers that follow. Here is an interesting one. How would a qualified woman of color perform as president of the United States, compared to a white woman? 9.8 percent said better; 84.5 percent said about the same; 5.7 percent said worse. Did that surprise you at all?

Ms. SMITH: It pleased us greatly to see that. We've been watching, carefully, what is taking place about perceptions of women--and particularly women of color--in this country. But to have, in the raw percentages, 94 percent of our respondents to say that they felt that a qualified woman of color could perform as well as a man or a Caucasian woman, is truly something to recognize and celebrate.

GORDON: Indeed. Let me take you to one other question. And this is an interesting one, because obviously, this woman's name has been bandied about as a possibility of running for the White House--even though she has, time and time, again, said, no, that's not what I'm looking for. Can Condoleezza Rice be more effective in building bridges among diverse cultures in the United States and between nations, than a man or a white woman? 42.4 percent said yes; 38.1 no; don't know/no answer, 19.5. What does that say to us about her and about the ability to reach and build bridges, which most of these respondents clearly believe and deem as necessary?

Ms. SMITH: Dr. Tatum?

Ms. TATUM: Well, I certainly think that it's clear to me on the basis of the responses that we got, that many people view Condoleezza Rice very favorably in terms of her skills, her confidence. I do think, however, that her score is perhaps depressed a little bit by her association with the current administration, which was not seen as very effective a bridge-building administration.

Ms. SMITH: And I'd like to add that only 35 percent of African Americans thought that she would be an effective bridge-builder. It was the others who responded, who were able to bring that up to 42 percent. But only 35 percent of African Americans thought that she could be an effective bridge builder.

GORDON: What do you want men to glean from these conferences, because I suspect you would want us not to miss the message, as well?

Ms. DANIEL TATUM: The conference is for men and women, really for anyone, regardless of their background or gender who is concerned about the leadership development of women of color. We think that there's a lot of information that is cutting edge that will be presented at this conference--that has been presented in the past and that will be presented at this conference--that is valuable to men and women in for-profit organizations, or not-for-profit organizations, that will enhance their capacity to be bridge-builders within their own organizations.

Ms. SMITH: Yes. And within the historical context of Spelman, understanding deliberate education for women--and in this case, of course, African American women--we know that looking at leadership from this perspective in a deliberate way through a conference discussion with many will provide further clarity for our young women as to the opportunities that they have in leadership.

GORDON: Well, ladies, I thank you so much for spending some time with us today and telling us about the conference and also talking to us about the interesting survey there. I greatly appreciate your time.

Ms. SMITH: You're welcome.

Ms. TATUM: Thank you.

GORDON: Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College, and Jane Smith is the Executive Director of the Spelman College Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.