February 21, 2012

Speakers recount personal challenges at BMBAA series

Recounting her rural childhood in 1950s and 60s segregated South and relating examples of  current issues of bigotry here in Ohio, United Way of Central Ohio President and CEO Janet E. Jackson offered a very personal and frank view of  the challenges of leadership as a person of color.

Jackson’s discussion was part of the month-long Black MBA Association Speaker Series, sponsored by the Black MBA Student Association.

 “I was given the permission to address this theme through my eyes,” said the former Franklin County Municipal Court judge and Columbus city attorney. “It’s a little uncomfortable sharing my story, but I’m going to do that. And I don’t think there is a question that you can ask that is too embarrassing. Believe me, third-graders ask anything.”

Raised in a Virginia tobacco farming community, Jackson’s family ran a farm. After attending a segregated elementary school, Jackson told of her decision to become one of a handful of black children to attend a mostly white school in the 1960s.

“The first day, the bus just passed me by it didn’t stop,” she said. “The second day, the bus stopped, so imagine being an eighth-grader, the only little black child, on a bus full of children who were taught to hate you. The Klan was very active in my community; they met every Saturday night two miles from my house.”

After graduating from the mostly white high school, she left Virginia and attended Wittenberg University in Springfield and earned her law degree at George Washington University.

“The thing I recall is there was not one single African-American professor there or even in the administration," she said. “It was challenging there, but my challenges there were much different. It had to do with culture and geography. GW had a large student body from the northeast, from New York especially, and being a country girl, I found those cultures clashed. It was cut throat.”

When she returned to Ohio, she eventually joined the Attorney General office under William (Bill) J. Brown in 1977. “Bill realized at that time he lacked diversity in his office—an office that had close to 300 lawyers. In terms of that work experience, my office was committed to diversity and women lawyers. I was in an environment that was nurturing, when it became to this particular issue.”

She would become the youngest and first African-American woman to become a section chief. She would eventually explore private practice in Cleveland as a bankruptcy lawyer, but found the environment and the judicial system hostile.

“I found I started having troubles with my peers, my white peers from the other law firms,” she recalled. “It certainly wasn’t about my work or the quality of my work, but it was just because of who I was.”

In addition to speaking about racial insensitivity she encountered, she spoke candidly about homophobia, particularly in the black community and her personal efforts in addressing the issue when a professional colleague was verbally attack.

The Leadership Speaker Series will continue through the end of February. Other executives participating in the weekly event included Ohio State alumni and local entrepreneurs Angela Cauley and Ian Blount, co-founders of Coalescence LLC. Steve Francis, chief data officer for Honda Manufacturing of America will speak on Feb. 22 and Todd Corley, senior vice president for diversity and inclusion at Abercrombie & Fitch is scheduled for Feb. 29.