African-American Women in Pittsburgh Explain Their Leadership Roles

By Zoe Vongtau | Urban Agenda

Imagine the prominent activists of the civil rights movement, and the names Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and Assata Shakur are among those who come to mind for many.

Historically, black women have been at the forefront of movements and revolutions. Today in Pittsburgh, that legacy continues with black women continuing to create, work, and lead in organizations that represent all facets of activism.

Brandi Fisher, 40, creator of the Alliance for Police Accountability in Pittsburgh and an African-American woman, called it inspiring to see black women in leadership roles in Pittsburgh as well as across the country.

“It’s, to me, a picture of where we are right now,” she said. “ Whether activism or on the front line or in the home, you have more women leading, more black women leading.”

One of those women, Blayre Holmes, 27, is program manager of the Women and Girls Foundation. The foundation, geared toward high schoolers, aims to create future leaders through activism, political involvement and teaching.

In her two years with the program, Holmes has expanded the curriculum and increased the number of returning attendees.

“I’m intentional in every step I make in making them involved with the curriculum,” Holmes said.

She noted the most enjoyable part of the job is being with the girls and “being able to provide a space where they feel safe.”

Joyce Davis and Connie Parker are pursuing their activism by serving as presidents of local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Parker, Pittsburgh chapter president since 2012, has been involved with the NAACP for nearly 35 years. She was inspired to join after experiencing discrimination at work, when she was the first woman to be hired as an engineer at IBM.

“They couldn’t see me in that position, not because I was black, but because I was a woman,” Parker said.

Today she heavily advocates for the importance of voting in local elections.

Even though people today are interested in voting nationally for presidential candidates, Parker said deciding who controls local government is equally, if not more important.

“We aren’t in touch with [government officials] nationally, but we are locally,” Parker said.

Local issues were also important to Joyce Davis, 61, president of the Penn Hills NAACP. She began her work with the organization as a volunteer when she discovered a case of educational discrimination.

As president, Davis is now involved with tackling a wide range of inequity, as well as pushing for accessible and inclusive education.

“I believe that if we know our history that helps us get further down the road,” Davis said.

Chaz Kellem, Senior Director of Advocacy for Race and Gender Equity at the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh Area, appreciates the work of black women.

“I think that [when leading] they bring respect, courage, and power,” said Kellem, who works to educate people on the prevalent issues that affect minority groups. “We need to figure out how to use that energy in the right way.”

Fisher harnessed her energy to create the Alliance for Police Accountability in 2010 after student Jordan Miles was beaten by Pittsburgh police.

“Our mission is to bring communication, to reconstruct the political justice system through advocacy,” Fisher said.

Since its launch six years ago, the alliance has adopted multifaceted programs that investigate issues, combat ignorance and increase youth involvement. Programs include Activism of Love, a youth organizing group, and Operation Stay Engaged, which teaches the community how to navigate the political process.

Fisher’s program pursued justice in Miles’ case and was successful in helping to get marijuana arrests decriminalized.

“I can’t rest until we [activists] know we’re operating [and working together],” Fisher said.

Local activist and Amachi Ambassadors Coordinator Kayla Bowyer hasn’t rested in her work with the program, which helps children overcome the challenges of having incarcerated parents.

As a youth, Bowyer was enrolled in the program, which she now says gives her “an interesting perspective when relating with the teens.”

She is inspired by those who fought for the same goals before her, their sense of dedication and the future of generations after.

“I think of legacy, that’s what keeps me strong,” Bowyer said.

The work of these women and others has not gone unnoticed. Recently, social media websites like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook have been home to hashtags, such as #BlackWomenDidThat and #BlackGirlMagic, that highlight and commemorate the work of black female activists, past and present. Fisher said when the system has gone after black men, black women have taken up the mantle of leadership.

“They didn’t imagine black women would rise up,” she said.

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