J. Mason Davis Leadership Society Hosts Panel of Black Leaders at Miles College

United Way of Central Alabama’s (UWCA) J. Mason Davis Leadership Society recently hosted a “Meeting of the Minds” panel discussion featuring Black leaders from across the Birmingham area at Miles College in Fairfield.

Panel Guests:

  • Ruby Davis, District Judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Alabama.
  • Bobbie Knight, President of Miles College.
  • J.T. Moore, Birmingham City Councilor.
  • Andra Sparks, Birmingham Municipal Court Presiding Judge.
  • Cedric Sparks, Chief of Staff to Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.
  • Randall Woodfin, Mayor of Birmingham.

Hosted at the C.A. Kirkendoll Learning Resources Center, the discussion was an opportunity for members of the J. Mason Davis Leadership Society as well as Miles students to hear from panelists on a range of issues encountered in their careers. Cleo Crawford, Co-Chair for the leadership society, moderated the discussion.

To open the discussion, each of the speakers talked about barriers they had overcome in getting to their levels of leadership. Knight said most of the barriers in her professional experience resulted from being a woman.

“I was in corporate America for almost 38 years, and when I started at Alabama Power Company, women couldn’t wear pants to work,” Knight said. “What I always tried to do — and this is what I tell my students now — is be the best you that you can be, and don’t let anybody try to tell you what you can’t do.”

Woodfin, who was elected Mayor in 2017 at the age of 36, said many doubted him because of his age.

“It does not matter how young you are. Whatever barrier that is placed in front of you — when people tell you that you can’t or you shouldn’t — if you find the balance of ambition and purpose, you can literally climb over any hurdle, literally punch through any wall and be successful at whatever it is you have a passion in,“ said Woodfin.

Moore said much of his struggle to succeed came from within himself and encouraged Miles students to know their value.

“I’ve always been told that I was a leader, but I had impostor syndrome, and I think that’s something that all of us have experienced,” Moore said. “People tell you, ‘Hey, you would be good at doing this,’ but you’re not really believing in it yourself. I had to get to a place where I owned that fact.”

Cedric Sparks emphasized the importance of relationships in getting to his place within city government and specifically pointed to all the other panelists, many of whom he knew before being selected as Woodfin’s Chief of Staff.

“I’m honored to serve with them because I know them as people, and that’s the reason I think I get the privilege of serving as Chief of Staff. The affirmation for me to serve in this role came from President Knight [who served on Woodfin’s transition team]. We got the chance to work together when I was in Youth Services,” Sparks said.

Among the advice given by panelists, multiple speakers said they wished they had put more effort into their academic performance in college. Jerris Baker, a junior at Miles studying accounting, asked the panelists what tips they could offer to help students focus more on their studies.

Andra Sparks said that simply setting a regular work schedule can help keep students in check.

“If you can establish the time from eight to five every workday as your study time, whether you’ve got class or not, then you can do whatever you want to do every evening, without reservation. You can hang out as long as you want,” Sparks said. “When you establish that as your time, your peers will start respecting that as your time and leave you alone in that space.”

Davis said it’s important for young people to keep in mind that what they want in life often changes with more experience.

“Once I got into law school, I wanted to become an attorney. Once I became an attorney, I felt like something was missing. I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more, and there was a nudge,” Davis said. “This opportunity to run for office presented itself, so I wanted to become a judge, and I went after that.”

“A lot of times, your passion, your purpose will find you,” she added.

The “Meeting of the Minds” panel is but one of the many opportunities offered each year by the J. Mason Davis Leadership Society to learn, network and promote educational advancement in Central Alabama. In addition to these events, the society also takes part in a variety of volunteer activities, such as, for example, participating in UWCA’s Success By 6 early-learning initiative.

For more information about the group, as well as UWCA’s other leadership giving societies, go to https://www.uwca.org/leadership-giving-societies.