By Donna Cooper
How MLK’s Legacy Still Resonates with Today’s Local Black Female Executives
As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Pepco’s Region President Donna Cooper (DC) sits down with Edna Kane Williams (EKW), AARP’s senior vice president of Multicultural Leadership, to talk about an American hero. Kane Williams, who hails from North Philadelphia, attended Yale and George Washington University, is proud to be a part of the AARP team that makes sure that multicultural audiences – Hispanic, Latino, African American, Black, Asian American, Pacific Islander, LGBTQ as well as Native Americans and other underserved communities — can benefit from all the organization has to offer. In fact, Kane Williams revisits AARP’s founder Ethel Percy Andrus’ famous quote many times: “What we do for one, we do for all.” She finds a strong tie in this quote and what AARP strives to do daily to fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s history-changing legacy.
Kane Williams also gives praise to president and CEO of AARP Jo Ann Jenkins, who is also an African American woman. Jenkins, she says, makes it possible to do the job that she does. Kane Williams believes you need executive level support to be impactful, and Jenkins leads this organization in a way that prioritizes going above and beyond for a variety of communities. Together, Kane Williams and Jenkins know how important it is for an organization to have executive leadership that is committed to diversity and inclusion, multicultural outreach and ensuring they keep Dr. King’s legacy alive.
DC: As a woman of color and as well as an executive, how did the values espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. influence you?
EKW: I admire his courage, first and foremost. The guts, fortitude, and stamina to deal with everything that he dealt with throughout his life, and the battles he constantly faced. When I look at a giant like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it helps me put my day-to-day problems in perspective. No battle was too big for him and he understood the fundamentals of the short and long games, which I think was part of his genius. We must look at the totality of who we want to be and where we want to go, and then be willing to make compromises. But we must always keep our eyes on the prize to achieve success.
DC: Of the messages, actions, and values Dr. King shared with the world, which ones do you strive to exemplify in your work with multicultural leadership?
EKW: His focus on social good and positive change. I love my job because I know that AARP and the work we do exemplifies the values that Dr. King espoused. For example, we continue to push for greater access to affordable healthcare. We want everyone to have access to health insurance – not die because they can’t afford prescription drugs. If Dr. King were alive today, he’d be an important ally. Also, as we begin this election year, we must honor the real sacrifices that people of Dr. King’s era made for all Americans. I feel that my work is very much aligned with the values, attributes, and causes that Dr. King himself embraced, including voting and making your voice heard.
DC: How does this intersect with your personal life ?
EDK: I have three millennial children – the loves of my life. Part of my legacy is the adults that I’ve raised, how they live their lives and how they contribute to our nation. So again, Dr. King and his legacy and his values nurture and feed my desire to make sure that I’ve created a legacy for myself when I am not here, but that I’ve also made a mark on my family, who will pick up this work and contribute to keeping this country great using Dr. King’s model.
DC: How will you be celebrating Dr. King this year?
EDW: I usually attend several events on the actual day to celebrate his life and underscore his importance, but I like the notion of just pausing and giving honor and credit to him no matter what. Hopefully doing it in a way that is amplified, either by the media or by the people in the room — making sure that we keep his memory and legacy alive. I think we must constantly make sure that the whole story is known – not just his name. I’ll spend the day both reflecting and celebrating his life.
DC: Any advice for the younger Afro readers in the African American community?
EKW: Read more – I want to challenge each of them to either go to the library, bookstore, or online and read something in depth about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his life. Yes, you know the name, yes you know broadly the story, but search out and try to find some sort of fact or aspect of his life that you don’t know as much about. Learn about his marriage, his children, the legacy that Bernice King continues to this day, etc. Dig deeper and learn more because everything that you will learn will help inform who you are and help set an even bigger example for future generations to follow.
Donna Cooper is Pepco Region President and has a critical role in shaping policy to deliver value to customers and key stakeholders. Cooper is active in the community, including being a part of the District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility advisory board, the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership board, the District of Columbia Building Industry Association board, the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable board, and many more. Cooper received her bachelor’s degree in political science from South Carolina State University, a master’s degree in public affairs from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate of philosophy in political science from Howard University.
Cooper, an African American executive as well, cites Dr. King as a major influence in her life – adding to the teachings of her parents that diversity, inclusion, and hard work are important values that she too espouses in her current role. She notes that Dr. King’s call to elevate both people of color and women helped inspire her career path and she works daily to engage friends, families, and colleagues about how to live Dr. King’s legacy every day and the critical importance of an inclusive society.