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When Dawn Bennett-Alexander agreed to teach an OLLI class this summer the topic was to be “Diversity and Inclusion in a Post-COVID World: Does It Still Matter?”

Bennett-Alexander has taught previous OLLI classes on diversity, a topic in which she is well-versed. As an associate professor of employment law and legal studies in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, she has taught business students about employment discrimination for 32 years. She holds a law degree from Howard University, but chose teaching because “I liked the idea of being able to affect people who will then affect others.”

When she was approached about doing the OLLI class, COVID-19 was dominating the news. “It felt like the pandemic had taken over everything in our lives,” she recalls. “It seemed like all other issues were pushed off the radar screen.”

But then May 25th happened. On that day, a pair of shocking events captured on cell phone videos went viral and suddenly issues of race were thrust into the glaring spotlight of public attention.

Dawn and John Lewis

Dawn with the late Senator John Lewis

Bennett-Alexander remembers getting a text about Amy Cooper, the white woman walking in Central Park who called police to report that an “African-American male” was threatening her after bird watcher Christian Cooper asked her to leash her dog per park rules. That was followed by a text about George Floyd, pinned to the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck and crying out “I can’t breathe.”

That day was a wake-up call. As protests erupted in cities across the country, Americans were confronted with the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others. Painful stories were shared across the social media platforms.

Bennett-Alexander, in the midst of teaching an online Maymester class at UGA, began receiving calls and emails from former students.

“They were reaching out saying they were so distressed about everything going on and wished they were back in class with me to talk about it,” she says. “They also wanted to know if I had posted something somewhere that they could access.”

Bennett-Alexander, whose life’s work has focused on helping people understand discrimination and inequality, knew she had to respond.

But first there was the matter of getting through the Maymester class, which was keeping her on her computer till 2 or 3 a.m. each night, posting responses to assignments and grading papers.

On June 3rd, she finally broke down in a Facebook post.

“Today is the last day of class. All assignments are turned in. I can once again turn to my life—such as it is under COVID-19. I saw a news article about the police in L.A. taking a knee, which I thought was awesome. But then I saw the simple handwritten sign held by a man standing next to a police officer. The sign said, ‘We Matter.’ I just lost it. I did the ugly cry. Just thinking about it, I tear up….

“I am not just crying for today, for black folks. I weep for ALL of us as a country. For what we have lost. For the emotional toll it has taken not only on black folks, but on white ones and everyone else. You don’t wreak this kind of havoc without it taking a toll in your doing so, without it chipping away at your soul. And I still don’t believe most whites want to be oppressive. They are simply products of the system they grew up in. That we all grew up in, that they may not have been aware of because they didn’t have to be. Now they are aware. And now they have to do something.”

Taking diversity from theory to practice

Dawn's family

Dawn and her family

Bennett-Alexander remembers a defining moment in her own life when she was 8 or 9 years old. She pulled a chair out from under a classmate named Rosetta, who tumbled to the floor. Everyone laughed, but Bennett-Alexander immediately regretted what she had done. “I wanted to be nice and kind and treat everyone equally, and I realized I had not done that with Rosetta,” she says.

Bennett-Alexander discussed the incident in the TEDx talk she gave at UGA in 2015 on “Practical Diversity,” which she defines as taking diversity theory into practice. It’s also the name of the website she recently created, practicaldiversity.com.

Her three principles of Practical Diversity are deceptively simple: 1) Figure out what your “messages” are, the things you’ve learned from the environment you grew up in and live in. 2) Stop being so judgmental; different does not mean less than. 3) Use the Golden Rule: be kind, respectful and compassionate.

Basically, asserts Bennett-Alexander, “it’s all about love.” And so, there is a section of her website called “Heart Work.”

She explains at the site: “I call this section Heart Work because I believe it will take individual people wanting to make change from the inside out, starting with their hearts (my life motto is “It’s ALL about LOVE…”) in order to do what needs to be done to create change.”

The section includes books, articles, and videos for personal knowledge, growth, and action as well as for organizations and corporations.

“Systemic racism is different from individual racism,” she says. “Systemic racism is built into laws and policies. We need to keep systemic racism and individual racism separate so we can discuss them.”

“We need to keep systemic racism and individual racism separate so we can discuss them.”

That was one of the messages Bennett-Alexander had for the OLLI class that finally met in July. The mostly white class members wanted to know how to talk about race. Her advice: first, do some homework by reading books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or When They Call You a Terrorist, the memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. Then, in cross-cultural conversations, try to listen and learn without being defensive. Some expressed anxiety about “saying the wrong thing.” Bennett-Alexander’s reply: “Don’t beat yourself up if you get something wrong. It makes sense we would learn as we grow and adjust accordingly. When you know better, you do better.”

The class went so well that the Zoom participants asked for the conversation to continue for a second session, which was also well-attended.

Conversely, in a September YouTube lecture, the first in a new series sponsored by the Office of Minority Services and Programs at UGA, Bennett-Alexander advised Black students to “give people space and grace to learn. Teach them and be gracious about it.”

That’s a principle she has followed in the 32 years she has taught students of all races and ethnicities at the university.

“I came here because [then President] Chuck Knapp asked me to help move UGA forward,” she says. She was among 20 new Black faculty who arrived at UGA in 1988 as part of a concerted recruitment initiative that nearly doubled the number of Black faculty already on campus. But she was, and has remained, the sole tenured Black female teaching in the Terry College of Business. (There is currently a Black female lecturer and a tenure-track Black male.)

Nonetheless, she is a great believer in the Power of One. And an excellent example of it. She has won countless awards through the years, but one that was especially meaningful was the Beckman award for teaching excellence that she received in 2015, one of 10 professors honored nationwide “who have inspired former students to make a significant contribution to society.”

Bennett-Alexander used the $25,000 award to create a scholarship for students engaged in diversity and inclusion work at UGA. Recently she learned from UGA’s Development Office that a former student had contacted members of his fraternity pledge class and in June had raised nearly $17,000 for the Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander Building Bridges Scholarship.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we can truly make the world better.”

Acts like that keep Bennett-Alexander hopeful. She says she feels a “sea change” has been happening since May 25th. “I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of changes, but this feels different,” she says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can truly make the world better.”

For her part, she feels okay about finally stepping away from the classroom when she retires at the end of this semester. Since her classes are currently online, she has already moved out of her office on campus. But her social justice work will continue. There’s the website and her consulting work. And more OLLI classes to teach. And the 10th edition of her textbook, Employment Law for Business, due out next year. And other books in progress.

But most of all, she says, she feels good about the current generation taking on leadership roles. As she recently told students: “I’ve done my job. Now go do yours!”

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In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, importuning him to “remember the Ladies” in drafting the code of laws for the new nation. But the founding fathers did not. Eleven years after her letter, the framers of the Constitution drafted a document beginning “We the People.” What they meant was “We the Men.” In 1787, women were not considered even three-fifths of a person, as male slaves were in figuring the number of representatives from each state to the new Congress. Women were disenfranchised and largely invisible in public life.

The first major effort to change that was the women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth McClintock drafted a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, using wording from the Declaration of Independence to assert that “all men and women are created equal.” Over the following decades, women and the men who supported them worked tirelessly for women’s rights, including the right to vote. It would take three generations of struggle for women to finally be written into the Constitution in 1920, and those who began the fight would not live to see its conclusion.

In the intervening years, the Civil War would be fought and the 15th Amendment passed, saying the right to vote “shall not be denied by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But women were still excluded. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 gave newly enfranchised Black males a voice in government for the first time and they won election to state legislatures and even the U.S. Congress until white backlash forced them out.

women's suffrageBy the early 1900s, the original leaders of the women’s suffrage movement had died, and a younger group of women activists were ready to move beyond the traditional strategies of holding meetings, writing petitions and giving speeches to persuade state legislators to allow women the vote. Led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, these women organized the Congressional Union (later the National Woman’s Party), taking more drastic action to create a federal law, instead of state-by-state legislation. They organized huge marches – one was on the eve of Wilson’s inauguration in 1913, which diverted attention from his arrival at Union Station. When three years later, Wilson was unmoved, they organized pickets in front of the White House. By 1917 women from every state took turns standing at the gates from dawn to dusk, for months on end, in rain, sleet, and snow. They were called the Silent Sentinels.

women's suffrageTo remove the political embarrassment, police arrested them, dragged them to court and threw them into prison, the most notorious being the Occoquan Workhouse. There they were brutalized, forced to work, slept in rat-infested cells on bug-ridden mattresses and fed food crawling with maggots in jail. When they went on a hunger strike, they were force fed three times a day. Prison doctors tried to place Alice Paul in a psychiatric ward. It was this inhumane treatment that became the turning point for the right to vote.

When Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification, the climax of the long struggle came in Tennessee, where a young legislator who had announced his intent to vote against the amendment changed his mind after receiving a letter from his mother asking him to vote for suffrage. With that one vote in 1920, women were finally added to the Constitution.

women's suffrageInterestingly, Georgia, which had been the first state to vote against passage of the 19th Amendment, did not formally ratify it until 1970. Georgia women were kept from the polls in 1920 with a new requirement that voters needed to have registered to vote 60 days prior to the election.

But there were victories. Suffragist Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress in 1917 from Montana. Though women had not yet gained voting rights nationally when she was first elected, some states – primarily in the West – had extended the franchise to women. Rankin bought a farm in Watkinsville in 1928 and divided her time between Montana and Georgia until her death in 1973. A group of local women used the proceeds from the sale of her Georgia property to launch the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, which provides scholarships to help older women pursue higher education.

women's suffrage posterThe first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate was 87-year-old Georgian Rebecca Latimer Felton, who was appointed to serve one day on Nov. 21, 1922, until a successor was elected the next day. The state has had no other women in the Senate until the appointment of Republican Kelly Loeffler earlier this year.

Only seven women from Georgia have served in the House of Representatives, and we’ve also have had a tough time making inroads in the Georgia General Assembly. Up until 1987, women held less than 10 percent of the seats, and it was only in the last two legislative sessions that their numbers topped 30 percent (72 of 236 members). With record numbers of women running this year, that percentage may rise.

At the local level, Athens-Clarke County has had three women mayors since the city and county governments were unified in 1990: Gwen O’Looney (1991-1998), Heidi Davison (2003-2011), and Nancy Denson (2011-2019). In 2021, women will account for five of the 10 seats on the Athens-Clarke County Commission.

Related stories: Will women be the deciders?, Silent no more, Marking the 100th anniversary