Get To Know Dr. Katherine Conway-Turner
What does Black History Month mean to you?
There are many things that come to mind when you ask this question. As an African American woman, Black History Month is a meaningful celebration and affirmation of the culture, lives, contributions, survival, and accomplishments of African Americans over a 400-year history within the United States. People of African descent have faced discrimination, prejudice, hurtful acts, and centuries of indignities. During this same people, peoples of African descent have made numerous and frequently unacknowledged contributions to the successes that are felt today. However, to make those contributions it was frequently done with extreme sacrifices, maneuvering multiple barriers, and fighting for legal recourse to be afforded any opportunity to contribute. After celebrating Black History Week for decades, the month of February was codified in the 70’s to give a space for a recognition that African Americans are here and that we have and continue to contribute to the best that can be found in this country from the roads build, the transformational science developed, the education provided, the artistic acclaims, the policies that govern, the architecture that secures and every other important aspect of this country.
As an educator, Black History Month illuminates an understanding of the contributions of Black people for our children and all seeking to be members of an educated society. The discrimination that people of color (and others) have experienced might lead our next generations to believe that few if any contributions or important things have been developed by African Americans; this is not true. So Black History month when observed in a full and layered way educates youth about the African American experience and the African American contribution. This has become a month where the television and movie industry showcase African Americans in multiple roles. This provides an educational arc to see Black people as multidimensional. We are lawyers, bankers, doctors, teachers, construction workers, tailors, and among all occupations. We have a history of fighting discrimination in many and evolving forms. We have families of every configuration. We are not the “scary other” but men, women and children that are trying to do the best for our families even those who stumble. So as an educator, the month is a time to broaden the American view of the African experience beyond any highly publicized negative aspect or a stereotypic view.
This is a month that showcases not only our survival from the clutches of enslavement but also our magnificent contributions over the years and currently.
What moments in Black history are meaningful to you?
Certainly the passing of the “1965 Voting Rights Act” was a meaningful moment. No one in my family had been allowed to vote before that act. By law, custom and fear African Americans could not vote when I was a young girl. So, when the act passed and my mother proudly went to the voting booth and took me along, it was a significant moment for the family and for me. It underscores the injustice and cruelty of disenfranchisement and the need for legislative action to remove unlawful and immoral barriers that closed doors for some that were open to white citizens.
Can you talk about one or two of the many contributions that Black individuals have made in our community?
There are far too many amazing African Americans that are leading with distinction and expertise within WNY today. I could not possibly choose among the many educators, elected figures, lawyers, entrepreneurs, health professionals, and community leaders that our community is privileged to benefit from their talents and services. But I will safely go back in history and remind everyone of an amazing Buffalonian African American woman from our past, Mary Burnett Talbert. She was an internationally known orator who fought against racism and lynching and a strong supporter of women’s right to vote. She was the founder of the Niagara Movement which prepared the consciousness and the shared commitment for the development of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her legacy of equity, justice, and women’s rights continues to be felt today and I count her among my many heroes and sheroes.
How do you think having Black leaders and staff members impact an organization’s success?
We need all the talented and exceptional leaders who are willing to live, thrive, and contribute to WNY. Thus, we need to recruit amazing people to live and work within our region. People from diverse backgrounds bring new ideas, creativity, and innovation to old discussions, hard to solve problems, and new emerging trends. Adding Black leaders will only serve to enhance our collective work as will adding the voices of diverse people from all backgrounds. Words matter and images matter. When we recruit Black leaders and staff members, we provide a clear message that we understand the importance of adding diverse voices and views. We also provide a manifestation to others that we are a community that embraces, supports, and cherishes the contribution of all people. This outward manifestation of the diversity pledges we develop will enhance the recruitment of a diverse workforce and leaders that represent the richly diverse community of WNY.
What work needs to be done to make Buffalo & Erie County a more equitable and inclusive place for Black individuals?
We are certainly making significant progress in this area, but we must stay the course. For current members of our community, we must continue to support high school completion for children and a pathway to college. Say Yes Buffalo has been a collaborative mechanism for many sectors of the community to come together to support student success. Today we face additional challenges as we move through and hopefully soon beyond a pandemic of historic proportions. The neediest families are struggling as they face death and disease at alarming and higher rates. These same Black and brown people have lost jobs and find themselves in increased need. WNY must continue to focus on education, job advancement, and career development for this part of our population. This is difficult work, but we need to sustain our efforts, maintain collaborative action, and put self-interest aside as we invest in the future workforce and leaders of our communities.