Listen, Engage to Craft Solutions to Problems
Mildred Edwards would like young women who look to her as a role model to learn one lesson from her life:
“Anything is possible that they’re willing to work to accomplish,” she said.
Edwards, the executive director for the Kansas African-American Affairs Commission and a 2012 CSG Toll Fellow, learned that lesson early in life simply by looking at the accomplishments of her grandmother. Bessie Pinner was born in 1900 and earned a doctorate. She was a pharmacist, a science teacher and was involved in many of the civic organizations in which Edwards herself is now involved.
“She was my academic and my civic leader role model,” said Edwards.
Like her grandmother, Edwards has a long list of academic achievements; she earned a bachelor’s degree in health care administration/public relations, a master’s degree in public health and a doctorate in community psychology, all from Wichita State University. She recently was appointed to the Kansas Board of Regents.
Edwards’ education and experience reshaped the focus of work at the Kansas African-American Affairs Commission. Her predecessor was an attorney who focused primarily on legislation and policy. As a community psychologist, Edwards is taking a different route to reaching the goals of equity for African-Americans in Kansas.
She developed a project—the State of African-Americans in Kansas—to establish a baseline for “equity impact areas” affecting people’s lives. The project conducted a black/white comparison in five key impact areas—healthy and safe communities; schools and educational opportunities; economic opportunity and asset building; criminalization and social justice; and civic leadership and advocacy.
But Edwards didn’t want her commission to just share the negatives.
“We wanted to make sure we were heralding the accomplishments of African-Americans in our state,” she said.
That helped to develop a database that has recorded more than 500 contributions of African-Americans from Kansas in five key areas.
“When we go into the communities, we’re able to start our community conversation around the accomplishments of African-Americans,” she said.
“When you have populations that are either apathetic or hopeless, beginning from a position of positivity is critical to get them engaged,” Edwards said. “We have a lot to celebrate in the state of Kansas and we’ve got to do a better job including everyone in positive messaging.”
The commission established equity advisory groups in each congressional district. Those advisory groups include many individuals who may already be doing things in their community or may be interested in advocating in the African-American community.
These “3-D” events, as Edwards calls them, give people the opportunity to share the history and accomplishments of African-Americans in Kansas.
“Then we invite them to discover the data, dream about what their community would look like if we were to solve some of the inequities,” she said, “and then dialogue what their dream is—build on what we’re doing well.”
She asks those teams to select an equity impact area and design a plan to address that inequity. Each district will receive a $10,000 grant to reach those goals.
Involving others in finding the solutions to inequities falls in line with Edwards’ leadership advice.
“No one entity has all the answers,” she said. “We must take the time to listen and engage with one another to craft our solutions.”
Edwards also works to make sure African-Americans understand government and the legislative process and have access to their state government. The commission will host a day at the Capitol event to help those interested in learning more about a policy issue.
The commission also has signature projects related to equity impact areas. Among those projects—in the civic leadership and advocacy piece—is a civic leadership academy for African-American girls to prepare them to become future civic leaders.
Working with young people is a passion for Edwards.
“I think we must be invested in our future,” she said. “The investment should come from helping to shape them in accessing their dream and being able to develop their gifts and their abilities to the fullest.
“I feel like I have a role in that; I have a responsibility to help students achieve those things.”
Edwards stays busy with her job, but she knows it’s important. She knows many African-Americans her age who don’t feel comfortable interacting with government. She hopes the work of the commission will change that and they will become active contributors to government as a result.