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A Report from the First “Women, Leadership, Faith” Conference

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Several months ago, I met with the founding dean of the college of arts and sciences at Lipscomb University, Dr. Norma Burgess. She wanted to discuss an upcoming women’s conference. As she talked excitedly about topics of leadership and faith, I wanted to scream, “Noooo!” Every organ in my body begged to yell out, not another church folk conference with a bunch of women spouting yaky, yaky.

Sensing my dismay, Dr. Burgess said, “This is going to be different, you will see.” She was extremely confident, while I had flashbacks of several recent encounters dancing in my head. I told Dr. Burgess I was sick of folks planning and meeting but not accomplishing anything while leaving an awful taste in my mouth at the same time, wasting time and energy. Was I negative or what?

She gave me the look of a mother who loves her child, flaws and all, and continued to talk about her big bodacious plans for an event as if I had never said a word. The event was planned to draw women nationally but maintain an intimate setting. Gloria Mayfield Banks of Mary Kay would be the breakfast keynote speaker. Mary Kay cosmetics is an international recognized brand and Lipscomb would be the host to the company’s $24 million pint-sized-tornado selling machine. “What”? I thought to myself. I was intrigued right away.

As if that was not enough, Dr. Burgess said the luncheon keynote would be the great-great-granddaughter of the signer of the Navajo Treaty of 1868. Wait a minute—a black woman multi-millionaire and a Navajo chief’s great-great-granddaughter speaking at a conference in Nashville on leadership and faith? This I got to see! “I am in,” I said.

She also gave me my assignment to spread the news. That was it. No selling tables, chasing down sponsors, or media hype needed. “Share this with anyone you would want to be there,” she said smiling. Hmm. That was not what I was expecting her to say. Don’t get too excited, I told myself, you are going to be thoroughly disappointed if you do. Have I been burned or what? But Dr. Burgess’ gentleness and surprising list of speakers left me speechless and I promised her I would tell everyone. That I did.

Why was I surprised? This was the Dr. Burgess style that I have come to know and love: quiet class that leaves one yearning for more of her sensibility, knowledge, and devotion to others. For those of you who do not know her, Dr. Burgess was born and raised in West Tennessee. She is known for her research and teaching focused on the sociology of the family, sex roles, and gender and cross-cultural families. She has taught at several colleges and universities including Mississippi State and Syracuse. She conducted research on women at the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis (then Memphis State). She has led study-abroad classes in Costa Rica and presented her work in Africa, Greece, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany and was the founding dean of the college of graduate studies at Chatham University in Pennsylvania. Her decision to accept the position at Lipscomb was a homecoming of sorts. After years of traveling the world while teaching and lecturing to thousands, she was back on Tennessee soil. Dr. Burgess began her servant leadership role at Lipscomb over a year ago with a goal for the conference to become an annual event at the heart of her mission.

Dr. Burgess stated, “Faith and its role in leadership and self management are rarely discussed in professional development seminars and retreats.” The long-awaited conference, rightly titled Women. Leadership. Faith, arrived Friday with much anticipation. Moms, wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, and students from various backgrounds, careers and professions, denominations and faiths arrived on campus ready to soak up the carefully planned event like sponges.

Gloria Mayfield Banks kicked off the morning with her fiery brand of getting a group excited about God, family, and career. But she did not leave out her struggles. Her transparency about being a battered wife gave the audience a peek into a world that many would never share in church let alone at a professional conference about empowering women. There was nothing superficial about Gloria. Her faith in God and her belief in herself pulled her through the darkest period of her life. Twenty-two years after leaving an abusive marriage and a six-figure income with IBM, she currently holds the number four Mark Kay unit in the world!

The luncheon keynote, Dr. Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, President of Antioch University, is the first Native American woman to become the president of an accredited university outside the tribal college system. She greeted us in her Navajo language and said a prayer to her ancestors before she began her message entitled, “Grounded and Centered: Generational Power of Family Wisdom in the Workplace.” Her soft voice did not hide her strength and courage as a tribal leader in her culture and as a leader by mainstream society’s measurements.

She said that when her great-great-grandfather, Navjo Chief Manuelito, signed the treaty, he knew that education was the next frontier for his people’s survival. She has held strongly to that belief and works endlessly to address the despairing statistics among Native Americans in the areas of education and poverty. Her conviction about families and communities coming together was repeated as she gave us personal reflections about being the only Native American family in a redneck town in Wyoming, subjected to abuse and mistreatment by the townspeople. Her message was not one of despair but of inspiration that left many of us looking at our lack of faith in our daily lives. Many attendees said that “Dr. Cassandra”’s words left us with no excuses for not making changes immediately.

Local womens’ leaders spoke during breakout sessions and the conference was followed by thousands on Twitter, Facebook, and in chat rooms on colleges and universities campuses, and in women’s magazine forums around the country.

“Women. Leadership. Faith” concluded with thunderous applause by all in attendance. Whispers about the 2011 conference could be overheard as the women left Ezell Center. I left with a newfound appreciation for the idea that “your past experiences should not dictate your present state of being.” Had I allowed previous interactions to cloud my thinking, I would have missed a conference that was more than different, it was life-changing!

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About Genma Holmes