Photo provided by Laverne McCartney Knighton
Laverne McCartney Knighton is the area development director at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the nation’s largest and most effective minority education organization offering scholarships and opportunities to over half a million Black students. Part of her responsibilities at the UNCF include empowering young women of color and encouraging students to walk in their purpose.
Knighton grew up in the 1960s, a time when students of color were refused the opportunity to attend integrated schools with white children. Fortunately for Knighton, she had someone significantly influence her to achieve her innate greatness. That someone in Knighton’s life was her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Eloise Harris. According to Knighton, Mrs. Harris created a safe space for students of color to learn. “Because of the foundation she laid, I was the first African American valedictorian to graduate in 1973 after integration. I am forever grateful for what she started and chartered long before we knew anything about No Child Left Behind,” Knighton stated.
As an accomplished female leader, Knighton believes her duty is to cultivate other young Black women in their efforts to become eminent leaders in their own communities, schools, and organizations. We recently spoke more with Knighton on this subject, and the importance in creating an abundance of young Black leaders, how their role will serve to empower others and more. Check out the interview below.
As a Black woman, what is your superpower?
I am a fearless connector. I am energized by meeting people, making authentic connections, making people smile and being the link that can put people at ease. I can relate to almost anybody and rarely do I meet strangers. I’m always reminded of the biblical verse “Be careful how you entertain strangers for you just might be entertaining an angel” [paraphrased]. I believe I have entertained many angels and I am a better person for it.
What key skill sets or qualities make you unique as an African American female leader?
My ability to relate well to almost anyone. I am authentic, direct, and engaging. I don’t mind telling it like it is and expressing my opinion — sometimes to a fault that is not always understood, especially here where Minnesota nice doesn’t always speak to my truth.
What thoughtful or encouraging piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be afraid. Walk in your own power. Follow your own authentic path. Ask for what you want.
Why is it important for women of color to lead or work in leadership roles and decision-making capacities?
Because our opinions and perspectives matter and we are needed. Our young girls need to see their future as leaders and seeing women of color in leadership roles empowers them to aspire and dream big dreams for themselves. We must continue to pay it forward.
If you could thank any Black woman history maker for her contributions to society, who would it be and why?
Mrs. Eloise Harris, my kindergarten teacher. She was a visionary during a time when segregation was the law in Texas. Little black and brown kids like me from a small segregated East Texas town, Doucette, Texas, did not have access to kindergarten and certainly were not allowed to attend the one for white kids, so she started a daycare in her home and gave us our first head start. From 1959 until I started elementary school in 1961, she created a safe, nurturing and vivid learning space. We were her babies, her twenty or so Tiny Tots as she named us. Because of her, we were able to start school ready and equipped. She turned 101 years old this past January and still has vivid memories of each of us and what we have become. I talk with her at least three times yearly and visit whenever I am home. She has kept up with every milestone in my life. Because of the foundation she laid, I was the first African American Valedictorian to graduate in 1973 after integration. I am forever grateful for what she started and chartered long before we knew anything about No Child Left Behind. She did the best she could with what she had and gave it to us at a time when the world wouldn’t.
Why is it important for seasoned and experienced Black women to reach back and help younger women of color?
We’ve been there, done that. Or at least we know what it has taken to get through the difficult and tough experiences, as well as how to navigate the successes. It is imperative that we keep telling our stories (good and bad), and that we keep sharing and letting our sisters know that they are never alone on their journey to wherever they are going. I believe wholeheartedly in passing it on. Where you are, I once have been; where I am, you soon will be.
What are your thoughts on taking risks?
I’m not a huge risk-taker. It’s probably my weakest link. I do believe in stepping out on faith when you don’t know what to do or what’s ahead. My faith and belief in a greater purpose has guided me in so many moments on my journey. Always trust in your own instincts because you’ve got to go through it to get to it! I do confront difficult issues despite personal risk and support others who do so.
What are three success habits you implement into your daily routine to maintain your success, sanity and peace of mind?
1. I start my day with prayer, meditation and gospel music … a must to get grounded and hear from God on direction. 2. Exercise and eat a healthy breakfast … another must for my day to go well. 3. Be present and stay focused.
As a successful woman in business, what is your greatest or proudest achievement?
Too many to name. The fact that I made it this far by faith.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
My mother. My mama. Why? She was always my biggest cheerleader and advocate. She was so smart, wise and gave the best advice and had she been born during a different time, would have been one helluva leader and maybe even a doctor. Times dictated that she would become a nurse, but she had the intellect and knowledge of any doctor I know. Folks from my hometown called on her wisdom and expertise to affirm or assure them of any diagnosis from the doctor as a final word. The doctors leaned on her a lot also as she was the queen of the emergency room. Although she has been gone from this earthly life for 12 years, she is still such a big influence in my life and shapes my very being in every way. I am who I am because she was.
If you could have any person in the world become your mentor, who would it be and why?
There are so many fabulous and fantastic women and men I have been fortunate enough to have in my life as mentors, teachers, coaches and advisors. I don’t think I could name any one person, however, I would love to have the sage advice of our ancestors who endured adversity upon adversity. It would be amazing if they could come from the grave, live in these times and be given the opportunities they were denied. The value of their mentorship and leadership would save a generation and press us toward the greatness we have been called to be.