by Myra Saturen
September 17, 2013
"I have been long aware of the persistence, triumphs and tribulations of African Americans and other minority populations," said Dr. Brian Alnutt, NCC assistant professor of history, who organized a Black Executives Forum on September 17 at Northampton Community College (NCC). Panelists included Carmen Twillie Ambar, J.D., president of Cedar Crest College; Charles R. Everett, Jr., executive director of the Lehigh Valley International Airport; and Alfonso Todd, founder of Alfonso Todd and Associates. The event was also held in recognition of National Constitution Day.
Alnutt began by tying the contributions of African Americans to a legacy of creativity and business leadership among centuries of West Africans, from whom most black Americans are descended. Indicating the panelists, he remarked that they were opening new doors of hope and blazing trails of inspiration.
Their stories were indeed inspirational. Running through all the biographies was an emphasis on education, family and hard work in the midst of discrimination, disenfranchisement and economic hardship.
Ambar grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where her parents lived under segregation and she was born a mere three generations from slavery. Her mother participated in the civil rights movement and earned a Ph.D. Her father left the rural southern cotton fields where he had labored and headed for college, earning a master's degree. "Our father taught his children that access to education was the way to move up the ladder," Ambar recalled. After completing a law degree, she progressed from corporation counsel for New York City; to assistant dean at Princeton University; to dean at Douglass College, a women's branch of Rutgers University; to the presidency of Cedar Crest College. "It has been an exhilarating journey, but also a family journey," she said.
Everett was raised in what he described as "an area of concentrated poverty" in Philadelphia, a neighborhood where 30% lived below the federal poverty line. He earned a bachelor's degree in transportation and urban studies from the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to coming to the Lehigh Valley, he worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as a Congressional liaison. Earlier in his career, he managed an airport in Syracuse, New York, and was an Army reservist in charge of air transportation logistics.
Todd recalls a picture of himself as a young child, sitting on the lap of his great-great-grandfather, a member of the family's first generation removed from slavery. A graduate of Benedict University and the son of a pastor, Todd took a circuitous path to his present position of entrepreneur. As a dancer in Miami, he performed with celebrities such as Prince. "I had to have a Plan B," he said, realizing that the mid-twenties is the peak of a dancer's popularity. After working in medical billing for several years, he scanned the Lehigh Valley for greater opportunity. "I saw what was missing," he said, "I saw a need for media, marketing and events promotion. I knew I could create something." Since then, Todd's company has run many successful expositions.
Alnutt spent his childhood in rural southern New Jersey but had ancestors from the rural south. His great-grandfather studied with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University and became a chemist. His grandfather was one of the first police inspectors of color in Philadelphia. His parents kept alive the family tradition of encouraging education.
The panelists answered questions about overcoming obstacles and challenges as people of color, their mentors and their successes and pitfalls.
Ambar recalled winning a swimming competition at the age of four or five, but being denied the designated medal, receiving instead a ribbon, a second-tier prize. Her father told the contest coordinator, "If you won't give her the medal she earned, we do not want the ribbon." He told Ambar that simply because of her color, she would have to work multiple times harder than non-minority people to get what she deserved. "It was a harsh lesson, but it served me well," Ambar said. She knew she would have to work harder and achieve her goals despite others' issues.
Everett said that he has to wear a suit and tie rather than casual wear when he enters a bank or store in order to be treated like everyone else. From childhood he was taught by his parents to behave in a certain way in the presence of police.
While working as a young busboy in a Columbia, South Carolina restaurant, Todd experienced racial profiling by police. "You cannot allow others' attitudes to affect you," his father told him. "You must strive for excellence, no matter what."
All of the panelists' families placed a stress on education. Ambar had her parents for inspiration. Everett's parents made great financial sacrifices so that he could attend good schools. Todd's father had him studying from textbooks during summer vacation and practicing multiplication as the family rode in their car. "Dad's world for his children was education, education, education," Todd said.
What advice did the panelists have for their audience? Ambar recommended seeking out and learning from mentors. "Be willing to walk into a room and know that you do not know it all; learn from people." Everett advised integrity and lifelong learning. Todd's motto is "creativity, ingenuity, credibility, and consistency." Keeping ahead of the times is one of his keys to success.
Each panelist also spoke about the importance of civic engagement and the applicability of their lessons to people of all ethnicities.
"Look into yourself," Todd said. "Ask yourself what you have within you that makes you want to move on."
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