March 6, 2019

A Women’s History Month interview with Sophia Bracy Harris

Editor’s Note: Auburn University has produced two MacArthur Fellows. Commonly known as “Genius Grants,” the awards recognize the creative potential of individuals through no-strings-attached fellowships which are among the most prized and valued in the world. One of those winners was the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of Auburn University’s famed Rural Studio, a program that combines the teaching of architecture with a commitment to public service.

Auburn’s other winner, Sophia Bracy Harris, graduated in 1972. Her life’s work dramatically improved childcare standards in Alabama and around the country, especially in African-American communities, ultimately empowering thousands of women and creating democratic systems of high-quality, inclusive care.

We wrote about Harris and her career in Auburn Magazine in 2016. Following the 2018 midterm elections, we had the opportunity to visit again with Harris at her home in Montgomery. True to her roots, she was inspired by the record number of women elected to Congress.

March is Women’s History Month, so it was an ideal time to explore this new historical wave with a woman of history. The following comments were edited from a long afternoon’s conversation.

Sophia Bracy Harris

As I think about Women’s History Month in March, 2019, I see hopeful signs. I am encouraged about changes that can impact our country and its citizens. I have spent the last 50 years trying to belong and to be respected as a person, regardless of my race, gender, economic status, or the part of the country I lived in.

As these women, especially the many younger ones who were elected for the first time, come into the halls of Congress, I cannot overstate the power of the messages given to girls at an early age. We are told that we must learn how to cook, wash, and clean up to be a good wife and mother. We should not show anger, and be “lady like” and not argue when speaking to men in authority. There is a place for women, and it’s generally not in the policy-making arena simply because our emotional make up does not allow us to be level-headed thinkers and tough decision-makers. To do so would mean we were argumentative and not at all “lady like.”

For many, many years I asked myself whether I was capable of leading my organization, to chair the board of trustees, or shape strategies and write positions that would become corporate policies and laws. I asked myself these questions even as others were saying “Sophia, you did it! Yes you can!” From my experiences, I would say most women have had to examine and reconsider the early scripts we were given about how we should think, learn, and behave. The time for that reconsideration is now.

My hope is that this new movement toward women’s empowerment will help us address pressing issues that are a threat to all of us.

If changes are not made in how we protect our earth, we will find ourselves in deep trouble with the quality of air we breathe, our drinking water, and a climate that causes staggering loss of life and financial expense. The same is true of how we treat each other.

Much work is also needed to stem the tide of overlooked educational and mental health needs for all of our children. This is especially true for black girls, who are even harder hit.

A National Women’s Law Center “Let Her Learn” study reports girls are being pushed out of school as a result of educational barriers including discipline, harassment, and sexual violence. Nearly one in seven girls report being absent because they felt unsafe at or on their way to school. One in three girls reported experiencing either sexual assault or other violence. If they do not graduate, they are more likely to be unemployed and depend on public assistance. In spite of Title IX, many girls who are pregnant or have parenting needs continue to be pushed out of school by inflexible policies. And a lack of child care and transportation becomes a factor in their ability to succeed in school.

Yet I am hopeful. Hopeful that women in leadership roles will establish new priorities and redefine what it means to be a protector. I hope women can lead us to pay more attention to the early years, and care more about getting it right, as opposed to spending so much of our nation’s wealth on military might. Yes, we must support America’s defenses, but we must also understand that early childhood matters, and that an investment in education is a vital part of our national security.

I am hopeful that these women will understand that mental health issues underlie so much of the violence we see today, resulting in part from a lack of adequate counseling resources in schools, family resources, and the rehabilitation of offenders. Our mental health resources for those unable to function in families or on their own are woefully inadequate. And we must address fair and equitable wages for all, especially for women.

The revolution of women taking leadership in our government at all levels is a hopeful sign, and one that comes with great opportunities as well as a threat. As nurturers, our instinct is to support human growth and development and to care about the well-being of our citizens regardless of a person’s age. The threat comes in women leaders not getting in touch with the early scripted messages about what a leader should be, and ignoring what it really means to be a protector. We have equated protection with military might. We must be true to our best instincts and not become a replica of the male leadership we know now and have always known.

One style of leadership does not “replace” the other. But the messages of protection and nurturing that are buried deep in our psyches are real. So women must ask themselves, what is my vision? How can we make that vision real? Men have always been in power, so we must all learn to listen, and to be decidedly “un-lady like” if necessary. It can no longer be my way or the highway; compromise in some instances is good.

In my life and work, I have always known the experiences of the people our organization was created to serve. Women must remain true to those things that they know. As such, their priorities will be different than what has gone before. By understanding the full meaning of what it means to be a protector, it is my belief that women can help restore a lost sense of hope, prosperity, and abundance, as opposed to competition and scarcity. The time is now to lift up these essential values that can benefit our land and our people. As legislators we can again be caretakers, but with a more complete understanding of what that means.

My greatest gift from Auburn was being inspired to counsel others. My life’s work took me in a different direction but I have the skills to help others develop new ways of thinking. When both female and male leaders bring to the decision-making table our values and visions for a strong America, we can be an example to the world of how a country functions when it respects and values all people. We will be a beacon of hope.