Profiled Fellow: Patricia Parker


June 15, 2013 | Angie Barker

parkerPatricia Parker—associate professor in communication studies, IAH Fellow and IAH Leadership Advisory Board member—is tired. “But it’s a good tired,” says Parker, who has had a busy few years.

In addition to the typical teaching and research load of any UNC faculty, Parker’s latest activities include founding a nonprofit organization that works with local low-income communities, establishing a group to empower young women of color, taking members of that group to the Presidential Inauguration, planning and executing a conference on models of youth/adult collaboration, going with a group of young women to Chicago for a conference on community organizing… and then starting the planning process to do it all again next year.

The Journey Begins

Parker’s present path on this journey evolved with a fellowship at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities in fall 2002. As an IAH Faculty Fellow, Parker examined the role of women in vulnerable communities, pursuing a project titled “Learning to Lead: Stories of Resistance and Transformation Among African-American Teens in North Carolina.”

The project grew out of Parker’s doctoral research, which explored leadership development in African-American women executives. At the IAH, Parker used the opportunity to reflect on leadership development and to explore biographies of leaders, including civil rights activist and North Carolina native Ella Baker.

“Ella Baker’s biography and life really stood out to me and planted a seed,” Parker says. “Her work was all about going into communities and really capitalizing, if you want to use that word, on the resilience already in the community and using that as a force for change.”

Parker took inspiration from her research and turned it into a proposal to create a center for young women to promote leadership development and community activism and, as important, to create a model that could be translated to a national scale. Parker chose to focus on young women because “youth have always been at the forefront of change,” she says.

Her proposal met with success: In spring 2007, Parker received another opportunity to join the IAH Fellows program, this time as a Kauffman Faculty Fellow. The Kauffman Faculty Fellowship, a now-retired program run through the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative, supports entrepreneurial projects related to teaching and research interests.

Putting her idea for the Ella Baker center on paper for the Kauffman proposal was the impetus Parker needed to make her vision a reality. “The Kauffman really was the turning point for me,” she says.

A faculty leave from the communication studies department in fall 2006 allowed Parker time to prepare for her fellowship semester. Parker also credits David Kiel, then-interim director of the IAH and now the IAH senior consultant for faculty leadership programs, for providing support that allowed Parker to hit the ground running in spring 2007.

A Goal Achieved

In 2007, Parker founded The Ella Baker Women’s Center for Leadership and Community Activism (EBWC), a center with the mission to empower women and girls in disenfranchised communities; to build productive and equitable relationships within communities; to provide community organization training; to emphasize the wisdom and gifts in communities; and to partner with communities for creative solutions rather than simply handing down help.

By summer 2007, Parker had launched Striving Sisters Speak!!! (S3), the flagship project of the EBWC. The participating high-school age women pursue a mission of building multi-generational coalitions of social justice in their communities and beyond.

The story of the EBWC and S3 is one of very hard work on Parker’s part and a little bit of good fortune. Through networking at national conferences, Parker came into contact with the Maryland-based Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development, affiliated with the Kellogg Leadership for Community Change (KLCC) program of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. With her Kauffman funds, Parker was able to bring in a KLCC consultant to strategize getting S3 off the ground.

With training and toolkits from the KLCC and support from Parker’s graduate students, community volunteers and student interns from the UNC Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (MURAP), S3 launched several ambitious campaigns to partner with local communities. Because of Parker’s previous experiences volunteering at the family resource center in the Trinity Court and Pritchard Park communities, those areas became the focal point for the initial campaigns.

S3’s first campaign focused on an effort to convince the town to restore a dumpster in the community. While their bid was unsuccessful, Parker and members of S3 learned valuable lessons about how to work within the civic structure of the town.

“We learned how to negotiate with different institutions,” Parker says, calling the experience a civic education.

With their new tools and knowledge, S3’s next campaign met with more success: a community festival held October 2008. The group hoped through the festival to focus on the positive things happening in the community. While the community enjoyed the event itself, Parker believes that it also had an impact on the local police. S3 worked with the chief of police to close down a street for the festival: It was an opportunity, Parker says, for him to proactively and positively interact with the community rather than coming into the community to react to a potentially negative situation. S3 plans to make the festival an annual event.

The community festival highlighted the potential arising from Ella Baker’s model of drawing on positive forces in the community to inspire change from within. This philosophy permeates Parker’s own approach to community activism.

“It’s great to see that spark, that hope,” she says of working with young women within the community. “It changes the narrative that comes into that community from negative assumptions to recognizing the gifts that are in that community.”

S3’s next campaign focused on organizing a conference on models of youth/adult collaborations. While Parker and S3 were deep in plans for the festival, however, they received an opportunity that came to define the first, successful year of S3: the chance to go to Washington D.C. for the Presidential Inauguration, paid for by The Stafford Foundation’s People’s Inauguration Project and other, UNC donors.

Parker brought five teenagers from S3, several volunteers and chaperones with her to the capitol. For Parker, the honor affirmed the group’s efforts and proved to be “just an incredible experience.” In Washington, the group watched the Inaugural events from their hotel on flat screens in a special viewing area and had the opportunity to network with other youth groups.

“Sharing the Mantle”

Following their incredible trip to Washington, Parker and S3 did not take much time to bask in the glow, however, and immediately re-focused on coordinating their conference, “Sharing the Mantle: Collective Leadership Models for Youth and Adults,” held April 17-18.

The conference explored the question: What happens when youths step up and adults step back during collaborations?

“There are different models of how you can do youth/adult partnerships,” Parker explains. “What we try to do [with S3] is have that total partnership.”

While the conference looked at models of youth/adult collaborations, the planning process itself was an exercise in collaborating on many levels, with many different groups.

In fall 2008, Parker applied successfully for a Robertson Scholars Collaboration Fund grant to produce the conference in partnership with the Duke-affiliated Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research (WISER), a nonprofit working to build girls’ boarding schools Kenya.

In addition to the Robertson grant, Parker realized she could engage the students in the first-year seminar she’d already planned to teach, “Collective Leadership Models for Youth/Adult Partnerships,” by partnering them with members of S3 to plan the conference.

Parker set up five teams with the 15 members of her first-year seminar, teaming them with members of S3 to work on specific projects for the conference. One team took charge of the conference logistics, including building the Web site and marketing the event; two teams worked with the Boys and Girls Club in Durham on creative art projects to help youths express themselves; one team worked with the UNC Communiversity tutoring program, run through the Institute of African-American Research, planning a project examining diversity that culminated in a photographic assignment; and the final group worked on creating innovative representations of the community’s carbon footprint on the local environment.

In addition to collaborations within UNC and with Duke, S3 reached out to others outside of academia. To help prepare them for planning the conference, S3 brought in Scene and Heard, a group that focuses on social activism workshops, arts, creativity and performance. Scene and Heard guided the conference planners through a series of skits that explored the process of collaboration between youths and adults to uncover topics the conference should address. “Out of that process we identified key issues,” Parker says. “It was challenging and difficult work.”

Two community-based organizations participated in youth/adult collaborations and presented during the conference on their experiences: Youth Noise Network (YNN), a youth media activist group based in the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies that produces a weekly radio show, and Beauty of the Spirit, an organization for young women that later told Parker that experimenting with youth/adult partnerships had revolutionized their organization.

Throughout the conference planning process, S3 also consulted Arthur Romano, a UNC alum and peace activist who teaches principles of nonviolence and community-based training. Parker says that Romano has been invaluable in supporting S3.

For Parker, the conference, which attracted about 50 participants, achieved its objectives, so much so that she plans to repeat the conference next year, drawing on lessons learned this year.

“The conference went really well. There were two levels I had some pretty high expectations for—the conference itself and also the process we used to plan the conference,” Parker says. “Both of these areas I thought were really successful.”

Moving Forward

Several weeks after presenting their own conference, several members of S3 had the opportunity to attend a conference in honor of Ella Baker at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In another case of the stars aligning for Parker and S3, Barbara Ransby, a historian at the University of Illinois, Chicago, came to UNC this spring to present a lecture during Black History Month. Ransby, who authored the definitive biography of Ella Baker, invited Parker to come to the gathering of Ella’s Daughters, a national network of activists, scholars, artists and workers.

With funding support from Strowd Roses, Inc., a local nonprofit foundation dedicated to supporting the greater community of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Parker was able to take to Chicago three S3 leaders and the mother of one of the girls. The conference organizers invited the EBWC members to present their experiences with their “Sharing the Mantle” conference as part of a panel with other youth organizations.

The experience was eye-opening for the girls, Parker says, who were particularly impressed at hearing about the work of other youth organizations. One S3 leader, Shawanna Copeland, was so impressed by the confident and eloquent presentations made by the other groups, which included college students, that she asked Parker to include a public speaking workshop in their S3 plans. Parker views the request as proof of an awareness born out of the S3 experiences this year, for when she first became involved in S3, Shawanna had expressed an interest in doing anything but public speaking.

“There’s a language you develop as an activist,” Parker says, that the girls have learned about this year. “How do you translate your experiences into words that can prompt action? It was a great opportunity for the girls to listen to the conversations taking place at the conference.”

Even the girls’ parents have begun to expand their horizons. DaKisa Denning, whose daughter Tiara was one of the Inauguration attendees, recently suggested that S3 travel to Littleton, NC, where Ella Baker was born, to learn more about the activist.

Just the Beginning

For Parker, the last year is just the beginning of what she hopes to accomplish.

“The challenge is to keep it all together,” Parker says. “As I reflect over my own work, I’ve been doing the work of five people, or at least two—the executive director and program coordinator roles.”

Add fundraiser to that list, too: Parker is hard at work pursuing funding opportunities that will help her to strengthen the programs she has founded and the relationships she has built, perhaps through bringing on support staff.

Meanwhile, S3’s work continues. Summer workshops—including public speaking—will be followed by recruitment of new members, and S3 will begin again plans to reproduce the projects initiated this year. And, hopefully, they will expand their scope this year, too.

Of course, Parker could also use a few more hours in her days, which no amount of funding can provide.

“That’s the challenge of doing community-based work,” Parker explains. “The most valuable commodity is time.”


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