Smith, Jane E. 1946–
Jane E. Smith 1946–
Organization executive, social activist
In February of 1998, Jane E. Smith took over as president and chief operating officer of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Founded in 1935 by educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the NCNW is a coalition of organizations and a political lobby group representing an array of African American women’s organizations including National Women of Achievement, Trade Union Women of African Heritage, the National Bar Association Women Lawyers Division, and 20 college sororities. The NCNW also has 250 community based sections of its own with 60,000 members. In total, the NCNW is connected to over four million women either through direct membership or membership in an affiliated organization. The mission of the NCNW is to advance opportunities and the quality of life for African American women, their families and their communities.
Smith succeeded Dorothy I. Height, a well-known civil rights activist, who was NCNW president for 40 years. Height now serves as chair of the NCNW executive committee and president emertia and continues to play an important role at the council. Smith took office with the intention of continuing Height’s bold, proactive style.
“Dr. Height is progressive, she’s a risk taker. She steps out there on issues that she believes in. You don’t tell Dr. Height what to do, she does what’s right. I am the exactly same way,” she told Junious R. Stanton of the New Pittsburgh Courier.
Smith was born and raised in Atlanta. Her father, Harvey Smith, was a dentist and her mother, Lavada Johnson Smith, taught kindergarten at local public schools. Smith received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Atlanta’s Spelman College, then went on to earn a master’s in sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, and a doctorate in education and public policy from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is eager to dispel the notion that the NCNW is a “ladies’ club” that represents the interests of only educated, middle class African American women. “I belong to a whole lot of women’s organizations that I won’t name, but the closest that I’ve come to grass-roots identification is the National Council of Negro Women,” Smith told Victoria Valentine of Emerge.
Smith has spent much of her career in the non-profit sector. In 1981 to 1991 she was managing director of
Born on July 27, 1946 in Atlanta, GA; daughter of Harvey B. (a dentist) and Lavada Johnson (a teacher) Smith. Education: Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, bachelor’s degree in sociology; Emory University, Atlanta, GA, master’s degree in sociology; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, doctorate in education and social policy.
Career: INROADS/Atlantaand INROADS/Detroit, managing director, 1981-91; Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, director of development, 1991-94; The Atlanta Project of the Carter Center, director, 1994-98; National Council of Negro Women, president and chief operating officer, 1998-.
Member: Phelps-Stokes Fund, board of directors; National Summit on Africa, board member; Knoxville College, board of trustees; National Advisory Board of Reading is Fundamental; Black Leadership Forum; National Women’s Business Council.
Awards: NAACP, Atlanta Chapter, Roy Wilkins Image Award, 1997.
Addresses: Office —National Council of Negro Women, Inc., 633 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20004.
INROADS/Atlanta and INROADS/Detroit, career development organizations for minority students. Smith considers the development of leadership skills among young African American women as one of the most important goals of the NCNW, and believes that fostering attitudes of authority among young African American women is fundamental to achieving this goal. The NCNW has created the Dorothy I. Height Leadership Institute, which conducts workshops and other training programs for emerging and established leaders in national, community, and student organizations. “Now, I’m a Spelman College graduate, and I pick up the same sense in the Dorothy I. Height Leadership Institute as I do at Spelman College. Never at Spelman College did we say that we are trying to correct some numbers or fill spots that men now have. We produce women to be leaders for the century in this country, period. And the Dorothy I. Height Leadership Institute is the same way. We will produce women who will be leaders in this country, in the communities, in the states, across the country, and in doing so we will correct the disparity,” Smith explained to Valentine.
In 1991, Smith became director of development at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta, where her duties included fund-raising and strategic planning for domestic programs. She then served as director of The Atlanta Project (TAP), an urban initiative created by former President Jimmy Carter. As director of TAP, a program of the Carter Center, Smith worked to improve the quality of life on the neighborhood level and developed an agenda based on community and corporate partnerships.
The appointment of Smith, who is more than 30 years younger than her predecessor, marked an effort by the NCNW to rejuvenate its image and bring fresh blood into the organization. “There is a generational difference and I bring something to the table,” Smith told Stanton. Smith feels it is especially important for the NCNW to reach out to young women and point out to them the advances that can be made by collective action. Smith sees high-tech communication as key to reaching younger women. “These young women want to talk to each other on the Internet. They want to do e-mail. They want to learn about the council on the Internet. So, we are going to find a way to be progressive and current with technology to spread that word, harness the power, have impact on policy in the way that Mrs. Bethune could never foresee, really that Dr. Height could never conceive, that Jane Smith couldn’t conceive. I had no idea when I finished college that we would be here where we are in terms of communication today. It’s incredible. That’s the challenge and that’s the horizon that we must go…These young women need us as much as we need them. We need to make special efforts and we are making special efforts around the eighteen to about forty-five year old to get them. First of all they have so much more energy than I do. I need them,” Smith explained to Stanton.
One of the priorities of the NCNW is to foster the economic empowerment of African American women. Although traditional civil rights initiatives such as affirmative action and racial integration are still important, Smith believes that economics should be at the forefront of the NCNW agenda. “Black women are indicating that they’re more interested in owning their own and running their own [businesses],” she told Valentine. The NCNW has established the Economic and Entrepreneurial Development Center (EEDC), which provides women with the technical assistance they need to set up and run their own business. The EEDC also encourages economic development as a means of combating poverty among African American women. EEDC participants gain access to tested economic development program models, gather information about federal, state, and local resources available to minority communities, and are provided with mentoring and internship opportunities.
Smith told Valentine that the NCNW has made its own “statement of economic control” with its Fund for the Future, a campaign that was designed to raise $30 million to support NCNW programs, establish an endowment, and help pay for the NCNW’s new headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Smith’s appointment to the NCNW’s executive board was due, in part, to her experience as a fund-raiser. She is also the first NCNW president to be appointed. Previous presidents were elected.
With regard to social and political issues, Smith does not believe that African American women need to put race ahead of gender. “One of the things that l had said to my feminist friends is that the African-American experience in this country brings so much to the feminist position that when I come into a room, I bring all of me as an African-American who is also a feminist... I think a woman is a feminist when she believes women can be equal participants in leadership positions that are related to quality of life in this country. I have decided that I will call myself a feminist. I am not afraid of that word,” Smith told Valentine.
Smith serves on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Builders National Advisory Board. She also represents the NCNW on the National Women’s Business Council. She is the mother of two sons and has three grandsons.
Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 10,1993, p. A11.
Emerge, March 1998, p. 26-29.
Jet, December 29, 1997, p. 4.
New Pittsburgh Courier, August 4, 1999, p. A6.
Washington Afro-American, December 13, 1997, p. A1.
Washington Post, September 13, 1998, p. B1.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the National Council of Negro Women website at www.ncnw.com.
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