My Story: Rosie Allen-Herring

Aug 28, 2020


Born and raised in Mississippi, I am the youngest of 10 children. My oldest sister is 20 years my senior with siblings in between. For my oldest sister, while we grew up in the same household, with the same guidance from our parents, our experiences growing up in a state where racism is well-known and continues to ensue were different. Her early years of education were framed by the Jim Crow era and segregation. By the time I was of age, schools in our community were racially integrated. Although the time between my sister’s education and mine provided us different experiences, the reality is the racial divide and inequity had not changed.

Integration was believed to have brought about needed equity and change. But differences still existed in that many children of color were not seen as educationally capable of handling more complex work. My family was fortunate. Education was seen as the great equalizer, and we were known as a family with “smart kids.” Integration really only occurred in the classroom. Communities were still very much separate but not equal. Housing, employment, health care and education continued to highlight the opportunity our southern town had, but still fell a bit short in creating that equitable society. Differences still exist today.

What’s interesting about my current family situation is between my 98-year-old mother, older siblings, my 22- and 24-year-old daughters and myself, we’re all looking at the current racial pandemic through different lenses. My mother, despite living in the deep South all her life, worked hard to inspire us to be people of ethics and morals. My oldest sister is a retired judge and was a civil rights lawyer for decades. Our daughters are well-traveled and educated global citizens who are distant from the struggles older generations faced.

When I think back to my days in Mississippi, I knew that my family wasn’t wealthy. Attending Howard University opened my eyes to even greater opportunities. After graduation, I was accepted into a bank management program. Each of us who were accepted came from different universities, and out of my group, I was the only African American. I remember hearing that not all of us would make it through the program, and I was determined that it sure wasn’t going to be me.

I made it through and was offered the same salary as the others of $28,000. While that was equal and fair, the inequities of our personal economics became apparent. Colleagues had the luxury of spending on happy hour and rolled around in cars that were gifted to them from family. Meanwhile, I had to allocate most of my salary to student loans and buying my own car.

As a young professional, I was a go-getter. I was fortunate to be given opportunities to move up, and I had some hard times too. I questioned my intelligence, and I had hard bosses — some African American, some women. But I had a good work ethic so I kept doing my best, thinking someone would recognize my hard work.

I’ve had several mentors throughout my career who have been extremely supportive and challenging. One that stands out is a female who shared her personal experience of having to fight for a seat at the table in a law firm where male associates were “groomed” for success. One day, she asked why no one was grooming her for the next level in the firm. The response she received — that she had never spoken up about her desires — was shattering. She committed to never being silent about her wishes and encouraged me to do the same.

Thinking about all of those years I sat at my desk waiting for someone to see me and gone unheard, I was awakened. I felt the angst of being an African American who didn’t want to rock the boat crossed with being a woman doubting her self-esteem. It was a pivotal moment.

These are just some of the experiences that have shaped who I am. I’m firm but fair, direct but inclusive. I know what I know, but I also recognize that I will never have all of the answers. As the president and CEO of United Way of the National Capital Area, when our team, community and corporate partners look to me for answers and leadership, I collaborate with like-minded leaders to create opportunities and solutions that we execute together. I will humbly admit that I do not do it alone.

I see the inequities in our community. With the Covid pandemic, these inequities became more apparent as children were forced into distance learning and individuals and families lost their jobs. Then, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and so many before and after him, the racial inequities bubbled to the forefront. So many Americans were naïve about the inequities my people have faced throughout history in this country. Friends and colleagues have been checking in, doing their part and asking me how I feel. If I could be honest, it’s been exhausting.

As we all look for direction on how we can be part of the solution to change systemic inequities, I know there is something for those who truly see themselves in the work we’re doing to create equity in health care, education and financial stability. We need to commit to the hard work that lies ahead. We need to be vulnerable, make sacrifices, be active listeners and willing to participate in uncomfortable discussions. For those who have voices that speak volumes in situations where some in our society are simply unheard, speak up. We cannot do this alone. It is not someone else’s burden to bear. We need to make sure that those who have the power, resources, contacts, platforms and other opportunities make change never fail in offering our best!

Rosie Allen-Herring is the president and CEO of United Way of the National Capital Area.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Business Journal