From cotton picking to college professor

Menah Pratt-Clarke |
January 7, 2019
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • Competencies
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Enrollment Management
  • Leadership and Management
  • Meetings, Workshops, and Trainings
  • SEM Leadership
images2 Mildred Sirls, a Black girl living in the deep south during the Great Depression, faced staggering social, economic, and racial injustice. However, from her sharecropping origins in Texas, Sirls forged an unlikely and inspiring path through higher education to become Dr. Mildred Pratt, one of only a handful of black women professors in the U.S. in the 1970s.

Her story as told by her daughter, Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke, Vice President for Strategic Affairs and Diversity and Professor of Education at Virginia Tech, is “an insightful window into what it means to be Black in America, individually and collectively,” wrote James Anderson, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America (2018), was awarded the American Education Studies Association 2018 Critics’ Choice Award, and is one of four books authored by Pratt-Clarke, whose scholarship focuses on diversity and social justice issues in education. Another recent publication -- Journeys of Social Justice: Women of Color Presidents in the Academy (2017), co-authored by Pratt-Clarke -- documents higher education leadership journeys and strategies of women of color, including Black, Latina, Native American and Asian American women.

Community-oriented leadership
“There’s a perception -- perhaps a reality -- that women of color need to be extremely qualified, almost over-prepared for a position,” Pratt-Clarke said. Her research investigates how culture, power, race, and gender can contribute to that perception, as well as also how leaders emerge and respond from those intersecting realities.

“Many women of color lead with a service-leadership style -- helping and supporting others’ journeys and providing a path and advice to those who may not have had access to that world [of academia],” Pratt Clarke said. “They recognize the difficulty of their own journey in terms of race and gender and then want to lessen those barriers for others.”

You can lead courageously
Pratt-Clarke will share how culture, family, and generational history shapes women of colors’ experiences and informs their distinctive and varied leadership styles during her Tuesday afternoon plenary session at the 2019 AACRAO Annual Meeting. With these books as a contextual backdrop, Pratt-Clarke will highlight how courageous leadership can transform institutions.

“I hope attendees take away conviction and commitment to doing the work,” Pratt-Clarke said. “We have more power than we think we do. Wherever we sit, we’re in a position to influence others, and how we conceptualize our own power impacts what we can do. We have more capacity to lead change than we often believe. We have to be courageous.”

Join Dr. Pratt-Clarke and other inspiring thought leaders in higher education at the AACRAO Annual Meeting, March 31-April 3, 2019, in Los Angeles.