Black Experience

Cole Aims to Build on Legacy of NCNW

If Johnnetta Betsch Cole is involved, people know success almost certainly will follow.

In November, Cole was named board chair and the seventh president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) during the organization’s 58th national convention, and council officials expect her successful ways to carry over as she takes the helm.

“Everything she touches turns golden,” said Janis L. Mathis, executive director of the council. “We are so excited that she will spend her time and energy with us at NCNW.”

During a recent briefing to address the organization’s direction, Mathis introduced Cole by touting her career accomplishments that include stints as president of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art as well as Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., and Spelman College in Atlanta, the only all-female historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Cole told the audience that Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the organization on Dec. 5, 1935, was a longtime friend of her great-grandfather. As children growing up in Florida, Cole and her sister were counseled by Bethune on the importance of education and service.

“One of the attributes of NCNW that I will have the privilege of continuing is this organization knows where it came from and understands the role of that mighty woman Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune,” Cole said.

Cole also spoke of her close friendship with the late Dorothy Height, the council’s president emerita who led the organization for 40 years. Also recognized was Ingrid Saunders Jones, who recently concluded her tenure as board chair and sixth president and led the organization to financial stability.

“It is more than a notion to walk into an organization that is alive, is well and is solvent,” Cole said.

Cole said NCNW will continue to be at the table with other social activist groups and that she sees areas where the organization can grow.

“Blending continuity with change can ensure stability for NCNW,” she said.

In an effort to become more intergenerational, the council will sponsor an outreach event for middle and high school students this month in Mt. Vernon, New York. Attendees learn from a variety of specialists about studies and careers in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, known by the acronym STEAM.

“NCNW will not do well if its membership is only ‘seasoned citizens,'” Cole said. “But I also say that NCNW cannot do well if it is an organization of only young’uns. NCNW’s strength is in being an organization of organizations and an organization that is committed to intergenerational social activism.”

Both Mathis and Cole spoke of the council’s ongoing work with their chapters on campus at HBCUs, which are vital to the organization’s leadership pipeline for the future.

Cole, president emerita of Bennett College who steered the college out of its last probation in 2003 during her time as president, expressed dismay at the recent news that Bennett lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges after being on probation for two years.

“My heart is broken over Bennett losing its accreditation,” she said. “I think a compelling case has been made for why NCNW must be in partnership with any and everyone committed to our HBCUs. We all know the centrality of educating women.

“You educate a man, you educate a man,” Cole said. “You educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

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