March is Women’s History Month. Although women have come a long way since the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920 and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965, we still have a long way to go on the path to equality. This means equality that does not discriminate based on gender, race, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, or religion. Locally, there are many amazing women who are working hard to eradicate the practices that lead to oppression in these areas. What they have in common is a shared desire to help individuals in a community come together, care for one another, and help each other succeed. This month, we’d like to focus on one of those women specifically: Roanoke NAACP President, Brenda Hale.
Hale has had a passion for helping others since she was nine years old. Raised by her great uncle and aunt in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she went everywhere with them as a child.
“They taught me everything. I like to help people, and she taught me how to take pride in my work. No matter what you do, no matter what you become, be the best you can be,” she recalls.
That is a lesson Hale has carried with her throughout her life. As a veteran and a nurse, she has always been a resource for the people around her. It is no surprise that her history of helping others led her to the critical roles she plays today. From sit-ins at Bob Goodlatte’s office calling for action to strengthen voter protections to an appearance at the first Women’s March in 2017, Hale illustrates that she truly cares about the people she meets and represents.
Around the Roanoke Valley, and the nation, we are all beginning to have difficult conversations involving the qualities that make us all unique human beings. We don’t always meet people who agree with us, but it is possible to work towards solutions with those people. Hale approaches those discussions like peeling back the layers of an onion.
“Once you peel back the first layer, there is something of substance underneath. You may start out with socioeconomic conditions, but you’re going to hit other layers. One of those layers will be racism. One will be education. There are so many layers to what is going on right now, and you constantly have to be peeling them back. I’m not afraid to peel back the layers and have the conversations we need to move forward,” she explains.
Although it may seem easier to avoid those conversations, that attitude can often cause more damage than the discomfort is worth. One of the dangers of complacency is that these issues continue to be swept under the rug until resentment reaches a boiling point. People often reference Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech when they call for peace. Hale wants them to know that there are multiple facets to that dream.
“It may have started out with economic empowerment and the right to vote. The thing of the matter is each community needs to be the beloved community he talked about. Everyone needs to be working. It can’t take just one person. It takes all of us being willing to have talks and dialogue and to work on those multiple layers,” she adds.
Perhaps this is most eloquently represented in Dr. King’s own family, and with one of Hale’s role models, Coretta Scott King.
“[She] was the glue who held her family together. Women have always been that. She was a mother, wife; she had to be a doctor, nurse, and a psychologist. If you’re taking care of the whole family you have to wear a lot of hats. She was a civil rights icon. She stepped it up further, and she loved people,” Hale says.
Hale continues to exhibit many of those qualities in her own life. At 72 years old, she is not slowing down. She is still a caregiver, and well respected within the region for community service. Additionally, she is serving her seventh term as the President of the Roanoke NAACP, and she remains actively invested in each member, especially the young people.
“We work as a team, the the Youth Council is our shining baby. We have almost 85 now, and every year we graduate about 30-34 kids. We keep filling it back up,” she says.
The Roanoke youth who participate in this program hold offices, attend quarterly meetings, and go to state and national conventions. They are allowed to wear Kente cloth stoles when they graduate.
“It doesn’t matter what you do after high school. You can go to college, the military, into a trade; whatever you decide to do, you walk into it as a leader. All I do is sit back and keep smiling. That’s our babies, look what we’ve done for our babies,” she explains.
And they are doing a lot. The NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) program is popular among the kids in the Roanoke NAACP unit. The yearlong achievement program is designed to “recruit, stimulate, and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students.” It includes 32 competitions in STEM, humanities, business, and performing, visual, and culinary arts. The Roanoke NAACP (www.naacp.org) holds a local competition for ACT-SO every year, and members often go on to compete and win medals at the national level. A few years ago, one participant brought a tuxedo with him, because he knew he was going to win.
“When he walked up on stage to receive his medal, he was the only one in a tux,” Hale recalls, smiling. “His confidence was amazing!”
Her smile lights up the room when she talks about these teenagers, recalling many by more than their name. She can tell you their interests, accomplishments, and the last time she saw or hugged them.
Hale is a role model for women (and men!) of all ages. Her willingness and ability to work with individuals and groups of diverse cultural, religious, social, economic, and political identities helps address tough issues that many women face on a daily basis. We are proud that she is part of the Roanoke community, and look forward to seeing more of her in 2018!
There are plenty of opportunities to celebrate Women’s History Month, including International Women’s Day on March 8! Visit www.internationalwomensday.com for more information on how you can be involved in their call-to-action and the effort to progress gender parity. Within the movement, there is “a strong call to #PressforProgress motivating and uniting friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act, and be gender inclusive.”
While you’re working towards gender parity, make sure you are also staying informed on factors that affect others on the struggle to equality such as race, socioeconomic conditions, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Step outside your comfort zone and learn more about an issue that may not personally impact you. Doing so is a great way to honor those who came before us, and pave the way to a better future for every generation to come.
Written by Hayleigh Worgan