Mississippi Link Newswire
The 2016 Winter-Reed Partnership Award will be presented to Oleta Fitzgerald, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, during a tribute luncheon Aug. 23 at the Clyde Muse Center in Pearl. Throughout her extensive career in public advocacy, Fitzgerald has emphasized the role of education in strengthening Mississippi’s communities and continues to lead efforts to expand access to early childhood education for the region’s most vulnerable populations.
“Oleta Fitzgerald has devoted her life to helping people who all too often do not have a voice in our society,” said Suzanne Bean, MAPE president. “For decades she has worked tirelessly to break down barriers to opportunity while ensuring that more Mississippians have access to quality education, healthcare and other fundamental resources that are critical to the future of our schools, our families and our future.”
MAPE launched the Winter-Reed Partnership Award in 2007 to honor former Gov. William Winter and the late Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr. for their lifelong contributions to public education and to provide ongoing recognition for Mississippi’s outstanding education leaders.
“Gov. Winter and Jack Reed were leaders who truly represented people – they weren’t representing themselves,” Fitzgerald said. “Their service was about how we can work together to build up people in Mississippi, and education is the answer.”
A native of the Farmhaven community in Madison County, Fitzgerald attended Luther Branson Elementary School in Canton and graduated from the Piney Woods Country Life School. Her mother, Zenova D. Garrett, was a school teacher and one of the first African- American members of the Mississippi Association of Educators. Her father, businessman W.E. Garrett, was active in the NAACP and voting rights and worked to pass numerous bond issues to improve local schools.
“Education was always front and center at our house,” said Fitzgerald, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Tougaloo College, her mother’s alma mater, and a master’s in community development from Antioch University Midwest. She also received an honorary membership to Pi Alpha Alpha, the global honor society for public affairs and administration, from Mississippi State University.
Through her involvement with the Children’s Defense Fund, Fitzgerald serves as regional administrator for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice and principal for the Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids initiative, which has operated in more than 12 Mississippi school districts.
In 1993, she became President Bill Clinton’s appointee as White House liaison and executive assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. Later, she was named the department’s director of intergovernmental affairs where, among other things, she worked on tribal governmental issues and coordinated the administration’s long-term recovery of Midwestern states affected by The Great Flood of 1993.
Earlier in her career, she was a project director for the Southern Regional Council, where she worked to increase minority representation on rural electric cooperative boards. She also was employed by the Southeastern Public Education Program and served as southern director for the Children’s Foundation, which educated citizens and members of Congress about the need for expanded access to federal food programs.
Fitzgerald serves on the boards of the Mississippi Head Start Association, the Mississippi Children’s Museum and the advisory committee for the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State. She is a member of the State Children’s Welfare Coalition and the Global Women’s Action Network for Children.
In 2014, Fitzgerald was named a “Champion of Justice” by the Mississippi Center for Justice for being one of the South’s leading advocates for women and children.
“The work I do is because of a commitment to children and struggling families,” she said. “It’s my ministry. Somebody has to stay in the fight.”
Individual tickets for the awards banquet are $75 and may be purchased online at www.mapie.org or from MAPE, P.O. Box 2803, Madison, MS 39130.
Sponsorship opportunities for the Winter-Reed Partnership Award are available by contacting MAPE at (601) 573-0896 or visiting www.mapie.org.