By Shanderia K. Posey
Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, received the 2016 Winter-Reed Partnership Award during a tribute luncheon Aug. 23, at the Clyde Muse Center in Pearl.
Fitzgerald was honored with the award for her career-long public advocacy work emphasizing the role of education in strengthening Mississippi’s communities. She also leads efforts to expand access to early childhood education for the region’s most vulnerable populations.
Fitzgerald is the second woman to receive the Winter-Reed award. About 200 people attended the luncheon to witness tribute.
The Mississippi Association of Partners in Education launched the Winter-Reed Partnership Award in 2007 to honor former Gov. William Winter and late Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr. for their lifelong contributions to public education and to provide ongoing recognition for Mississippi’s outstanding education leaders.
The luncheon included a welcome from Suzanne Bean, Ph.D., past president of MAPE; remarks from Clyde Muse, Ph.D., president of Hinds Community College; invocation by Ben Burnett, Ph.D., dean at William Cary University School of Education; remarks from Cathy Grace, Ph.D., co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi; video tribute from Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; and remarks from Rhea Williams-Bishop, director of Mississippi and New Orleans Programs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Marty Wiseman, Ph.D., director emeritus of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, was the master of ceremony for the luncheon.
“This is truly an honor,” Fitzgerald said upon accepting the award. She thanked her colleagues on the stage as well as those in the audience and reminisced about humorous times and the battles they’ve had in fighting for children in Mississippi and beyond.
“We truly are partners in this campaign to educate children,” she said. “The harvest is large but the laborers are few, so we kind of know each other in this room, and we all carry the same commitment and emotion and hope for our state and our children.”
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. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Tougaloo College and a master’s degree in community development from Antioch University Midwest.
She has served 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. 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.
Grace, who was the first woman to receive the Winter-Reed Award in 2009, recalled seeing Fitzgerald for the first time about 20 years ago at a rally for children’s health in Tupelo. Sometime later they actually had a discussion at the state Capitol during a time when bills on children’s issues were being debated.
“The conversation went something like this. Oleta said, ‘We need to make sure there won’t be any mess with the people involved in this issue,’ And I gave her my word that I would do anything I could to eliminate any mess if we could just get this measure through,” said Grace. In that situation, the measure was passed.
Later Grace worked with Fitzgerald in helping to design the SPARK preschool program in Mississippi. “She would meet a challenge head on … she did so with composure and grace regardless if it was a hill or mountain she was going to take it on,” Grace said.
“For Oleta, the work of affording poor children –whether they are minority children or not – equal opportunity to education, healthcare, a better quality of life, has always been serious.”
During her video tribute to the honoree, Edelman expressed how deserving Fitzgerald was to receive the award.
“She works tirelessly to see that children can have an education,” said Edelman, noting she’s known Fitzgerald for almost 50 years. She described the honoree as an aggressive organizer and politician and recalled her work to ensure that the rights of disabled children were protected. “I’m very proud of what she has done and even more proud of the good things to come.”
Williams-Bishop described Fitzgerald has her dear friend, mentor and colleague. Williams-Bishop worked in the CDF Southern Regional Office for 15 years and had several stories to share about working with Fitzgerald.
“She’s no micromanager, but she’s the kind of boss with high expectations,” Williams-Bishop said.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Williams-Bishop explained that Fitzgerald’s leadership caused hundreds of families to be reconnected, thousands of displaced children to find solace through schools and multimillion-dollar investments to be made by the Kellogg Foundation.
Winter presented the award to Fitzgerald.
“Oleta and I have fought a lot of battles together. I have always been reassured because I was on her side every time we fought the battles. I feel a lot safer that way,” Winter said.
“I appreciate the leadership you have provided this embattled state of Mississippi on behalf of our children. As long as I have been in public life, I have never found anyone more totally and completely dedicated to improve the lives of all of us but particularly our children.”
Shanderia K. Posey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.