By Janice K. Neal-Vincent
All her life Dorothy Stewart has heard the voices of her ancestors and has carried the torch of excellence. She learned from her parents to pay attention to the signs of the time and to take away their subliminal and blatant messages. She learned to be comfortable in her own skin and to encourage others to do the same.
So when she founded Women for Progress in 1978, she was determined to let that overall message of self-worthiness stand. Stewart stated in the comfort of her home, “I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing since I was ten years old. Others guided me in life and created a path for me. I and my parents cared for a handicapped brother. I was born colored in a racist Miss. I learned that here people only saw color.” During her childhood, the giant among many learned the stench of oppression.
“Dealing with a lack of opportunity for blacks, through no fault of their own, was a handicap. When my mother needed something and was refused it, the answer was always the same: ‘She’s colored.’ The fight my mother fought to get help for a crippled child took a lot of courage, and passion for her to go through the powers that be, and she did it, not knowing what the results would be,” she reminisced.
The driving force instilled in Stewart was to make things different. It is no wonder then that the purpose of Women for Progress is to help people understand their roles as citizens. “Technically you already have the power and must see yourself having the power. I hate to hear leaders say, ‘We just don’t have the power.’ When we started Women for Progress, we worked with former Senator Henry Kirksey because we were involved in an election. The only people who can’t see the rationale for an election at JSU don’t look like us (blacks) because they are focusing on dollar signs.”
Stewart reckoned that since JSU has over 7,000 students, there is power in that particular number to make things happen. Looking back, the outspoken leader recollected that unity prevailed within the community. “JPS was the most powerful, largest school district and best ranked in the state. Then the court ruled that JPS had to be desegregated. We all, like sacrificial lambs, had to transfer. When I transferred to Provine, many of the teachers lived in the neighborhood. Then gradually, that changed.”
The change, Stewart reflected, produced a divided community. Despite great students and great teachers, the high-esteem factor began to decline. People who went to church in their community now attend other churches. The sense of pride the community once felt no longer exists. “We need more people who are concerned about our community. We need to know our lives matter because as Lance Fuller said in one of his poems, ‘You do not know the power of your black hands,’” the motivator quipped.
Continuing to embark upon pride, Stewart said that if a person cannot perceive that they were created in God’s image, that’s a problem. “The African ritual of holding the baby up to God that he/she may embody His Spirit is significant. Being powerfully and wonderfully made is difficult for many of us to believe,” she remarked.
Stewart attributes this to slavery and its impact. Stewart makes no apologies for wearing her Afro centric outfits any day during the year. “When I wear my Afro centric outfits, some are alarmed. I’m not prejudice and I’ve never had the power to discriminate nor down another person.” For her, it’s about knowing who you are and feeling good about that. “My daughter said we need to start preparing people for the new museums downtown to see themselves and their beauty,” she chuckled.
The free spirited thinker reminds the black race to always self-examine. “I wonder are we seeing things better or are we going back. That’s what happened when Harriet Tubman was leading us. Margaret Walker Alexander’s poem For My People impacted me greatly. The poem’s last stanza is powerful. We must take control in every aspect of our lives,” she contended.
Years ago when Stewart was in San Francisco embarking upon educational pursuits, she latched on to Kwanza. She commented, “Celebration of Kwanza teaches us the values of self-determination. We work for and create a terrific environment. We don’t expect others to do it for us. Without those collective values, we don’t have a society.”
Visualizing the future, Stewart asserted that blacks should not have to live in fear. “We must raise a generation of people who will take control and learn to live in peace. We must take hold and develop some connecting points in light of our tradition. That’s what our ancestral roots are about. Rather than disowning misplaced values, we should create a sense of love and pride in ourselves, and in our children. It’s crucial that children know about hard work just as Oseola McCarty did in Hattiesburg,” she maintained.