By Ayesha K. Mustafaa,
Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald: Try to get Fitzgerald to talk about herself and she quickly deflects to her mother and father – Zenova and W. E. (William Eugene) Garrett. She resonates her parents’ strong points – educate the people and protect the people’s right to represent themselves.
Born in rural Madison County, Mississippi, on a family farm, she describes the environment as a “village” of extended family members.
Fitzgerald was a brilliant child, and she explains her love for learning as her efforts to escape the farm life. She says, “My mother was a task master at school and at home. I learned early the only thing that allowed me to be excused from farm work was reading. “So I read a lot. I read the Old Farmer’s Almanac which introduced me to the influences of nature and astronomy when I was 8 or 9 years old.”
She explains how she would pay attention to growing seasons and the weather, things the small farms relied on, and listening to “grown up conversations” about growing conditions. These became traits you see in Fitzgerald today, tracking through her career years.
Her jobs have been down to earth types, once working for The American Friends Service Committee – a Quaker organization then on to Mike Espy, the Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration, and she currently works for The Children’s Defense Fund – its name accurately explains its objectives.
A graduate of Tougaloo College in 1970, her focus was on social reforms. But more impactful on her developed course in life was the environment of Tougaloo as the safe haven for activists in the civil rights causes – like professor Dr. Ernst Borinski, a who introduced her to horizons beyond Mississippi.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the campus and she began participating in the Freedom Summers that challenged Jim Crow policies. She met Stokely Carmichael at Tougaloo and studied the Cuban Revolution and the resistance methods of Mahatma Gandhi.
After graduation, she moved to Atlanta, GA and joined the campaigns of Andrew Young and Julian Bond. She worked in the first campaigns to elect Atlanta’s first African American Mayor – Maynard Jackson, for Andrew Young’s congressional run, and for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.
She began her life’s journey of 45 years of activism as a program director at the Southern Regional Council. These experiences gave her the background to know what is important to voters in urban and rural areas and what resonates with the voters.
She was hired by the Mississippi Democratic Party as organization director and assigned to Mike Espy’s first campaign for Congress. She campaigned for what became the election of the first black members of Congress elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction. She served eight years as district director in the rural Second Congressional District of Mississippi.
Fitzgerald began working for the Children’s Defense Fund lead by Marian Wright Edelman in 1995. She became the director of the Southern Regional Office which encompasses Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida Arkansas and Louisiana.
After her workday is over, Fitzgerald dotes on her family, her children, grandchildren and a great grand.
Her first born, Rashida Fitzgerald Walker’s description of her mother is that she is full of life.
“My mom is grounded in faith and has worked the majority of her life serving and working for the needs of others, particularly women and children. She’s very intelligent and beautiful both inside and out.”
Watching her mother over the years, Rashida says she has seen the bridges she has created and the ones she had to cross. “I often tell her she’s the best life connector a person can have.”
Fitzgerald’s son, Yusuf, said his mother was awesome, fair and understanding. “Whether it is civil rights, children’s rights or the laws that govern how we care for our kids, she’s going to work day and night.”
His “stand out moment” when he thinks about his mom’s career is when she worked in the Clinton Administration and the children were able to spend summers in Washington, D.C.
Fitzgerald serves as a board member for the Mississippi Head Start Association, the Mississippi Children’s Museum, the advisory committee for the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University and is a member of the State Children’s Welfare Coalition and the Global Women’s Action Network for Children.
She also currently serves as the regional administrator for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic & Social Justice (SRBWI), which operates in 77 counties across the Black Belts of Alabama, Southwest Georgia and Delta Mississippi.
Under her direction, the Children’s Defense Fund released nine policy changes that could help lift 5.5 million children across the country out of poverty.
She was one of four honorees at the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi’s Women of Vision 2019 awards, along with honorees Betsy Bradley, director of the Mississippi Museum of Art; Jackson-native comedienne Rita Brent; and Holly Lange, executive director of the Mississippi Book Festival.
She is an honorary member of Pi Alpha Alpha, the National Honor Society for Public Affairs & Administration from Mississippi State University in 1999. Fitzgerald received her Master’s Degree in Rural Development from Antioch University.
She is the proud mother of four children, Rashida, Yusef, Layla and Joi.