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Carole Woods Harris Makes a Habit of Breaking Barriers for Black Women in Business and Politics


In the struggle African-Americans have waged to achieve equal footing in education, employment and housing as well as in leadership positions, elected or not, the progress made has not always made banner headlines. In fact many of the gains have happened quietly and largely under the radar.  That’s certainly the case with Carole Woods Harris, who achieved one first after another for black women in Omaha, Neb., where she became a leader in business and in local-county government by persistently moving through the ranks, networking, proving herself just as capable as her male counterparts, and along the way gaining a reputation for being a methodical and savvy operator who never lost touch with her roots.  This profile I wrote of Harris appeared about a decade ago.

 

 

 Carole Woods-Harris
 Carole Woods Harris

 

 

Carole Woods Harris Makes a Habit of Breaking Barriers for Black Women in Business and Politics

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

When former US West executive and current Douglas County Commissioner Carole Woods Harris first applied at the phone company in the late 1950s, the then-Technical High School honors student eagerly sought one of Ma Bell’s long distance operator openings. It was an era when women, regardless of ability, were limited to narrow roles in the workplace. Any job at the fat phone company was prized. A job there meant a steady paycheck and, if one stayed put, the promise of a pension at the end of a long career. There was even the possibility of advancing into a better paying spot. In reality, few women actually did.

Although the precocious Carole, then known by her maiden name Anders, was told by company officials she more than qualified for the job, she was denied it and, instead, got offered an elevator operator slot. The snub was the first bitter taste of racism in this young black woman’s life. A proud Carole rejected the offer on the spot. However, with the Civil Rights Movement beginning to open doors for blacks, she soon found herself called back by the company, which did an abrupt about-face and tendered her the same position she wanted in the first place. She accepted this offer because, one, she deserved it and, two, her family badly needed the money. Carole was the oldest of three children in a single-parent family (her mother and father were separated) and the Anders barely scraped by on what her mother made working as a maid and what the family received in welfare assistance. “Bear in mind,” she said during a recent interview from her northwest Omaha home, “this is the best job that anybody in my family had ever had.”

Omaha Technical High School

 

 

The same young woman who had enough moxie to say “No thanks” when treated unfairly and enough good sense to say “Thank you” when opportunity knocked, made this bottom-rung job her entry into the business world, where she blazed a trail for other minorities in climbing the corporate ladder over a 30-year career with the communications giant, much of it spent in management.

High achievement is something Harris, a Kellom Grade School and Tech High graduate, was brought up to expect despite growing up in poverty. Her self-confidence and lofty expectations came from the many stalwart women in her life. Chief among them were her mother, Frances, and maternal grandmother, Elizabeth. “I was raised and influenced, you might say, by a number of strong black women. My mother was a very intelligent woman who finished high school with the skills to be a secretary, which was probably the top of the ladder for women at that time. But that was something in Omaha she was not able to do because of her race. Many of the parents of her generation had that experience. My mother could only find work as a house maid all the time I was growing up. She ended up being able to get into a decent job when she got on at the Post Office, which began hiring blacks. But what I got from my mother was the belief that things were going to get better for us. My mother instilled the attitude that I could do whatever I wanted and the importance of being prepared to do it. So, she instilled a lot of hope.”

In her grandmother Elizabeth, Harris found an example of how to persevere and stay true to core beliefs through trying times. “My mother’s mother was a widow who raised nine children. By the time she was in her 40s she lost her sight (due to glaucoma). Yet, she helped to raise her grandchildren. I often consider my grandmother as the most saintly person I’ve known. She had a very strong faith.” The family, led by grandma, regularly attended Morningstar Baptist Church. Today, Harris worships at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church.

While establishing herself as a player in business circles, Harris began making her presence known as a community volunteer and board member. She is the past chair of the Eastern Nebraska Human Services Board of Governors. She still serves on the boards of numerous health and human service agencies, including the United Way of the Midlands. More recently, she has emerged as a savvy politico giving voice to minority concerns. Along the way to becoming a community leader, she raised a family. The twice-divorced Harris has three children from her first husband — sons Vernon and Michael and daughter Kimberly. She is a grandmother of four. Her only regret, she said, is not finishing her college education, something she put on the back-burner to take care of business.

 
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A black woman elevator operator in Virginia in the era Carole Woods Harris worked the same job in Omaha

 

 

Upon being the first black promoted into middle management from within then-Northwestern Bell in the 1970s, she became a figure of inspiration for a group of long-time employees who filled the very job the company tried steering her into more than a decade earlier. “There were several black women working as elevator operators then, and these beautiful, special women were so encouraging and supportive of me when I started. They mothered me. They just showed such a sense of pride in me,” she said, her voice breaking at the thought of how much she meant to them and how much they meant to her. Once she made her way into the halls of power, first as a district manager for directory publishing and eventually as director of strategic planning, she knew her double-minority status made her a closely watched symbol inside and outside the corporation. She knew there were those who suspected her rise into the management ranks was due to affirmative action quotas than her own merits. That others scrutinized her every move to see if she really belonged and carried her own weight. And that still others expected her presence to be a gateway for more blacks. All of which made her feel even more pressure then she already put on herself.

“It’s not unusual for people in that situation to always feel they’ve got to make an effort to be twice as good” as their white counterparts,” she said of the awkward position she was in. “So, I guess I pressured myself. I knew it was important that others have the opportunity to follow me, and if I didn’t do well it would adversely impact the opportunities for others and would be used as an excuse” to not hire more minorities. She acknowledges she did sometimes “wonder…if what was happening to me was because I’m black or because I’m a woman. I think my experiences were impacted by a combination of my race and my sex.”

In addition to having to prove herself, she faced the challenge of gaining access into the male-dominated executive suite, essentially a men’s club whose “suits” did a lot of business on the golf course or the local tavern, where women colleagues were unwelcome. “Well, I didn’t golf, so I started inviting myself to lunch with them,” she explained. “It hadn’t occurred to them. I looked for any ways to make myself part of the Old Boys Network.” By all measures, she succeeded, becoming a highly-admired manager who could stand her ground with the boys.

Frank Peterson, a former senior manager with US West, said her ascendancy at the company was “no window dressing,” adding: “She was no showcase. She was a very competent manager and a very well-respected leader that more than held her own in any position she was placed in, and I think that’s a real asset to her. The examples she set were excellent.”

KETV-7-Board-cancels-Guardian-ad-litem-contracts

 

 

For much of her time in management, Harris oversaw a group “responsible for publishing all of the directories for a five-state region.” She supervised staffs in Omaha, Des Moines and Minneapolis. Near the end of her career (she retired in 1990) her role as a strategic planner found her deeply involved in the merger of the so-called Baby Bells (Northwestern Bell, Pacific Bell and Mountain Bell) that created US West. That meant a lot of streamlining and downsizing to eliminate redundancies and to maximize efficiencies. “When you bring three companies together,” she said, “you have a lot of duplication. My job was basically working through that.” Her dedication to those cost-cutting measures was so complete she even phased-out her own role in the company. “As part of that process, one of the things I did was eliminate my own job. I was in a position to see it coming and as a result I was made less afraid of that change.”

She took early retirement at 50, leaving behind an accomplished legacy. Her old colleague, Peterson, said, “She brought a dignity to her role, whatever it was. She has the ability to say what’s necessary to be said, to say it well and to say it in an unemotional way. It’s a characteristic I witnessed many times. Also, she’s an excellent listener. As a team player she could adapt quickly to any situation. She could always see the big picture, not only her own responsibility, but that of the greater need. The telephone business was filled with a bunch of great people…and when you think about the people you cherished and the people you could count on, she ranks way up in that realm. Her path just leaves people feeling good.”

Once separated from the company she had come of age in, Harris made a frank self-assessment and, when the opportunity presented itself, pursued a life in public service. “If you’ve been with a company for 30 years that publishes directories and provides long distance service, it’s hard to see what value you have outside that context,” she said.”That started me to do a better job of identifying how the skills I gained were transferable to other venues.”

Her attraction to city-county government actually began several years before when, in the early 1980s, she was appointed by then-Mike Boyle to the Omaha Personnel Board. Her tenure on the Board coincided with a tumultuous turn of events when the incumbent Boyle, whom she serves with today on the Douglas County Board, was recalled, Councilman Steve Tomasek filled in as Acting Mayor and Councilman Bernie Simon was elected by the Council to serve out the deposed Mayor’s term. “I chaired one of those major hearings during all the turmoil,” she recalled. It was during that time she mentioned to fellow Democrats she “might be interested in serving in public office” and, sure enough, political operatives approached her a few years later about running against incumbent City Councilman Joe Friend. After some hesitation, she put her hat in the ring and challenged Friend in the 1989 election.

She lost, but valued the chance it gave her to surface issues, the primary one being “the need for the City and its elected officials to pay greater attention to all segments of the community. There were areas that were significantly under-served.” While she admits she “had a lot to learn” about the political process, she considered her failed bid “a very good experience.”

The call to service came again in 1992 when she ran for and was elected to the District 3 Douglas County Commissioner’s seat. Motivating her to seek office, she said, was her “interest in the health and human services areas the county is responsible for and an interest in understanding the budget process and being able to have that process be fair to all areas of the county being served.”

Her victory gave her the distinction of being the first black elected to the Douglas County Board. In a state that falls well behind the rest of the nation in funding services for disadvantaged populations, Harris has used her office as a forum for strengthening existing programs and creating “more community-based services for children-at-risk as well as for mental health and chemical dependency patients.” She sees many needs still going unmet. “In the youth area I see more need in the way of prevention-based services for at-risk youths and their families. We continue to be too heavily dependent on detention.” She also sees “huge gaps” in youth mental health services. “Because the slots aren’t available in Kearney (at the youth rehabilitation center there) and in other county facilities, we are sending too many young people out-of-state at a very high cost for services that we should be able to provide right here locally.” Harris chaired the Nebraska Juvenile Services Grant Committee and helped develop the county’s Community Juvenile Services Plan.

A black woman who shares much in common with Harris, former Omaha City Council member Brenda Council, admires the leadership qualities her friend embodies.

“I think she’s been not only a tremendous representative for her district, but for the county. She’s done a tremendous job on the County Board. Two words that describe her are — integrity and dignity. She makes decisions based on what she believes is right, but she does that after she considers everyone else’s opinion. She brings reason and rationality to her decisions. She’s just a calm-steady presence. That’s her style,” Council said.

 

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Elected Democratic officials in Omaha today are more diverse than when Harris served

 

 

Fellow Douglas County Commissioner Clare Duda echoed Council’s observations about Harris. “Carole has a calmness and common sense unlike anybody else I’ve had the pleasure of serving with,” he said. “I can always count on her to not let politics or sensationalism cloud her vision. She’s hard-working, she does her homework and she’s well-connected in the community. She sticks to her guns when she knows what’s in the best interest for her constituents. I have just the utmost respect for her.”
Council, the first black president of the Omaha School Board and the second black to serve on the City Council, also appreciates the example Harris sets: “Carole Woods Harris is certainly someone that young people should look to as a model. She’s paved a path that others can follow.”

As one of two Democrats currently on the seven-member Douglas County Board, Harris carefully selects her battles, preferring to work quietly behind-the-scenes to forge alliances on issues she feels strongly about. “I guess I see myself more as a catalyst or facilitator. The main game that’s played” with a policy-making body like this “is counting votes and sometimes, given the makeup of the Board, it’s more helpful to work out a coalition and have someone else take the lead. If it’s most helpful for me to be out there running in front about something I care about it, I will, but often it’s better just to be a vote and to be less concerned about who gets credit for it.” Harris has been on the other side, too. When she joined the Board she was part of a Democratic majority. “You operate one way if you’re one of five versus if you’re one of two. So, you need to be flexible.”

Her lone Democratic colleague on the Board, Mike Boyle, sees Harris as a steadying influence and as a simpatico voice for the underdog. “She’s able to bring-on discussion of relatively controversial subjects without any acrimony or heated discussion, but she sure gets the point across. She gets right to the core of the problem. She’s a woman of very high standards. Her ethics are uncompromising. There are some fundamental things she believes that she will not yield on. Yet, she’s very easy to get along with. Carole and I do not always vote the same way but we do share some values, including the basic belief in the need for county government to serve its primary purpose — and that is to serve people who really need help. In many cases, we are the government of last resort.”

With 10 years on the Board, Harris, along with Duda, are the County Board’s senior Commissioners. She considers her duties “a fascinating challenge.” The best thing about it, she said, “is the good feeling you can have when you succeed at making a difference.” Among the most “frustrating” things, she said, is how hard it is to reach an accord. “I describe this Board as being like a seven-headed executive. All these executive decisions are dependent upon these seven people agreeing.” Then, there’s the intrusion it brings in her personal life. “I’m an awfully private person to have run for public office, and so the worst thing is how much you give up in privacy.” Last winter found her uncharacteristically sharing her private life when she spoke to the World-Herald about a trip to South Africa she made as part of a women’s service organization she belongs to, Links Inc., which helped build 32 schools there. Harris and fellow Links members attended dedication ceremonies for the schools and ushered in a South African Links chapter.

In South Africa she found a nation struggling to overcome an oppressive legacy of apartheid that resonates with America’s own racist legacy. In her understated way, Harris expresses some passionate views about the issue of race. She feels predominantly black northeast Omaha is still largely alienated from the majority white culture.

“I think the community is much more separated and divided than it should be,” she said. “I’ve had too many experiences where individuals who live in the western part of the community are afraid or unwilling to venture into the eastern part of the community, where I live, as though it’s a war zone. It’s not what people perceive it to be. The power structure would like to think there are no (racial) problems and in that regard I think they have a head-in-the-sand attitude. There’s been slow progress in building good relationships with the police. At times, I’ve seen that go backwards. There are some real educational challenges. There are way too many children in the disadvantaged areas of the community who’ve been allowed to fall through the cracks.”

In a positive vein, she acknowledges progress has been made on the job and housing fronts and that her own success story offers proof of that.

Not one to look back, Harris looks forward to completing her Commissioner’s term and then moving onto some new challenges. Always looking to improve herself, Harris, a graduate of leadership and management programs, an avid reader and a world traveler, may go back to college for that long-deferred degree. Whatever she does, she will doubtlessly bring her quiet strength and grace to the task.

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