Ellen E. Grant is a fellow at the Weiss Institute, an initiative of Say Yes to Education that marshals best practices and the latest research to address inequities and boost economic development by supporting young people from early childhood to adult success. It is the latest of many leadership hats worn by this savvy woman over 60, who grew up in Buffalo's public housing to become a nurse, a social worker, a licensed therapist, an executive coach, a college instructor, Director of Cornerstone Manor, Vice President at BlueCross/BlueShield of Western New York, President and CEO of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, Erie County Commissioner of Mental Health and City of Buffalo Deputy Mayor.
In the beginning...
I was born the oldest girl of six children to a father who worked at Bethlehem Steel and a mom who was a homemaker. I would say that's where my leadership skills started, because my parents had a boy and two girls, then waited almost nine years to have another set of a boy and two more girls. So I kind of feel I helped raised the second set.
We grew up in the Langfield projects at a time when it wasn't well integrated and I learned later on in life, my parents said that there was a petition to try to keep us out of the projects, but because it was federal housing, they had to let us in. And soon, the white neighbors found out that we wanted the same thing for us that they wanted for their own children. I wouldn't say we were ever truly 100 percent accepted, but we got along. My parents always told us, "Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated, with respect," regardless of their title or role in life. We're all God's children. That and "Get an education."
What was your first professional job?
My first professional job was as a Licensed Practical Nurse. I went to the School of Nursing that was affiliated with Millard Fillmore Hospital, which is no longer there. I was one of three black women at the time in the class - the late 1960s - and it was a very strenous learning environment, but we all got 90s. I remember the three of us had a hard time proving ourselves.
And that started in high school with the Guidance Counselor telling me I couldn't achieve as a Registered Nurse and why not become a Practical Nurse and become a credit to my race. I didn't know what that meant. But my parents, who came from Georgetown, SC, told us we better do everything the teacher say, we better not ever come home with a bad report or we'd have some carpal punishment - which was okay in those days - so I didn't tell my parents. This was at Kensington High School, where I actually became the first officer of color as the Secretary of the graduating class.
Those things shape you, but as my grandmother always said, "Whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" and I could probably lift this building right now. If you're a woman or a woman of color, we've all got those stories, but how you respond to someone else's reaction to you is what shapes you and either pushes you to go further and go on or to remain stuck - and I was not a gettin' stuck kind of girl.
Let's talk about your journey from nursing into so many different types of positions.
I started in a leadership position as a nurse at the old E.G. Meyer Memorial Hospital in Psychiatry. When the head nurse was off, I was in charge - in my early 20s - of an all-male psychiatric unit. Most of the staff were men and we even had the jail unit at that time. I just learned from the Head Nurse, who was a wonderful mentor to me. From there, I decided to go back to school for my therapy degree and wound up at the state hospital in charge of another all-male unit of intensely mentally ill clients. At the same time I was finishing my graduate degree and then starting my doctorate - because it was very evident to me that if I wanted to go further, I had to get additional education because of the environment of having to have extra. I was actually working two full-time jobs at that time and going to grad school. I was also at the Community Mental Health Center at Buffalo General at the time.
You know there are only 24 hours in a day.
Well, I was a little bit Type A. I aspired to go on, because I saw the opportunity having the nursing background and also having the therapy background. I approached the president of the hospital and asked him if there would be an opportunity for me to exceed further, and told him about my interests and the need as I saw it to look at patients holistically. It's not just the mind, but the mind and body go together. You can't be well if your mind is sick and you certainly can't be well if your body is sick. He then asked me shortly thereafter if I'd be interested in being a Vice President of the hospital. I was put in charge of all the ambulatory medical clinics and, at the same time, responsible for the mental health unit. I became the first Vice President of color in the Western New York region in health care.
What kind of resistance have you experienced because you were a woman or a woman of color?
A lot of the resistance was subtle. Some of it was direct. I had a gentleman tell me that he would not work for a black person once in a position. I said, "Well, that's your choice. There's the door. It's up to you." You just have to keep going, know what your focus is and don't let anyone try to make it an obstacle for you. I refuse to let my sex or my color stand in the way of what I'm trying to achieve. I figure, that's someone else's issue, not mine, to carry. My grandmother would say, "When you face that negativity from someone, just pray for them." That's all you really can do. Just keep going forward and build on the strengths that you have.
Let's talk a bit about the work you're doing now with the Weiss Institute, the consulting arm of the national office of Say Yes to Education.
We were getting so many calls from around the coountry, from other communities, saying, "Come help us" in so many areas of our expertise here. So I go around the country and talk to them about how they might use their collaborative governance model or use some of the analytics on the fiscal or statistical side to help the school system's numbers for graduating students.
Every community is so different, what we end up doing is designing the program based on the community's assets and challenges. What we help communities with is how to bring those two things together, how to get a good balance, so to reach your post-secondary success - and that's either a college education or a certificate program, so a person can be a tax-paying contributor to the community. For example, there might be that church that's an asset to the community where you can partner to get summer school programs started.
When things got really difficult, how were you able to persevere?
Certainly having what I call a good family unit, a good faith, but also what I call a good mentor board. I've been very fortunate that others have helped me throughout my careers and I always believe in giving back. Folks have mentored me and I think it's been very important to help others, too, just as my parents taught me. So talking it out, talking it out with folks on your mentor board - and those folks have been men and women - and I've done the same in terms of mentoring men and women. I also mentor in the schools.
I believe in the basic premise of servant leadership. You really have to be a team leader: you may be the leader, but you're really serving that team you're leading. That's my whole foundation, serving others in leadership. And you certainly have to be a risk taker. I've certainly had a lot of rejection in my life, but again, what's the bigger goal?
You're also a co-founder of Women Who Lead WNY.
Because I felt that women needed more support. There really is no organization in the Western New York area that is a formal mentoring organization. So I approached my good friend Althea Luehrsen and we said, "Let's do this." Now there are a number of companies that have their own internal mentoring organization, but sometimes a woman doesn't want to be in her organization or its mentoring program. Maybe she's afraid of confidentiality. But we've had some good success with it. We have about 30 mentors signed up with it and what we're doing is matching mentors with mentees. We think in a career you have to go step by step up the ladder, but sometimes making a lateral move within that industry or that company can serve you just as well. I mean, if you have good management skills, those are transferable just about anywhere.
Flats or heels?
Oh, heels. No hesitation. I'm a heel girl, absolutely.
NOTE: Content has been edited. Details can be found in the audio clips. Listen Wednesday mornings throughout March on WBFO and watch online for more "Savvy Over 60." #SavvyWomenOver60