Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Karen Boykin-Towns, vice chair of the board of the NAACP, the nation’s “oldest and boldest” civil rights organization. Boykin-Towns is a former corporate executive for Pfizer.
Angela: Karen, thank you for talking to us at BlackHer! You’ve had an illustrious career in the private sector as a senior executive at Pfizer. You have also made major contributions to the public sector as a long-time board member of and now the vice chair of the NAACP. Can you tell us about yourself and your career path?
Karen: I grew up in Harlem, NY, and attended a public school until college. I graduated from the College of Mount Saint Vincent and immediately joined the staff of state Senator David Paterson, who later became the first black governor of the state of New York. I worked for Paterson in multiple positions, including chief of staff.
While I was working for the senator I got my MBA, married the man of my dreams, and started a family! I have two daughters: one now works as an engineer at Microsoft. The other is a senior in high school.
I left the government to join Pfizer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I started out as a lobbyist in government relations and public affairs and worked there for 22 years. I worked my way up from manager to global vice president of corporate affairs for Pfizer Innovative Health, reporting to a member of Pfizer’s executive leadership team, who reported to the chairman and CEO
My career at Pfizer took off when I served as the corporation’s first chief diversity officer. Jeff Kindler, Pfizer’s CEO at the time, asked me to take on the role because he was trying to get an integrated, global diversity program launched and he thought that I had the skills to accomplish that.
At first, I was reluctant to take the assignment, because I hadn’t seen the impact of diversity on the company. Also, I was a lobbyist, and aside from being a Black woman, I felt that I lacked expertise in diversity and inclusion (D&I).
However, I trusted Jeff and I talked with my husband, prayed about it and re-considered my answer. I reasoned that if Jeff Kindler, who respected my work, thought becoming chief diversity officer was a good move for me, it probably was. So, I said yes, and agreed to this development opportunity for 22 months.
We made great strides during that time, including achieving our goal of devising an integrated strategy and leveraging D&I as a competitive advantage. This led to external recognition of our work. After fulfilling this assignment, I went back to my work in corporate affairs in a higher position than when I left. If I had not taken the global diversity job, I never would have been considered for any of my global jobs thereafter.
Angela: In addition to your success in the corporate world, you have made major contributions to civic organizations. It is great to see a woman in a position of leadership at the nation’s oldest and largest Civil Rights Organization! Please talk about your role as vice chair of the NAACP board.
Karen: As vice chair, there is no set role except for standing in for the chairman, so I was keen on defining my own role. I quickly settled on a role to help build the foundation’s board of directors and strategic partnerships, both of which are hugely important in terms of serving our people. Whether we are strengthening relationships with the faith community, civil rights organizations, The Divine Nine, the Links, or others, it is important to partner to advance Black people’s common goals. We need each other to achieve comprehensive policy change.
We also have corporate partners. As a former senior executive at a Fortune 50 corporation, I have insight into how to best position the NAACP with our corporate partners.
Finally, I work closely with our president and chairman to ensure that the NAACP’s leadership team is aligned on all matters, including major initiatives and announcements. This is hugely important. The NAACP is a fast-moving organization that is called to act on and react to national stories and policy news every day.
In addition, we provide direction to national staff and 2,200 units across the county.
Angela: How would you describe the role of Black women at the NAACP, and in today’s civil rights movement? Are we leading the charge?
Karen: Black women have long led the charge for change at the NAACP and for the civil rights movement. One hundred and ten years ago, two Black women were at the founding meeting of the NAACP in 1909 – Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell.
Black women have been the backbone of the NAACP from its inception up until now. While we’ve never had a female president of the association, everywhere you look, the NAACP is infused with female leadership. Women like Myrlie Evers-Williams, Hazel Dukes and Roslyn Brock have all publicly served as leaders in the modern NAACP.
Black women are also leading the charge in the movement today. For example, the Legal Defense Fund is led by Sherrilyn Ifill. Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement, which has uplifted all women. And, a group of Black women worked together to start Black Lives Matter. I just named a few of these phenomenal women but there are many more.
Angela: Black women seem to be “in” now and sometimes America even “thanks” us. Is that helping us do better?
Karen: Great question. Black women are receiving accolades about “delivering” votes and “saving” elections. Unfortunately, the actions of those who praise us are not always in alignment with the praise. It is not enough to just praise Black women. At the end of the day, we need real investments in policies that benefit us. For example, we need investments in jobs for all Black women. We need investment in health care to address our high rates of breast cancer and heart disease. Praising Black women is nice but until that appreciation aligns with real policy change and opportunities, I am not impressed.
Angela: The NAACP invested a lot of time in the 2018 midterms. We got some great results, but we also took some awful hits, including Stacey Abrams’ loss in Georgia. Are there lessons to be learned from our wins or our losses?
Karen: A lot of people in our community were energized by the Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Ben Jealous campaigns for governor. When none of them were elected, it was hard, but I believe we must look at our results holistically.
First, Black voters turned out! Our turnout rate was close to the turnout rate for the 2016 presidential race. That’s a great accomplishment and tells me that we are engaged in the political process. We must continue to encourage voter turnout.
Second, we have a historic number of Blacks in Congress. In fact, the Congressional Black Caucus has the numbers to be the most powerful caucus in Congress.
Third, we passed same-day voter registration in Michigan and a felon enfranchisement law in Florida. These were huge wins.
We cannot let the loss of those important gubernatorial races leave us feeling defeated. We should leverage our wins in 2018 to build for 2019 and 2020.
Angela: Have we overcome?
Karen: This is a tough question. Things are far better than they were 50 or 150 years ago. We are not slaves. We don’t live under legal segregation nor are we beholden to the Black Codes. But, at the end of the day, we are not where we should be in 2019 in employment, education, and more, and we have had some obvious setbacks. We must not be complacent.
Each of us needs to figure out how we can contribute to our common advancement. If you are an executive, you should ask yourself “What am I doing to contribute to the advancement of colored people?” You can help someone end up in your position, or promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace. We can all do more and that’s what it will take for us to overcome. This is true in every sphere of economic influence in the U.S., corporate America, education, entertainment, and politics.
Angela: Let me ask you the Miracle Question. You go to sleep tonight, and you wake up and it’s January 2020 and the miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?
Karen: Black women are being recognized for just how incredible we are in all fields and all facets, and we are treated as extraordinary women. We are valued. We are recruited to “play on all parts of the team” in America. The world has opened for us in ways that it hasn’t before.
We are the leaders who help our community get the political power that is within our grasp! We are the connectors that are making things happen. Also, we are being supported by our Black men. They are standing up for us, speaking up on our behalf and protecting us as we protect ourselves.
Finally, we are truly embracing the sister girl movement and we are not competing with each other. We are helping each other and lifting one another up. I really believe that supporting each other is already starting to happen. I see and feel a wonderful sense of community and support between Black women. If we keep it up, the miracle may happen.