Keynote Address at Project for Pride in Living's Achievement Awards
Thank you very much for inviting me to be here today. I am honored by the opportunity to speak to all of you.
PPL is an important organization that performs a critical role in helping people help themselves. Tonight we honor all people striving to improve their lives, but specifically we honor 12 very deserving individuals who have made huge strides in their efforts to overcome adversity—from staying in school through exceptionally tough times, from escaping homelessness and providing for your families, from learning new skills and working new jobs—all 12 of tonight’s honorees have displayed enormous amounts of passion and determination, and all of them—all of you—are inspiring to all of us.
My name is Dorothy Bridges, and I am the Senior Vice President of Community Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. I’ve been involved with banking for more than 30 years, but my path to and career in community development was informed by events in my childhood and in my adult life that have taught me the importance not only of perseverance in times of hardship but also the support we get from family, friends and even total strangers. I’d like to share with you this part of my past that has left an enduring impact on who I am today.
I was born in rural Tylertown, Mississippi, and I grew up mainly in New Orleans. My parents had eight children. I am the oldest. They both worked manual labor types of jobs, so they were away from home a lot. That meant I had a lot of responsibility at an early age.
Fortunately, there were always relatives around to help out. When I was little, we lived in a big old house that had been crudely converted into multiple apartments units. My immediate family lived in one section, and we had cousins, aunts and uncles who lived in other sections. Upstairs, down the hall, in the front of the house—all over. Altogether, there must have been ½ dozen or so families living in this one house with only a couple of bathrooms and a shared kitchen.
Now, I don’t want to make this sound like some sob story, because it isn’t. Growing up surrounded by so much family was a gift. We were our own little community that was able to nurture each other, to cheer each other on, and to lean on each other—lean hard sometimes—when we needed to.
And there was one time in particular that we needed to lean really hard. That was in 1960, when my cousin, Ruby, who was one year older than me, was the first black child to integrate the all-white New Orleans school district. Ruby’s story has received quite a lot of attention throughout the years. In fact, it’s been made into a Disney movie, and it’s also the subject of a couple of books — your children might have read them at school. Ruby’s experience was also depicted in a painting by the famous painter Norman Rockwell. It’s actually hanging in the White House.
Even today when I retell it, the story seems incredible and out-of-this-world. Ruby was six. To get to school, she had to be escorted through a screaming mob by federal marshals. Once she got inside, she spent every day alone with just her teacher, because no white parent would let his or her child in the same classroom as a little black girl. To say that year was hard for Ruby, my aunt and uncle, and other members of my family would be a tremendous understatement. It must have been brutal at times. I was only five, so I didn’t fully understand what was going on. But I do remember one thing very clearly, and that is the support and encouragement Ruby got from our family, friends, and virtual strangers.
People from all over our neighborhood—all over the world, in fact—sent Ruby and our family letters of encouragement. Letters of hope. They sent money. They even sent new dresses, which made me a little envious, until I followed her to school the next year.
That’s when I got a taste of what she’d experienced. Fortunately, that taste wasn’t as bitter as it could’ve been, because I also reaped the benefits of the sacrifices that Ruby and others had made. But when Ruby speaks about her life she talks about one particular thing that helped her get through the rough patches: having people in her corner.
There are other, quieter examples of community support from those days. We lived in a public housing project where there were a lot of single mothers. My dad had the only car, so he made a lot of trips to the store and the doctor. In return, the single mothers would look after us if my parents had to work.
When I left New Orleans as a teenager and moved to Montana to go to college, I did not know what to expect. Of course, it was a very different community, as you can imagine. But one thing was the same as in New Orleans—people went out of their way to support me. There were host families there who welcomed African-American students. At college I wanted to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a pediatrician. Of course, after I graduated, I went in a completely different direction. That tends to happen in life: you start with one idea about what you want to do, and then you find yourself doing something else. A campus recruiter from a bank recommended that I enter the banking profession. So I did, and I’ve been in the banking business for more than 30 years now.
I often reflect on my early life and my adult life, and I ask myself how I managed to get where I am today. If there’s one thing my experiences have taught me, it is that the strength inherent within ourselves—as well as the support we get from others—is a powerful tool to propel ourselves forward. But I’ve also learned a few other things along the way, and I’d like to share those with you.
1) Be realistic and be prepared...and seize opportunities. Often, what you think you want most in life might not be the thing that will make you most happy. Personally, I often think about whether I made the right decision to give up my dream of being a pediatrician. But then I think about how much I love most of my days in banking.
2) Make a point to keep learning all the time. Take any opportunity that comes your way to learn something new. And apply what you learn—again and again. Some ideas won’t work, but lots will. And you’ll be prepared when new, often unimagined opportunities come your way. I don’t know where the saying comes from, that “whenever God closes a door he opens a window.” But it has sure been true for me and for a few other people.
If you doubt that, let me tell you a brief story about a baby born into poverty, and left with her grandmother because her unmarried parents couldn’t—or wouldn’t—care for her.
As a child of six she went to live with her mother in the big city, where she was abused and neglected. By 14, she was pregnant.
Now, no one would blame you for thinking this kid had hundreds of strikes against her and would never go anywhere. Even she thought she was a pretty bad bet.
But this kid had determination. When her father sent for her—and gave her a second chance—she wanted to show him that she could be better, that she could overcome her past. She decided to do well in school. And she read everything she could get her hands on—books became her passion.
She even mustered enough confidence to try public speaking—something that most people rank ahead of death as the thing they’re most afraid of. And yet she felt good enough about that to enter a contest, sponsored by local radio stations, to be Miss Fire Prevention.
Sure, she was nervous, and afraid of failing. But she also knew that if she didn’t try out, she’d never find out if she could do it. And she certainly would never win.
Well, all her speech practice paid off. She won—not because she was the cutest or the most talented, but because she could hold her own in the Q&A period.
Her prize? A watch and a tour of the station.
And during that tour, they let her read something in the studio, just to hear her voice on tape.
She was so good at it that the station hired her—a high school senior—to read the afternoon news.
And that was how Oprah started in broadcasting.
As we all know, the baby nobody wanted now has a billion dollar plus empire. One she built pretty much all by herself.
Yes, she lucked into some situations along the way. But the thing I take away from her story is that she did all she could to be ready for opportunities, so she could make the most of them.
Her trajectory was and still is fueled by passion—a passion to try new things, do new things, explore new places.
We can’t all be Oprahs. But we can all cultivate the same passion for what we do.
If that passion gets you somewhere, that’s great. But it's more important to enjoy the journey. Even Oprah says that until she trained for the Marine Corps marathon a few years back, she had never consciously set a goal and worked toward it.
But she sure enjoyed the journey that has been her life up to now—taking advantage of what came along and building what she could to move from one situation to another.
We need to remember that, as we move from task to task, goal to goal. If we can’t look back at ourselves a year from now and say that we’ve gotten better, smarter, savvier—then we’d better stop and look at what barriers we might have created to stop that from happening.
3) Succeed because of who you are. Nothing is ever just an issue about your being too small or a woman or a person of color. Dig deeper. Find and attack the real issue head on. I’ve been an African American woman all my life...and a banker more than half my life. There have been times when being who I am was a disadvantage and times when it was an advantage. On balance, I’d have to say it has been an advantage.
4) Everything usually works out for the best if you let it, especially if you’re prepared
I don’t know where the saying comes from, that “whenever God closes a door he opens a window.”
The best way I know of to take advantage of life’s opportunities is by making a commitment to lifelong learning and education. Not to mention that such a commitment will prepare you, like Oprah, to take advantage of all the breaks that come your way. We do owe it to ourselves to be the most we can be.
Finally, 5) Give to Others
There are so many examples that I could relate to you, and so many stories that deserve to be told. But, I’d like to end with one brief last story. It’s about the meaning of service.
The story was told by Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American clergyman, early in last century. He said:
“The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water. It flows down, clear and cool, from the heights of Hermon and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of it, for the Sea of Galilee has an outlet. It gets to give. It gathers in its riches that it may pour them out.
The 12 of you have done so much already: you’ve become certified nursing assistants, you’ve secured jobs at hospitals, you’ve become childcare providers and pursued education.
And to do all of this, you’ve displayed the perseverance, courage, and desire necessary to overcoming many of the obstacles that life has put in front of you. There will be challenges in the future, but if you continue to exhibit these characteristics, you’ll continue to move forward.
Congratulations, all of you.