- Georgette “Gigi” Dixon is a senior vice president and senior director of external relations for national constituents at Wells Fargo, where she is responsible for leading and coordinating Wells Fargo’s engagement and outreach to national non-government organisations and key stakeholders with the goal of promoting Wells Fargo’s policy priorities.
- She was one of two girls to desegregate her middle school, and went on to become the first woman president of the student body at Tennessee State University.
- She says that you should consider the impact you want to make, be ready for the firsts ahead, and prepare for achievement.
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As we embark on Black History Month and reflect on the achievements of African Americans, I want to share my own story and share three pieces of advice with the next generation of change makers.
My name is Georgette “Gigi” Dixon, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with a company for the last 25 years that I dearly admire, Wells Fargo. I am grateful to be a part of this organisation, and for their commitment to the African American community and trust in my vision for community engagement and collaboration to support critical work in diverse communities.
My hope is that the work that many others and I are a part of today will help shape the leaders of tomorrow, to empower and transform the future. Here are three life lessons I want to pass onto you.
First, consider your legacy
We all have a responsibility to pay blessings forward, because we stand on the shoulders of African ancestors who sacrificed for our destiny. 2020 is an election year – and the year of the US Census.
The importance of the 2020 Census is critical in determining how billions of dollars in federal funding get distributed into cities and communities, as well as the number of congressional seats per state. In addition, for the black community, it affects areas such as schools and education, health services, and small businesses.
But it also is a year in which we commemorate 150 years since the passage of the 15th Amendment granting African American men and other groups the right to vote, and 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. In other words, it is a year of identity – as a nation and as Americans.
I mention these milestones because they were pivotal in the journey of African Americans to achieve equality in the US. Many people are unaware that black women were instrumental in obtaining the right to vote, marching for all women despite not benefiting from their efforts until many years later.
It is also important to acknowledge that equal rights legislation for African Americans in this country has historically led the way for other underrepresented groups in their fight for justice and equitable outcomes, from voting and marriage rights to housing discrimination. Our nation saw such actions with the Civil Rights Movement, for example, which was led by black Americans, but it was a fight to gain equal rights and end discrimination for all Americans.
This history has guided the pathway and career that I have chosen – a career of community development, improving economic empowerment, addressing societal issues, promoting civic engagement, and creating programs that serve diverse groups and low- to moderate-income communities. It is important, and it matters.
Second, be ready
My participation in a high school pageant forever changed me. Two dynamic educators, Julia Heath and Virginia Ulrich, approached me to participate in the “Miss Southside” pageant in Greenville, SC. I absolutely love to sing; I was performing musical theatre and studying opera at the Greenville County Fine Arts Centre, so they thought I would perform well against other contestants.
This would be a challenge for me, as my love of classical music and theatre often resulted in teasing. A few years earlier, my family had moved from a Jewish community in Long Island, NY to SC. It was the 70s in the South, where desegregation was still very much a work in progress.
Most of the girls I was competing against, who were also my friends, were not women of colour. At show time, I performed “The Music and the Mirror” from the musical “A Chorus Line.” And I won!
But what happened next was unexpected. My so-called friends quickly exited the stage, echoing racial slurs I don’t care to repeat. I never spoke to them again. Yet the black students in the audience – peers, yet strangers to me – rushed the stage in tears to congratulate me.
I was the first black “Miss Southside” in Greenville. That was a defining moment for me because it unleashed a powerful outlook on the importance of representation – I learned to embrace my fears so that future generations wouldn’t have to endure the same challenges.
I share this story because it takes courage to be the first and to be different. Those firsts can prepare you for a life of opportunity. I am encouraged by how far we have come as a nation, but we still have a long way to go. There are still many “firsts” ahead; being ready is critical.
Third, prepare for the ultimate achievement
Don’t stand in the way of your own destiny. When I was younger, I didn’t realise that my mother was an activist. She hosted meetings with civic leaders like William F. Gibson, the former chair of the NAACP, and she grew up with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow PUSH Coalition. I listened in as they spoke about employment, education, housing, voting, and other issues facing the black community – issues that still challenge us today.
Witnessing black visionaries and change makers unite and discover how to create a world ready for greater possibilities planted a seed of community, service, and empowerment in me.
Fast forward to college. My mother wanted me to get a further understanding of what it meant to be black in America, so I attended Tennessee State University, a historically black college, where I became the first woman president of the student body. The impact of attending a historically black college was unparalleled. With careful guidance from professors, faculty, and classmates to be more constructive, intentional, and purposeful in my journey, I found my voice at Tennessee State.
In fact, I got angry finding my voice and that careful guidance helped me to focus my energy for good. I channeled that anger into advocacy, fighting for other historically black colleges and the importance of education and preserving the legacy of Land Grant institutions.
College gave me nourishment and the tools to turn my passions into actionable solutions. The next step was to put those actionable solutions to work and help others achieve common goals.
Now, the future is here
What are you building for the next generation? As a black woman, wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, and sister, I have learned that my journey is not just mine; it belongs to my family, community, and countless others. I didn’t see myself having a long corporate career. But the opportunity to build a bridge to connect our communities with resources and tools for success truly spoke to me.
I have been fortunate to have a purpose-driven career in corporate America, one of service, advocacy, and collaboration. A career of building relationships and working directly with leaders to enhance my community and others with organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Congressional Black Caucus Leadership Institute, and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). In my journey, the road to today has been full of passion, heartache, self-discovery, and triumph.
Although the heart of my story began at the age of 10, as one of two young girls to desegregate my elementary school almost 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education, I want to remind people it’s not how you start – it’s how you finish.
I encourage others to embrace the opportunity to make an impact. Anyone can serve. Use your voice to vote, raise your hand to help others, and empower the future. One thing I have learned is that life is very deliberate.
So this Black History Month, remember the words of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to the US Congress: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring your own chair.” She would be proud to know that along with bringing more chairs, we are creating our own tables.
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