Sometimes after I give lecture or conduct a workshop, people ask me, “What inspires you?” Today, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share with you that the foundation of who I am and the catalyst for my work actually began in 1919 with the arrival of a tour de force, whose given name was Alzora Rhea Goodrum Simmons. My sisters and I, along with all her other nieces and nephews, called her Aunt Chee-Chee. Growing up, I knew one thing for sure—Aunt Chee-Chee was a force of nature.
The head of the Business Department at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, my mom’s eldest sister was someone I deeply admired. In addition to what I learned from my mom, I determined to make Aunt Chee-Chee’s examples of professionalism, discipline and having fun a part of my life. My aunt wasn’t one to attend dance or theater performances. But she encouraged all her nieces and nephews to excel in whatever field we chose to pursue. I applied what I learned from Aunt Chee-Chee to my work in dance and law, closely following the strict instructions from our beloved matriarch for conducting myself in business and in daily life, and for continuing the family legacy.
Last Friday, February 2, 2018, with family, friends, former students and community leaders, we celebrated the life of Aunt Chee-Chee. She completed her mission in this lifetime at the age of 98. During the service, I could clearly see the impact of her life—a life filled with purpose, passion and faith—and the difference it made. There were so many testimonials given by former students, friends and family about Aunt Chee-Chee’s influence, which helped them lead happy and successful lives.
I am so thankful to Aunt Chee-Chee for her example of fierce determination, despite being born in 1919 and growing up in Florida during a time when there was limited to no access to resources or individuals available to help a young Black woman advance in life. Still, Aunt Chee-Chee blazed a trail, realizing that she had to set an example of what was possible for her six younger siblings. My aunt graduated from high school and then went on to earn a B.S. degree in Business Education from Bethune-Cookman College (now University), where she was mentored by the college’s founder Mary McCleod Bethune. Later, Aunt Chee-Chee moved to Wisconsin for graduate school, where she earned her Master of Arts degree at the University of Wisconsin. She returned to Florida, where she taught at Dillard High School, nurturing and guiding thousands of high school students over the course of her career as an educator for 70-plus years.
In addition to my work in audience development and marketing, I am so proud to continue Aunt Chee-Chee’s legacy of being an educator because I know how important that was to her. I fondly remember asking her questions whenever I visited her in Florida about how to help my students and discussing how to create the best possible curriculum. My approach to all aspects of my work, and the high standards I daily strive to meet, are a direct result of growing up in the orbit of Aunt Chee-Chee’s love.
Because my aunt found a way in a world where there was clearly no path; because of her resolute spirit, I have been able to forge a career far beyond what I imagined as a young girl growing up in Chicago. I’ve also been able to live a life filled with purpose, passion, faith and fun, doing work that is making a difference in the world of arts and culture. I am so fortunate to have had Alzora Rhea Goodrum Simmons as my role model and my aunt. I know I speak for all her nieces, nephews and great nieces and nephews, when I say Aunt Chee-Chee’s legacy will continue for generations to come with the same fierce determination she demonstrated to all of us.