Meet the first NAACP all-women of color C-suite 

“I love the position we’re in, but I cannot wait for the day that it’s not unusual,” said Janette McCarthy Wallace, general counsel in the NAACP Legal Department, in an exclusive interview with theGrio.

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The first all-women of color National Association for the Advancement of Colored People C-suite team is working to leave a legacy built on values around equity, inclusivity and justice.

The seven dynamos met with theGrio in an exclusive interview to share their stories and how they hope someday seeing an all-women of color group in leadership will be the norm, not the exception.

The first all-women of color NAACP C-suite team comprises Aba Blankson, Denese Carroll, Junko Kobayashi, Yumeka Rushing, Eris Sims, Janette McCarthy Wallace and Carmen Watkins. The seven dynamos are working to leave a legacy built on values around equity, inclusivity and justice.

The NAACP C-suite consists of the following leaders:

  • Aba Blankson: Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, from Baltimore, Maryland, by way of Ghana
  • Denese Carroll: Chief Operating Officer & Chief Technology Officer, from Jackson, Mississippi 
  • Junko Kobayashi: Interim Chief Financial Officer, from Edmonton, Canada, whose parents are immigrants from Japan
  • Yumeka Rushing: Chief Strategy Officer, from Canton, Mississippi 
  • Eris Sims: Chief of Staff, from Meridian, Mississippi
  • Janette McCarthy Wallace: General Counsel, from Harlem, New York, by way of Jamaica 
  • Carmen Watkins: Senior Vice President of Membership Growth & Unit Sustainability, from Houston, Texas 

For each of the seven women — who proudly note that their all-women of color NAACP executive squad formed organically — their pathways to activism and leadership started when they were very young.

Blankson served as a safety volunteer helping students get onto the school bus. Carroll supported local voter-registration drives. Kobayashi served as her middle-school student council treasurer. Rushing would share money she received from her mother with classmates who needed it. Sims was inspired while volunteering in a local soup kitchen during holidays. Wallace missed school one day to attend a protest against excessive force by police when she was in the 5th grade, and Watkins served as her class president in the 11th grade, where she held a judicial debate to educate seniors who were getting ready to vote.

While the women come from different backgrounds and upbringings, they share a deep passion for the work they marshal and call it a duty and an obligation. Blankson disclosed how they are constantly inspired by one another and find comfort in feeling that everyone can be their authentic selves. All the others agreed.

“It’s an exciting time for me to see from when I first began to where I am, in terms of the power of the sisterhood and the presence and representation of the sisterhood,” added Wallace, who has worked with the NAACP since 2017.

Many of them have been the only woman or person of color in the room and have had to show up 10 times harder than their counterparts, while often underestimated and undervalued. It is widely known that women, especially Black women, have historically been underrepresented in the C-suite, which is defined as the highest-ranking executive-level managers within a company who play a key leadership role.

While there’s still a need for improvement across the board, Sims has seen a true transformation over her seven-year term with the NAACP. When asked about how they “break the bias,” which was the theme for International Women’s Day 2022, they said representation is key.

“Each of us exemplifies that in our own unique way,” Rushing said, “but our C-suite is definitely a way that we are breaking down the biases.”

Rushing and Kobayashi emphasized how important it is for their children to see them in this space, and Sims detailed how important it is to normalize helping little girls and boys see their futures and know they can do anything they put their minds to. 

Along with a passion for service, all seven women find common ground in being inspired by the women in their lives growing up — from their mothers to godmothers to great grandmothers.

“These are the shoulders on which we stand,” Carroll said. “Women are the reason we are here and the reason why we thrive. To know that your mothers, aunts, grandmothers have all moved you to this moment is a powerful statement, and we need to appreciate and respect that.”

While they recognize how far they’ve come, they also see how far they have to go.

“I really hope we can get back to a collective sense of oneness, that we understand whether I am successful or not, as long as my brother or sister is not successful, we have not reached success,” Watkins said. “That undergirds the work that we do long term.”

As challenges still persist, they say it’s important to honor historic moments along the way, including President Joe Biden recently signing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law after 200 failed attempts and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson becoming the first Black woman nominated and confirmed to join the Supreme Court.

“We cannot rest on our morals,” Carroll said.

Now, alongside NAACP President Derrick Johnson, these women are fighting against systemic issues around racism, police brutality, voter suppression and inequality by accelerating change in criminal justice, health care, education, climate, and the economy. They envision creating long-lasting infrastructure and instilling sustainability into solutions to tackle these problems.

“Sometimes it seems like the same fight, but it’s not,” Blankson said.

While they carry esteemed titles and do pivotal work, the women also recognize the importance of acknowledging their own humanity and giving themselves space to rest and heal.

“It’s okay to take care of you and not feel guilty about that,” Sims said. “We don’t always do that because we are always going, but we need to.”

They all agreed that self-care is essential, whether serving in a C-suite or not.

“Give yourself the grace to just be and be present in the things you are doing, and be engaged with family and friends. This notion that we need to go 24/7 is unsustainable,” Blankson said. “We all have our moments, and that is okay.”

While these ladies are honored to be counted among the NAACP’s first all-women of color C-suite, they emphasized the significance of moving toward normalizing this milestone for future generations.

“I love the position we’re in,” said Wallace, “but I cannot wait for the day that it’s not unusual.”

As the NAACP continues to make history, these leaders are confident they will help transform the next chapter of the organization and keep it relevant in the many years to come. They encourage community members to join their local chapters to lean into the crucial efforts taking place across the nation.

“We are taking an organization that is 113 years old, a legacy entity,” said Kobayashi, “and us women have been entrusted to carry forth with new dreams and new ideas in this space of civil rights and social justice.”

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