In July, attorney Carolyn House Stewart, a shareholder in the Tampa, Fla., law firm Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen P.A., was installed as the 28th international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., presiding over its 250,000 members in 975 chapters worldwide. Stewart, whose practice areas are litigation, labor and employment, personal injury and eminent domain, is the first lawyer to head the 102-year-old organization. During a visit to Ecuador in February to observe Heifer International’s work with FUNDECOL (Spanish acronym for Foundation in Defense of Ecology and Environment, a local nonprofit) in Afro-Ecuadoran communities whose shellfish-gathering livelihood is threatened by commercial shrimp farmers, Stewart spoke to TNJ Executive Editor Rosalind McLymont about her goals for her administration.
Stewart: I came on this trip because of my interest in world issues, my interest in the environment, my interest in the economy and women’s rights. I met [Heifer’s corporate relations director] Marleen New after corresponding with that organization about a potential partnership with Alpha Kappa Alpha during my administration. Each national president has the opportunity to select signature programs that she will be involved with or have the sorority work with during her term of office. My focus will be on our mission of service to all mankind, which includes studying and alleviating the problems of women and girls. As we move into our second century of service, I have an obligation to what I call it “fulfill the service imperative”: S is for our sisterhood and service; E is for economics, R is respect for individual rights; V is vitality and health; I is for innovative programs; C is collaborative partnerships; and E will be environmental stewardship and sustainability.
One of the things I’d like to encourage, especially for our undergraduates and our seasoned sorors, is to go on a study tour to learn more about the world and how we are and how we co-exist with other people. And so I could not encourage someone to go on a study tour if I had not done one myself.
When Marleen told me about the mangrove issue and the population — these descendants of shipwrecked Africans who were destined to become slaves — and the projects Heifer had done in the community, I found that intriguing, particularly for an organization of primarily African-American women. So I saw this as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this development. Learning about the community’s environmental issues, their advocacy issues, as well as the opportunity for the women to have economic sustainability — it was all just wrapped up into one.
Alpha Kappa Alpha has a global presence because we’ve had international chapters for over fifty years now and the only international projects we’ve had —three that I can call to mind — are water well projects; schools that we dedicated in South Africa; and currently we’re working with the Liberian women’s market. I want to make my mark like every other president in this global world that we live in because we are a global organization.
Alpha Kappa Alpha’s founders were very visionary women. They did not say we’re going to just serve the Black community, or we’re going to just serve women. They said “all mankind.” They knew the world would change and they wanted Alpha Kappa Alpha to be constantly a part of that change. We’re now in a new decade and in a second century of service and so that is part of the global mark that I would like to see Alpha Kappa Alpha have.
McLymont: How do you see your involvement taking shape here in Muisne?
Stewart: I’m excited about the concept of FUNDECOL and the defense and conservation of the coastal ecological systems and that role of advocacy. Within the Alpha Kappa Alpha structure we already have what we call our “connection committee.” This is the committee that will take forth issues from Alpha Kappa Alpha to the people that can make a difference and effect change. So with this mission that we’re on, I see an opportunity for advocacy.
The beauty of what I’m seeing is that the people that we’ve met are not saying, “come and change our lives.” They’re saying, “Help us get our lives back; help us to maintain the life that we had; help us to take back the life we had; give us our territory back; give us the opportunity to develop an economy within our own system.” One of the women said it so aptly. She said: “I’m grateful for what God has given me to work with. It’s just that the shrimp farmers have taken it away from me.” So I see Alpha Kappa Alpha in a role as a policy advocate to help these people recover their territory, as an advocate for the environment, for the removal of harmful chemicals, and also to help provide an opportunity for these women to have economic sustainability within their own areas as they have asked. And we can help to do this with this partnership with Heifer.
Kenya was another place that I talked to Marleen about because we have something in southern Africa with South Africa, we have something in Liberia, but we don’t have anything in East Africa. I’m aware of Kenya and the need for schools in Kenya and the work that Heifer does there.
McLymont: What other partnerships and projects do you envision during your administration?
Stewart: The American Heart Association — we’ve been working with them in the past — and this is to be a new partnership; the American Kidney Fund, the National Institutes of Health. One of the initiatives we would like to work with NIH on is asthma in the preschool population. And so those partners will include the American Head Start Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American Thoracic Association. I believe that the way for Alpha Kappa Alpha to survive in the next century, in the next decade, in the next two years is to align ourselves with organizations where we can leverage the resources of each other.
We would like to put forward an ambitious new agenda in the next four years that will take us some places where we have been before, but at another level because I believe we’re building on the legacy of a strong foundation. Some things will be new. I call it Alpha Kappa Alpha Advocacy — AKA ADVOCACY.
One of the programs I’d like to bring forth is the Emerging Young Leaders program, leadership development for middle-school girls in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. We know that, all things being equal, the woman that has the straight “A” doesn’t get the scholarship; it’s the woman with community service. So we can start to create a community service mind-set within a leadership mind-set in a middle school. A part of the Emerging Young Leaders program is civic engagement — civic engagement, character building and academic enrichment. Part of what we’re doing with the team I’ve been working with — I call it my preteen focus group — is developing this program for middle-school girls.
McLymont: What happens to your projects when your tenure as president ends?
Stewart: That’s always up to the next president. What happens is, because the uniqueness of our programs, a local chapter will devote its energy to one thing and will continue with it. That’s why I’d like a group to come to Ecuador early in my administration to see the project, to say this is something we need to put our permanent mark on.