UD's Carol Henderson recently visited the White House as an invited panelist for a discussion about the civil rights movement.

Washington panel

UD's Henderson speaks at White House event on civil rights

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2:40 p.m., Sept. 20, 2013--She thinks back on the trajectory of her life and realizes she went from welfare to the White House.

Years ago, Carol Henderson, University of Delaware professor and chair of the Department of Black American Studies and also a professor of English, was a working mother on public assistance.

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This year, on Aug. 27, she was an invited guest of the White House, participating as a panelist in a discussion on civil rights and previewing a documentary on the late civil rights hero Whitney Young. And she had the privilege of meeting Michelle Obama, the nation’s first African American first lady.

Young is an “underappreciated and overlooked member of the Civil Rights movement,” Henderson said. The documentary “celebrated the life of a man who helped build social work and public policy infrastructure” in the U.S.

The panel discussion centered around Young’s legacy — to ensure equal access for all people to investments in employment and education.

Henderson said she was honored to participate at the White House event, on a recommendation made by her former student Rhonda Tsoi-a-Fatt Bryant. Bryant received a bachelor's degree in human resources in 1996 and a master’s degree in urban affairs and public policy in 1998. 

She is now a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Public Policy in Washington, D.C., and an appointee to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. When Bryant became involved in the White House event, she thought of her former English teacher. 

“She said: ‘It’s a preview of a documentary on Whitney Young … and I need you to speak on the civil rights movement,’ which I can do with my eyes closed,” said Henderson.

The event was attended by middle school children from the Washington, D.C., area, and Henderson hoped she and the other members of the panel -- which included Marc Morial, current president and CEO of the National Urban League, and Khyla Craine, a legal fellow at the NAACP, among others -- left them with some food for thought.

Henderson is a believer in the power of personal stories to empower people to make a difference. That was also the focus of a talk she gave as an invited speaker at the Consortium for International Management, Policy and Development conference in Namibia in June.

“I think sometimes people need a blueprint to see what they could be,” she said.

The UD professor went back to school when her son was 6 months old, working part time and relying on public assistance while she earned her master’s degree. Her son was 3 when she started work on her Ph.D. After her first year, with a 3.83 grade point average, she secured a full scholarship.

“That’s when things changed,” Henderson said.

She told the kids at the White House event: “Where you start is not where you end up. I told them their circumstances don’t determine where they’ll end up.”

Michelle Obama also spoke to the group before the documentary screening. Henderson said the first lady’s message was, like hers, intended to encourage the kids to think about staying in school, to see beyond right now and to consider their educational opportunities. She told the children that when her husband was their age, he didn’t think he would be president.

Henderson said she sees Whitney Young’s legacy in Michelle Obama, who attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. Meeting her was a surreal experience for the UD professor, who said that out of respect, she always refers to her as “First Lady Michelle Obama."

“It was one of the things in my lifetime I thought I wouldn’t see,” she said. “It’s something to behold.”

It also warmed Henderson’s heart to see a UD alumna doing so well. Though Bryant was her student 18 years ago, Henderson realized she must have made an impact.

“That’s the gift of teaching, when you plant that seed in students,” she said. “I had the privilege of saying something in English class that stayed with her 18 years.”

Article by Kelly April Tyrrell

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