Sisters Leading the Leaders

Tam Hawkins, Shuronda Robinson, Toya Cirica Bell, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette and Courtney Santana. Photo by Stephanie Devon Warren.
Who run the world? Girls! As so famously stated by Queen Bey herself. And from where we see things - #noliestold.

In the hierarchy of girls running the world – clearly black women should be at the top of the list because they continue to be the voice of reason and leadership; and the 7 black women in Austin serving on the 25-member board of Leadership Austin are shining local examples of sisters taking care of business.

Founded by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (GACC) in 1979, Leadership Austin trains people with a passion for helping Austin become the city it has the potential to be. In 2002, the organization became a stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation

Leadership Austin realizes its core value of inclusiveness by reaching out to current and aspiring leaders from every sector of the metropolitan area. The result is a multi-faceted organization that utilizes the input of people of various ethnicities, industries and life experiences to work on issues and make Austin better for all parts of the community.

According to its web site, Leadership Austin offers emerging and community leaders a unique opportunity to be part of a group that has come together to:

  • Develop their personal and professional leadership skills;
  • Learn about the issues affecting Greater Austin through open and balanced civic discussion; and,
  • Build relationships with others who seek to grow as leaders and find solutions to the issues facing our region.

Over 230 self-identified African Americans have gone through the Leadership Austin classes since their inception, according to the organization’s CEO Christopher Kennedy. You can see some of them in the class composition, impact profiles and the board of directors photos on the group’s website.

Currently, the board includes the chair, Toya Cirica Bell and secretary, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette. The other board members include Aisha White, Courtney Santana, Shuronda Robinson, Jeannette Peten, and Tam Hawkins.

Bell is an ethics and compliance lawyer who was originally recruited to Austin by the Texas Attorney General’s Office to serve as a member of the opinion committee. She was introduced to Leadership Austin by a mentor and graduated from the Essential program in 2011. As board chair, she serves as an ambassador for Leadership Austin, supports the various programs and initiatives, and plans strategically for the future. Bell believes each of us  “have a personal responsibility to share our voices through community and civic engagement opportunities.”

a place for leaders in our community to get educated

Shuronda Robinson is the President and CEO of Adisa Communications, a marketing and communications firm she started in 1995. She is also the vice chair of the Austin Foundation for Architecture, a member of the KLRU board of directors, board member of the Black Austin Democrats and vice chair of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats. Robinson applied to Leadership Austin because she wanted to sharpen her leadership skills, and increase her network across the community.

She was accepted into the 2001-2002 Essential class. She encourages  more blacks to apply and participate in programming because Leadership Austin is “a place for leaders in our community to get educated and to develop relationships that will support them and the work that they’re doing.” She adds, “we need to share what’s important to us.”

a forward thinking and innovative group

Photo by Stephanie Devon Warren.

Board secretary Colette Pierce Burnette came to the capital city to be the President and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University after receiving her doctorate in education. In an interview, the former engineer called Leadership Austin “a forward thinking and innovative group.” She didn’t go through the Leadership Austin classes, but joined the board because their aims are so well aligned with her own. “Our mission is to further inclusion, further diversity and to enhance people’s skill set.”

She encourages African Americans who want to build or hone their leadership skills, or who want to build their network in a meaningful way to research Leadership Austin as an option.

Readers may know Courtney Santana for her vocal talents, but she is also the CEO of Survive 2 Thrive Foundation, a public charity that provides resources to survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Santana was recruited to the organization a couple of times before she finally decided to apply. It was her husband’s experience with the organization that finally convinced her. She was part of the 2017 Essential Class.

The commitment to diversity was one of the things that impressed Santana. Her class included CEOs as well as the formerly incarcerated. She says Leadership Austin ”is where – truthfully – some social change is happening. In my mind it’s not good to segment ourselves or segregate ourselves out of this process, because a lot decisions are being made at these tables.”

Tam Hawkins is also a member of the 2017 Essential Class. She’s only been in the city since 2012, but has made an impact in the business community first as the vice president of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and now its president and CEO. She is also on the boards of Ronald McDonald House and Visit Austin. She applied to Leadership Austin because she “saw the long lasting impact and connection alumni had well after the program ended.”

She felt the closeness most keenly after her husband Joseph Hawkins (Essential Class of 2009) died. The organization was very kind to him during his illness and continued to be kind to her after he died. His Leadership Austin cohort started a scholarship fund for their children. When asked why African Americans should consider Leadership Austin Hawkins said, “In a city that’s experienced challenges with growing a black population, lending your voice to an organization with such integrity and one that literally has alumni in almost all industries, is powerful.”

If you are interested in learning more about Leadership Austin, you can consult the website or attend one of the recruiting events. The group plans to host at least one event in each of the city council districts, according to Bell. They also reach out to surrounding areas and diverse professional organizations such as the National Society of Black MBAs and the Hispanic and Asian Chambers.


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