Best In The Citi | Innovator: Phyllis Everette

Phyllis Everette, Best In The Citi Innovator for 2022

Phyllis Everette imagines she has a heart for Black women that is similar to the heart Jesus has for all of humanity. 

“I am every Black woman’s best friend,” she says. “My suffering has given me an x-ray vision into the soul of other women. … I understand Black women’s pain across the board.”

She sees her plight as a Black woman in America as connected to all of theirs.

Take for instance her grandmother, Rose Lee Ross, who died in 1932 after suffering complications from pneumonia during childbirth at Tampa Negro Hospital. Everette only recently learned her grandmother’s name – her mother, Dorothy Mae Ross, was only two years old when her mother died – but her legacy lives on through Everette’s work on reproductive justice. 

I am every Black woman’s best friend

She says when she learned of her grandmother’s story a few months ago, suddenly “it made all the sense in the world why I’m an advocate now for reproductive justice.” Had her grandmother had access to quality healthcare, to birth control options as a Black woman in the segregated South, she may have lived. 

And then there’s her mother, Dorothy. Orphaned at the age of two and relegated to live with her father, who was living in a boarding house with 27 other men at the time and who would suffer from a lifetime of mental illness. Because of her mother’s trauma, Everette grew up not knowing her father – she was one of ten children Dorothy bore, each with a different father – and growing up in a cycle of generational poverty and cyclical trauma. 

“One of the traumatizing things about generational poverty is when you’re living in the community, there’s really a lack of education. You’re going to schools where teachers aren’t teaching you the things you need. I graduated high school with no career outline, and with a deficit of knowledge,” she says.

She remembers the first time her mother took her from their home in Long Island to visit New York City at the age of 10 – that was the first time she realized she and her family were poor, she says. It was the first time she saw other people living a completely different life than the one she and her siblings knew; they struggled with food and housing insecurity, bad schools and limited opportunities. 

At age 13, her mother took her back into the city to attend Jackie Robinson’s funeral, and she was blown away “to see so many Black people who honored him – to see that people of color were honored after thinking we were cursed.” 

After high school, she landed a series of jobs working for a number of successful Black executives who continued to open her eyes to the fact that Black people could live lives worthy of celebration by others. 

“Those opportunities opened doors for me to see how Black people live differently,” she says. “They exposed me to the opera, the ballet, the symphony. … I remember dragging my kids to every dress rehearsal at the symphony.”

And along the way, she vowed to work to make life a little better for women who look like her. 

Whether it’s providing high-quality bedding for women reintegrating into society from jail or rehab centers – “I couldn’t imagine them crying all night long and still having to get up and function the next day. At least let them sleep comfortably,” says Everette, who remembers many nights she cried herself to sleep wondering how she was going to care for her own children – or it’s bringing a homeless single mother into her own home, she is locked in on helping women “bring about change for the good that they desire in their own life.”

Everette remembers being in a women’s shelter with her three young children after facing domestic violence, and how that experience transformed her. 

“It was a very dark time, but it also propelled me to do the work that I’m doing, because the sisterhood and support that I got stayed with me for life,” she says. “The one thing that I realized living in the women’s shelter and getting resources was that there were so many resources available to me, but I had to tell my story again at every agency. And to re-tell my story over and over again re-traumatized me every time.” 

She knew she had to find a way to help women without forcing them to constantly re-live the trauma they were seeking help to overcome. That is the guiding principle of her work with Saffron Women’s Trust, which she founded in 2018 after moving to Austin to take a leadership position with Dell and be near her grandchildren, who were enrolled at the University of Texas. 

Everette believes every woman’s path is different, even if they’re all connected. And they’re all deserving of grace.

you only get grace if you extend grace to others.

“People can’t help what they’re born into, they can’t help their humanity. My pastor says I live in a land of grace and unicorns because I think all people are good, deep inside if everything is chipped away,” she says. “When you begin to understand that, you look at people differently, because you don’t attach wrongness to people.”

“There were so many grace tickets given to me,” she continues. “It doesn’t really matter how much you think you’re right, you need grace to get through. And you only get grace if you extend grace to others.”

 

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