written by DEI committee co-chairs, Kristal Poland and Jenesis Gibson
For this month’s spotlight on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, we wanted to recognize Black History Month by learning more about our affiliate’s history. Specifically, we wanted to learn about the key figures and initiatives that paved the way for the inclusion of African Americans as consumers and as employees.
It all started with a chat with former CEO, Chuck Meehan, and Executive Vice President of Communication and Development, Lisa Brandeburg. During our conversation, we learned of several initiatives that aimed to improve the condition within the Black community. We also learned about several key figures, African Americans who blazed the trail of which we walk today. We learned about Ms. Jessie, who ran the infant nursery for the adoption program and Pittre Walker, who worked in the crisis pregnancy program in the 1980’s. We learned about Judge Carl Stewart who joined the Board of Directors in 1989 following our merger with The Lighthouse. We learned that former Mayor, Cedric Glover was a LightHouse employee and that Jerry Edwards, Asst. U.S. Attorney, was a former board chair. There were several others; doctors, lawyers, politicians and professionals that continuously broke through the glass ceiling for African Americans within our affiliate over its 87-year history.
However, there was one name that stuck out for his commitment to the organization, his dedication to this work and who has been an inspiration to not only those at the highest levels of senior leadership but also to those beginning their journey within the affiliate. Chris Gabriel, who began his career as an insurance agent with Allstate, was invited by Dr. Louis Pendleton to join the board of directors in 1994. During his 6 years on the board, the last two being board chair, Chris proudly served to promote the mission of this affiliate as it expanded and grew to meet the needs of the community. Following his tenure on the board, in 2002, Chris went to Washington D.C. to learn the “Cherish the Children” model, which has been instrumental to our fundraising efforts to this day. In 2013, following his retirement as an Allstate Insurance Agent, Chris became the Executive Vice President of Children and Families to help expand the services offered to the community. As the first African American to hold an executive leadership position in our affiliate’s history, Chris went on to integrate Communities In Schools starting with 3 site coordinators in 3 schools, where present day we have 15 site coordinators in 10 schools across Caddo Parish.
In 2021, Chris formally retired but his presence is still felt across the affiliate. Chris continues to serves as a consultant for Children and Families and assists in our advocacy efforts. He also serves as a member of our DEI committee and graciously gives his time and expertise when called. We asked Chris, “How does it feel to be a living legend, who blazed the trail for African Americans at VOANLA?” Chris replied, “Well, I don’t know about living legend, but I am honored to have had the career I have had and would love to see a time where more people of color are in senior leadership.” Whether Chris wants to admit it or not, to us he is a living legend. He is Black History. It was our honor and privilege to highlight him and his accomplishments this month. He has paved the way and set the bar for how to navigate a world that is not always meant for people of color.
Thank you to Chris Gabriel and to all the key African American figures in our affiliate’s history. Because of you, we get to serve our community and work for an organization that values us – just as we are.