Listening to Black Voices

Spelman College President Dr. Helene Gayle on Higher Education, Affirmative Action and Black Excellence

“If we are going to lean into who we are becoming as a nation, we’ve got to grapple with the importance of diversity."

By Heather Dunhill January 9, 2024

This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Dr. Helene Gayle, president of Spelman College

Dr. Helene Gayle, president of Spelman College

Dr. Helene D. Gayle, the 11th president of Spelman College, is an internationally recognized expert on health, global development and humanitarian issues. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Gayle received a B.A. in psychology from Barnard College, a M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and a master's in public health at John Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health (now known as the Bloomberg School).

Gayle, 68, completed her residency in pediatric medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., along with a second residency in preventative medicine at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she went on to spend 20 years focusing on global health and infectious disease prevention and control, specifically HIV and AIDS. She also served as an assistant surgeon general and rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, and she directed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.

For nearly a decade, Gayle was also the president and CEO of the international humanitarian organization CARE, where she addressed poverty and efforts to empower women across the globe. In 2015, she took the helm of McKinsey's Social Initiative to address global social challenges before leading the Chicago Community Trust as CEO, where, under her leadership, the trust adopted a strategic focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicago region. She took office as president at Spelman in July 2022

Gayle serves on boards including the Coca-Cola Company, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Brookings Institution, New America and the ONE Campaign. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, Council on Foreign Relations, American Public Health Association, National Medical Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics. She is also an inaugural member of the President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement in the United States. A recipient of a whopping 18 honorary degrees, she holds the distinction of being named one of Forbes' 100 Most Powerful Women, one of the NonProfit Times' Power and Influence Top 50, and one of Chicago Magazine's 50 Most Powerful Women.

When Gayle is not in Atlanta at Spelman, she spends time here in Sarasota with her husband, Dr. Stephen Keith. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

While you were growing up in Buffalo, did your family discuss Jim Crow or segregation?

“Yes. When I was growing up, it was just after Brown vs. Board of Education. My parents, Jacob and Marietta Gayle, were both from the south, and like many southerners, they moved north during the Great Migration for better opportunities. Understanding racial segregation was a part of growing up.

“Clearly, many of those patterns continued in the north. While there wasn’t legal segregation, de facto segregation existed because of redlining. That was apparent because the neighborhoods that we were often part of were all Black. It was clear where the Black side of town and [where the] white side was. 

“Those issues were part of my up bringing. My parents didn’t specifically discuss the hardships that they endured, but wanted me to understand our history.”

In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama refers to “racial invisibility”—the experience of not being seen as a Black person in the world. Have you experienced this? 

"Throughout my life, I've experienced it. I might not have been noticed, or [may have been] expected to have a role other than the one I did, which was often a top role or one with status. It was assumed that I held a role with lower status. When I was doing my residency in pediatrics, I was often mistaken as the ward clerk or some other role besides the doctor, whether that was [due to] invisibility or preconceived notions of what it means when you see a Black person and what roles they take."

How did you handle that?

“I’d like to say that I was always able to make it a teachable moment, but that depended on my mood on any given day. However, I often did. I would diffuse the situation, sometimes with humor. I tried to not to react with anger, which shuts down conversation and dialogue. I wanted to allow the other person to see me and accept me in my full humanity. I hope that those were moments in which a person could see Black people in a way they hadn’t otherwise.

“For example, in reference to my residency, I would point to my name tag that said ‘doctor’ and say, ‘I guess you didn’t see that my tag says doctor.’ I wanted to give the person the opportunity to recognize their mistake so the next Black woman they saw would get the respect she deserved.”

During your time as CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, one of your initiatives was to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap. How does a community do that? 

“First, we were realistic in setting up a 10-year strategy with the understanding that the racial and ethnic wealth gap had not happened overnight and could not be erased overnight. We also knew that we would not be able to single-handedly illuminate and reduce it.

“We had a three-pronged approach. First, we addressed the needs we could accomplish ourselves with funding. With that, we provided support to individuals and neighborhoods in ways we knew would reduce wealth inequality. We had specific targets that we knew could make a difference to an individual, a household and the community's. For instance, we helped people develop the skills necessary to start businesses and allow them to have a good job. We also helped people use their voices and actively participate when decisions were made about their lives.

“Second, we recognized that we needed to band together with like-minded organizations to create a movement so that we were aligned in the work around the gap.

“And third, we were aware that poor public policy is a huge part of why we have the wealth gap in America, so we were active in advocacy and changing the policies that only exacerbated it.”

Spelman has been ranked as the No. 1 historically black college (HBCU) in the country 17 years in a row by U.S. News & World Report. It's an elite institution with a storied past. What have you learned about its history that’s surprised you?

“The history of the HBCU is straightforward: HBCUs started after the end of the Civil War. After Emancipation, schools were set up to allow formerly enslaved people to get an education. Prior to that, it was illegal to teach them to read. Some started as high schools [to teach reading] and develop skills. From there, [the schools] gradually became full colleges. Spelman’s history is one more iteration of that. I'm heartened by the generosity of the Rockefeller family, Spelman's original major donor, who put it on its path.

“I did not attend an HBCU; however, I had an intellectual appreciation for the value of the institution. Being here, I have an appreciation for the value of seeing Black excellence. I think you have to feel that and appreciate what it means, particularly in today’s world, where more and more young Black people are growing up in environments that are not affirming for them.”

Tell us more about that. 

“High-achieving Black people are more likely to be in places where they are the only [high-achieving Black person], and where they hide their full selves. They come to places like Spelman, Morehouse and others to be affirmed. [I've heard] several students say, ‘I don’t have to be the smart Black girl in my class anymore. I’m a smart girl among other smart girls’ or ‘I’m not an anomaly. I can dress how I want, wear my hair the way I want, and the culture expresses who I am.’ There’s a sense of being deeply rooted. They are in a society that values who they are, all the time.

“It’s difficult to appreciate what it means to be the other—and to be the other every day. For Black students to be in a place where they are the norm, for once in their lives, allows them to exhale in a way that grounds them in a sense of self and makes them unshakably confident about who they are. They can leave here and feel like they can tackle anything.”

Last year, the Supreme Court gutted affirmative action. What are your thoughts on that decision?

“From my perspective, it was a negative decision. Anything that chips away at our ability to boldly put forward programs that address some of the inequities in our country is unfortunate. The bigger issue is that many of the same groups that pushed to have affirmative action in college admissions overturned are not stopping there.

"More broadly, the whole notion that diversity matters is being undermined by the decision—and all the actions that have continued since.

“If we are going to lean into who we are becoming as a nation—which is much more diverse, and where we will be a majority minority society over the next several decades—we’ve got to grapple with the importance of diversity. It’s a values issue: when groups of people have been kept out of opportunity, we as a society have a responsibility to look at ways to address it so that, ultimately, everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential.

“The importance of diversity has been proven over and over again. But there’s also a justice argument for why groups that have been left out of opportunity should have some affirmative way to right some of those wrongs, and give opportunities where they have not existed in the past.”

Recently, I spoke to a woman who said she was happy affirmative action was dismantled because her daughter lost a college seat to a student who benefited from it. What do you say to people who think like that?

“If you look at how affirmative action was instituted in most schools, race and ethnicity was one factor among many. The Black students who are admitted to schools are qualified. There’s no clear evidence that because a Black student was admitted, an equally qualified white student would not have been admitted. If you look at the number of students of color, there are fewer now than when I went to school, when affirmative action first began. 

“As an example, if I happen to get upgraded to first class on an airplane, it’s not like it's full of Black people. First class is still a place that the privileged sit. This notion that hordes of people of color have swept white people out of traditional places is just not true. It doesn’t exist.

“We are slowly seeing more and more people of color have opportunities. But it isn’t like there’s some great landslide and suddenly Black people are leading everything, and white people have no opportunity. [White people] still have incredible, extreme privilege in this country. I would like to see people of equal talent have equal opportunity.”

In the wake of Dr. Claudine Gay’s resignation from Harvard, how are you feeling?

"I'm saddened by Claudine Gay’s resignation. It's regrettable what she has had to endure personally and professionally. It is deeply disturbing to see her presidency ended because she became the victim of our inability as a nation to tackle differences in an honest, transparent fashion."

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

“First, I would like them to understand the value of HBCUs and appreciate why that education is important. I’m often asked, ‘Now that things have changed—now that we are no longer under Jim Crow and there’s more acceptance—why do we still need HBCUs?’ 

“However, no one asks, ‘Why do we still need women’s colleges?’ I am a product of a women’s college. People understand why it’s important for women to be grounded with a history of [other] women and be given the kind of confidence of that comes with attending Barnard, where I went to school, or Wellesley, Smith or Mount Holyoke. The value of a women’s college is not questioned, so why is the value of an HBCU? An HBCU does the same thing—it gives people a sense of themselves in the world.

“I would also like my white friends who probably didn’t attend an HBCU, even though there’s no barrier for white people, to consider giving a dollar to an HBCU every time they give a dollar to their own school. I think that's one of the best ways to fight for equity: closing some of the gaps by investing in the students who will make a difference in our nation and our future.”

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill

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