Durham County

15th annual Durham Women's Forum honors trailblazers

Pictured (from left) Cerelyn "C.J." Davis, Kim Lan-Grout, Wendy Jacobs, Kristi Jones and Desiree Palmer serve as panelists at this week's 15th Annual Women's Forum in Durham.
Pictured (from left) Cerelyn "C.J." Davis, Kim Lan-Grout, Wendy Jacobs, Kristi Jones and Desiree Palmer serve as panelists at this week's 15th Annual Women's Forum in Durham.

A police chief, a county commissioner, an activist, a dentist and a government employee all have taken different paths in life but shared the same stage in solidarity as women Thursday night.

The women participated in the City of Durham’s 15th annual Women’s Forum hosted by the Human Relations Division and Neighborhood Improvement Services Department.

The forum was moderated by Hilda Gurdian, publisher and CEO of La Noticia, Inc.

Panelists included Kristi Jones, chief of staff for Gov. Roy Cooper, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs, Desiree Palmer, owner/operator of Desiree T. Palmer DMD, PA & Associates, and Kim-Lan Grout, founder of the Redefining Disabled Project.

“Our honorees represent diverse backgrounds and each have made a mark in a different field,”

Mayor Pro-Tem Cora Cole-McFadden said. “They have successfully challenged the social and legal structures that have kept women’s labor underappreciated and underpaid.”

CJ Davis

Davis is Durham’s first African-American female chief of police -- arriving in Durham in 2016 from Atlanta, where she served as deputy police chief, and bringing 30 years of law enforcement experience.

“In our careers, we experience so many different types of challenges that are unique to women and through those challenges they make us stronger,” she said.

In many professions and work environments, Davis said, there is the “glass ceiling.”

It was something she noticed when attending the FBI Academy in 2006 as the only African-American female out of 256 attendees.

However in a male-dominated environment, Davis said both men and women mentored her throughout her career -- including Beverly Harvard, the first black chief in Atlanta.

Harvard told Davis -- who was a lieutenant at the time -- she “had what it takes.”

“Sometimes it takes two or three words to deposit confidence in somebody else,” Davis said.

Advice she shared for others is to have a vision, persevere, “be your own cheerleader” and press through “the storm.”

“Without that struggle and without that challenge, we aren’t who we become,” Davis said.

Kim-Lan Grout

Grout is a writer, photographer and amputee.

She shared the history of people with disabilities -- from the Nazi euthanization program that killed more than 200,000 people with disabilities and sterilized another 400,000 Germans with disabilities, the “ugly laws” from the 1870s to 1970s in the U.S. “prohibiting both poor people and those with disabilities from appearing in public.”

In 1974, the Black Panthers gathered with people with disabilities for 28 consecutive days of wheelchair sit-ins, leading to Section 504, “the mother,” of the American Disabilities Act, Grout said.

It is “on the shoulders,” of the allies, the advocates and those with disabilities who died years before, which Grout said she stands.

“It is because they lived and died having their dignity stolen from them that many -- but not all -- people with disabilities now finally in 2017 can live and die with dignity,” she said.

In 2014, Grout started her own disability “artivism,” with the Redefining Disabled Project.

She highlighted celebrities, athletes and local friends who are “lionesses running the pride.”

Though coming a long way, Grout said there’s still a long way to go.

“Fifteen years from now -- the 30th annual National Women’s Hostory forum -- who will stand on our shoulders and how will we get her there?” she asked.

Wendy Jacobs

Jacobs said she draws strength and inspiration from her parents and grandparents.

Growing up, she heard the stories of her grandfather leaving his small Polish village at 14 at a time when “young Jewish boys … would become the first sacrificed on the front lines” of what would become a world war, Jacobs said.

She remembered the stories her father told her about driving his father’s old truck to deliver produce in the early morning hours in New Jersey and juggling classes at Cornell Medical School in New York City.

“We cannot stand idly by, but must take responsibility and action to protect what our ancestors have achieved,” Jacobs said.

As a third generation American, Jacobs remembered images she saw growing up of concentration camps, ovens, human bodies, and skeletal faces of the survivors freed Nazi camps.

Bomb threats, graffiti and damage to synagogues and desecration of Jewish cemeteries continue, she said.

Hate lingers, Jacobs said, which is why she said in her recent state of the county address Durham will not allow discrimination against any group of people based on sex, age, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, country of origin, religion or ethnicity.

“Durham is and will continue to be a county of inclusion,” Jacobs said. “ But to make these words reality requires each and everyone of us to honor our ancestors and all those on whose shoulders we stand to live out the values they instilled in us through our daily interactions and how we treat one another.”

Kristi Jones

Confidence for women, Jones said, is not easy.

She cited an the article “Confidence Camp,” that states women apply for promotions only when they are 100 percent sure they are qualified -- or if an application states 20 qualifications are needed, women want to ensure they have 22, compared to men applying with only 10 of the qualifications.

“It’s a process of building confidence,” she said.

Jones remembered growing up in a small country church and reciting poems each Christmas, Easter or holiday.

When someone forgot the poem, Jones said someone in the church would always speak up and say it’s “OK” and to take their time, which built confidence.

Jones credited her “next dose of confidence,” from her first grade teacher who followed Jones’ life and career after first grade, until the teacher’s death last year.

Other teachers and counselors would encourage her to become involved in student government.

Jones said confidence doesn’t always come in a positive impact -- remembering telling a college professor she wanted to go to law school in Chapel Hill and the professor telling her “tardy students don’t get into law school,” when she was late to class one day.

“I was going to prove to that professor that tardy students can get into law school -- and and let me tell you a tardy student got into law school at Chapel Hill,” Jones said.

Jones said women in Durham -- including the mayor’s wife -- encouraged her and helped her gain confidence, but it wasn’t always women who provided the confidence.

She credited Cooper for when he asked her to join his team and asked to to promote as chief of staff.

Jones asked mothers, aunts, sisters, godmother and others to give little girls the confidence they need to become women with a vision.

“Our journey here didn’t start today,” Jones said. “We didn’t start in this job. We all started as little girls with a dream”

Desiree Palmer

Palmer described her mother as her most influential role model.

Her mother was one of 11 children who was the first and only one of her siblings to graduate from college.

Palmer’s five aunts worked as domestics and sent her mother money to attend college.

While working as a domestic one summer, Palmer said her mother worked for a wealthy woman in Massachusetts who was the dean at Wellesley College.

The woman encouraged her mother to pursue a master’s degree, which Palmer said her mother received from Howard University.

Palmer herself later attended a women’s college with plans to become a high school biology teacher. Yet one of her deans recommended she consider dentistry.

After graduating and marrying her husband, she left for dental school in Boston.

“I probably noticed the most racism and sexism there,” Palmer said.

Receiving a national fellowship scholarship to commit herself to working three years in public health served as a motivator, as did the 32 other women and two African American males among the 150 students.

During her final year of dental school, Palmer became pregnant with her first son.

“He became the primary motivation to graduate on time,” she said. “I graduated on a Friday, celebrated on a Saturday and gave birth on a Sunday.”

A few years later, her family arrived in Durham, as Palmer was invited to work with a family friend and dentist -- Thomas Bass.

Palmer’s next step was to get out of her comfort zone and start her own practice -- in northern Durham at a time when no other African American practiced in the area.

Starting with only one employee, Palmer’s practice grew to two dentists and 10 female team members in 2000.

Recently, the practice expanded to its second location -- Bull City Dental -- in the former historic Black Wall Street area.

Today, she has three young women associate dentists and 12 female team members.

“It’s definitely not about me but about all the relationships that support me and sustain me,” Palmer said. “ My ancestors, my mother, my father, my brother, my husband, my three sons, my granddaughter, my work family, my church community, my friends and my dental patients and the Durham community. It’s that large circle that surrounds me that makes it so easy to get up, go to work and do what I love to do.”