Black History Month Feature: Karen Baynes-Dunning

Our Black History Month series concludes this week with a profile of new United Way of Greenville County board member, Karen Baynes-Dunning.

Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Maryland, the unique power of education was instilled at an early by her mother, an educator at home and at school.

She attended Wake Forest University for her undergraduate studies, where she sought out the instruction of famed poet, Dr. Maya Angelou, whom she credits with “helping me find my voice in advocacy.”

After earning a law degree from the University of California Berkeley in 1992, Baynes-Dunning embarked on a storied career as a lawyer, judge, social justice activist and advocate for children and families.

She and her husband, Art Dunning, moved to Greenville after his retirement as president of Albany State University in 2018, and it wasn’t long before the community called her experience and expertise into service, including as a member of an ad hoc advisory panel on public safety, the Greenville Racial Equity and Economic Mobility (REEM) Commission, and United Way’s Board of Directors.

In this week’s profile, she shares how the pandemic inspired her continuing education, the enduring impact of Dr. Angelou, and why serving on the REEM Commission is important to her.

How has education influenced your life?

Education has always been a driver in my life. My mother was an educator. She and my father raised us with the understanding that we could create our own paths to success in life, by getting a great education. Throughout my life and career, I continue to learn and grow. The recent pandemic has enabled me to stretch my mind and skills through new creative expressions such as quilting and knitting, as well as taking Master Classes online, and finding more time to read. Before I ever started traveling to Europe, South America, Africa or Asia, I explored the world and other culture through books.

Who is one teacher who set you on the path you are on today and how did they do it?

My mother, Dorothy Baynes, was my first teacher. Long before my siblings and I were old enough to go to school, it was my mother who read with us, took us to museums and introduced us to the world. She encouraged us to dream about our futures with no limits. Even when we did not see people who looked like us in certain roles and careers, she would tell us that we could do anything with hard work and determination. As a formal educator, she was very deliberate about extending the school day learning into the home. In fact, telling her that we had no homework from school only meant that she would create homework assignments of her own. She also made sure that we explored African American writers, poets and history that we did not learn in school. To this day, I can hear my mother’s voice in my head, reminding me that there is a universe of things to learn and that we must never stop.

We learned in the beautiful article in the Wake Forest Magazine that you were a student of the great Maya Angelou. Can you describe the experience and what enduring personal impact it has had on you?

One of the reasons that I chose Wake, was because I loved the writings of Dr. Maya Angelou and knew that taking her class would be life changing. She only took 12 students each year, six men and six women. I was a junior when I figured out a way to register early enough to get into her class. Dr. Angelou had just published her book, “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” chronicling her travels through West Africa and the class was entitled “African Culture and Its Impact on the United States.” The course was also centered on the quote from the Roman Playwright Terrence, “I am human, therefore, nothing human can be alien to me.” There were times that we met for class in her home and she introduced us to her friends, such as Alex Haley, Ashford and Simpson and Odetta. She so inspired me that I studied abroad the next semester in Liberia, West Africa, where I developed a more global perspective of the world and made life-long friendships. In many ways, Dr. Angelou helped me find my voice in advocacy. She helped me to find humanity, even in the midst of challenges and conflict. It was also Dr. Angelou who wrote my letters of recommendation for law school, opening many doors of opportunities for me to continue learning.

Last year, you accepted an invitation to join the Greenville Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Commission. Can you share a little bit about why it was important for you to get involved and what you hope to see accomplished?

Throughout my career I have worked to transform systems to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. As an African American woman, former judge, professor and advocate, I have experienced, evaluated and witnessed the deleterious effect of systemic racism and discrimination. I have worked hard to improve communities throughout the South. We moved to Greenville a little more than two years ago. Shortly after our move, I took on the role of interim President and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, headquartered in Montgomery, Ala., with offices in five states and D.C. So, while I got to know the Greenville airport very well, and we took every opportunity to participate in the arts community, it was not until after I completed that role in April 2020, that I had time to truly get to know this community. It is an honor to serve on the REEM Commission, because now, I get to do this very difficult work in the community in which we live and now love. Since systemic racism has been embedded in our society for hundreds of years, I realize that the work of the Commission, will be long-term. I believe that through this work, we will begin to change hearts and minds through education and understanding, while dismantling the systems that currently create disparate outcomes for the African American community in Greenville. This is the type of work that we have to be comfortable “planting seeds for trees under which we may never enjoy the shade.” This is work we do for our children’s children’s children.

Why is Black History Month important to you?

It is important to me, because Black History is American History. One day, we will teach our children America’s full history, without segregating it to the shortest month of the year. However, for now, given the absence of this rich part of our legacy, it is vital that we take the time to both learn about it and honor those who created it.

Tell us about a historical figure or event that you feel a deep connection to that you think people should know more about – especially during Black History Month?

Often times, when people learn about Black History, they only learn a particular aspect of it. When asked about civil rights leaders, most people can name Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Thurgood Marshall, and Rosa Parks. But there were so many people, especially women, who are often overlooked. Before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery Alabama’s segregated bus. It was March 2, 1955. She was one of five plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the segregated bus system. The work of the Women’s Political Council led by Jo Ann Robinson helped to move the boycott from a concept to reality, spreading the word and arranging for protesters to get rides to work. As we enter Women’s History Month, we should remember the concept of intersectionality. Despite the weight of racism and sexism, African American women have been and continue to be strong leaders in our communities and our nation.

What is one piece of advice you share with young people today?

Don’t draw limits on the aspirations you have for your life.

Take advantage of every educational opportunity available. You can’t always wait for someone to hand them to you, but you have to create these avenues for yourself. When someone tells you that something is too hard or out of your reach, prove them wrong.

This also means that you have to make decisions that will open doors instead of closing them. The decisions you make today, from the friends you hang out with, to how you show up and perform every day at school, at home and in the community matter. Think about your brand and the beautiful brilliance you want others to see in you and let them see it!

In honor of United Way African American Leadership Greenville’s 20th anniversary in 2019, we created a special scholarship fund for students pursing higher education. This year, in celebration of Black History Month, please consider a gift to the AALG Scholarship Fund and help us support the next generation of Black educators, community leaders and history-makers in Greenville County. CLICK HERE to give today.

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