“Don’t judge a book by its cover”: Black History Month and me

Shanette D. Buford-Brazzell“Do you know what this month is?” asked my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Moore, one day in the middle of class.

I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. I was nine years old and attending Alfred A. Benesch Elementary School in the Central neighborhood of Cleveland. All the females in my class turned to each other and responded in unison, “Black History Month!” We always looked forward to this time of year because each day during the month of February our school offered lessons and events tailored to each grade level.

The month culminated in a special gathering of the entire school. Select students were given the opportunity to dress like the African-American person they idolized, to reflect on the celebration and present a five-minute report. I know for me, the music department’s contribution was the highlight of the program; the African drums and dancing, along with everyone singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the official song of the NAACP. We had all learned it originated as a poem written by James Weldon Johnson and was set to music by his brother.

Black History Month happens to be celebrated during the shortest month of the year. However, I like to think it kicks off when we observe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on January 15th.

Personally, I have always celebrated Black History Month 365 days a year. There’s always time to be mindful of our ancestors and all the accomplishments they achieved.

What does it mean to be a young, African-American woman in Greater Cleveland?

I was born and raised in Cleveland by a single mother who nurtured four beautiful, successful young women. My amazing mom always said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Twenty-nine years later, her words live deeply within me, because I see how she made sure her daughters would never be constrained by how others define a human being.

After all, the media and society have so often stereotyped African-American women as single and unsuccessful, with limited education, several children and living on public assistance. Other stereotypes have portrayed African-American women as stuck in low-paying jobs with limited career options, never being promoted to a position in the C-suite or leading a company or organization.

When you look at me, you would never know I grew up in the King Kennedy low-income housing complex also known as “The Projects.” You would never know that I am a product of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. You would never know I took every opportunity in school to learn from the people of diverse backgrounds that surrounded me and enjoyed sharing my ancestry with them. Yet as a young person, I was struck by how few African-American females there were in leadership positions, and this was especially apparent as my professional aspirations started to take shape in college.

Perhaps I owe my resolve to dismantle stereotypes to the example my mother set for me and my sisters. My single parent family was led by a woman who created a safe, loving and happy home environment in a public housing complex. She was extremely proud of the college degree that afforded her a vibrant career in nursing.

While reflecting on my life and career, I have come to realize just how much adversity I had to overcome to reach the point I’m at now; a successful young professional with a college degree flourishing in a major market. I have knocked down barriers and proudly accomplished great things as an African-American woman. And I plan to continue to overcome any obstacle that I may face.

A career blossoms

My earliest career goal was to work as a sports broadcaster or sports publicist. After a brief internship in sports information at my alma mater, Cleveland State University, I realized I no longer wanted to pursue that as a career option. A mentor and former supervisor then opened an exciting new path by giving me my first opportunity in event management for collegiate athletics. I continued my internship in that field until I graduated in 2013, focusing on game day operations, special events and athletics fundraising.

My event management career experience has included stops at the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and The Jerome Schottenstein Center/The Ohio State University. In 2015, I decided that I wanted to obtain experience in fundraising events, which led to my current position at United Way of Greater Cleveland.

In the sports and events industry there are only a handful of women of color in entry or mid-level positions. Some of those women I idolize and are my mentors. I am immensely proud to stand among them.

The future!

For the last six months I have been attending bi-monthly sessions of the YWCA Women’s Leadership Institute Boot Camp. Through this program I have gained 29 “sisters”; all young, rising professionals looking to enhance their leadership and management skills just like me.

We have had sessions focusing on emotional intelligence, diversity and inclusion, multi-generations in the workplace and effective organizational change. Having the opportunity to be part of the YWCA Boot Camp has been phenomenal!

This leadership program is another major step in the advancement of my career, providing knowledge I am already applying to my current responsibilities and day-to-day interaction with colleagues.

Personal mission statement

As Black History Month draws to a close, I’d like to share this quote by my favorite female poet Maya Angelou; words that serve as my personal mission statement and eloquently sum up my career thus far: “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”

About Shanette D. Buford-Brazzell
Shanette Buford-Brazzell is the special events manager at United Way of Greater Cleveland. Prior to this role, Shanette was events coordinator at The Jerome Schottenstein Center/The Ohio State University from 2013 – 2015. She currently serves on the Board of Directors as the Fund Development Director for Junior League of Cleveland. She’s also a member of Cleveland State University Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Council and a mentor with College Now of Greater Cleveland. Shanette graduated from CMSD’s John Marshall High School, Class of 2006, and received her undergraduate degree from Cleveland State University in 2013. She also earned a certificate in sports philanthropy from George Washington University in Washington D.C.



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