C. Virginia Fields has devoted her professional life to serving others. Trained in social work, she served as president of the borough of Manhattan for eight years, after which she became CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. She remains its leader today.
I wanted to find out how she was able to navigate the rocky waters of New York City politics and where her inclusive style of leadership came from. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Bruce Weinstein: In terms of your leadership style, you often use the phrase “deliberative process” and talk a lot about including the people who will be affected by your decision. How did you develop this approach to leadership?
C. Virginia Fields: I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the fifties and sixties, when the civil rights movement was at its peak. I saw black people—or Negroes as we were called at that time—not being able to vote or be involved decisions, policies or budgets that impacted your day-to-day life.
One of the reasons I wanted to go into government is because of my background as a social worker and seeing how policies and budgets impact everything we do. I started thinking that I need to be on the other end to set some policies. For example, if you reallocate money from senior citizens centers, how will that affect people who get their meals from those centers?
Weinstein: What was your family life like?
Fields: My mother helped to get the people in our community registered to vote. She was active in the church missionary society and the civil rights movement that was led by the minister of our church at that time, the late Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. I’d see my mother out there doing things that made a difference in the lives of people in the church, in the community, on a civil and social justice level.