The Courage to Sit at the Head of the Table – AND yet…

Choosing to challenge any barrier a person faces takes courage. Taking the first step can be the most courageous one of all. AWF Board alumna Ann W. Cramer shares how she found the courage to find her seat at the table as the only woman on a public board and how having the courage to say “yes” to an opportunity to lead was only the first step. As a former AWF Board Member, Ann continues to be involved and support AWF’s mission. 

Years ago (let’s say decades!!), I was appointed to a public board, and as the only woman, among all white males, I quietly sat at the back of the room – not even at the board table!!! No one ever “invited” me to sit at the table!! As the months went on – I cautiously made my way to the table!! The meetings were long, disorganized, and occasionally very uncomfortable because of off-color language and derogatory comments!! Since I always arrived at the meeting early, one day I changed seating positions and sat at the head of the table!!! As a “joke”, someone asked if I wanted to chair the meeting – and boldly I said “YES!” Well, I was so scared, insecure and unsure – but off I went, running the meeting!! Of course, the meeting was organized: on time, on task, on target!! Each person got to talk, each person felt heard, and we finished early – with a sense of accomplishment!! And so, I sat – at the head of the table!! AND yet…

The irony is that sitting at the head of the table is the first step!!! It is from that perch that we have a different view and a different responsibility!!! We can put up the periscope and see the opportunities for improvement– and then courageously Stand Up to the systems and structures of injustice, inequities, insecurities, and Speak Out to ensure that change will occur to empower others to reach their full potential!!! I felt empowered to make changes, to stop the off-color language and derogatory comments, to include everyone – and to invite others!!!! AND yet…

Being at the head of the table is not the end game!!! Being at the head of the table is not the whole objective!! Being at the head of the table allows us to use a position of power to empower others!!  Being at the head of the table taught me that as a person of faith, I must act on my baptismal covenant: to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being and live into my foundational vision that we can provide a climate in which all children – all children – will be able to grow into his/her own full potential as safe, healthy, educated, connected, and employable contributing interdependent people!!

Gandhi’s word rings true!!!

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Gandhi

It is not where you sit – but on what you stand!!!

To paraphrase a quote from Paul Sherry: “The primary role of women leaders is to continually shape and reshape the vision of a more just social order, to propose programs which might lead to the manifestation of that vision, to argue for them with other contenders in the public arena, and to press for adoption and implementation. For women leaders to do less than that is to abdicate their civic responsibility.”

Paul Sherry’s quote relates to all of us in leadership positions!! Once we are aware of the situation, from wherever we sit, we are compelled to act – to stand up and to speak out!!!!

As with the position of being at the head of the table, the paradox is that the power is not your position at the table – but what we do with the knowledge, experience, expertise, access, resources, and influence that we have!!!

So, it was, that I continued to fill the seat at the head of the table for other boards and organizations – and I realized that I did not have to always sit at the head to be an effective leader!!!! Don’t get me wrong; I loved sitting at the head of the table!! But it doesn’t matter at which seat you sit, it is what you see – and then to have the courage to stand up and speak out!!! Listen. Learn. Reflect. Act. Being held accountable – to both challenge the system and celebrate the success!!!

My current Mantra that abides in me every day:  Hope lives!! Love always wins! Justice prevails!!! Face forward in faith!!! Persist with grace!!!!! Respect the dignity of every human being!!!! Ever onward in gratitude…and patience!!!

The courage to sit at the head of the table taught me that a lead position is a responsibility which requires bold actions AND “to do less than that is to abdicate…(our) civic responsibility.” It is not where you sit – it is on what you stand!!!

Ann Wilson Cramer and her husband, Jeff, are long-time residents of Inman Park and are active members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. They are the proud parents of two adult children.  They are active at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Ann is a graduate of Salem College with a degree in mathematics.

Ann served as director for IBM Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs for the Americas. In that position, she was a member of the senior management staff overseeing the company’s approach to corporate citizenship, strategic philanthropy, and overall social responsibility. In 2012, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce presented her with its first Business Civic Leadership Achievement Award and in 2020, Ann received the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s first Corporate Social Responsibility Lifetime Achievement Award. Ann was recently inducted in the 2021 Georgia Trend’s Hall of Fame.

Ann serves and has served on numerous local nonprofit boards and has been involved with The Atlanta Women’s Foundation since its birth.