Breaking Barriers with Mary Wilson
Mary Wilson: Hi. This is Mary Wilson, and you’re listening to Aldersgate OnAir.
Mike Peacock: Welcome back, friends, to Aldersgate OnAir. I hope you’re all staying safe during these challenging times not just with COVID but with the recent inclement weather that I’ll just go ahead and dub Snowpocalypse 2021.
While times may indeed be challenging, there are still plenty of opportunities to make the world a better place and plenty of opportunities to celebrate the awesome people in the world who continue to challenge convention, who continue to break down the barriers, and who continue to fight the good fight to help ensure society keeps moving forward in a fashion that celebrates diversity, inclusion, and equity. I’m glad you tuned in today because we have a very special guest who embodies those very qualities, who has blazed those trails, and who has generously agreed to share her time and experiences with us.
Today’s guest is the inspirational Mary Wilson, who not only serves on the board of directors at Aldersgate, but who also holds the distinction of being both the first woman and the first person of color to have headed up the board as chair. While Mary’s list of accomplishments and career highlights is impressive (to say the least), she is remarkably humble while still managing to be entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking.
Hearing her speak of her varied experiences as an attorney, as a director of social services, and as a student of the seminary field, as well as some of the challenges she’s faced and overcome is truly awe-inspiring. I have no doubt that she will continue to keep making epic contributions not only to Aldersgate (as a board member) but to the world, in general.
Of course, joining me today as cohost is everyone’s favorite director of branding and community engagement, the man, the myth, the legend himself, Brooks Shelley, who we can all thank for helping to make today’s epic conversation happen. Let’s just say that Brooks has a certain way with words. It’s like he’s mastered the art of the Jedi mind trick or something.
But enough of my rambling. Let’s get this going.
Hey, Mary. Hey, Brooks. Welcome to the show. Thank you both so much for joining me today. Mary, it’s an honor to talk to you.
Mary: Thanks so much for having me.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. This is going to be exciting because I know it’s your first podcast experience, so we’re going to make this super, super awesome. Of course, Brooks, we all know you from your many, many ventures here at Aldersgate OnAir, so always cool to have you on as well.
Brooks Shelley: Thank you, sir. Good to see you and talk to you.
Mike: Awesome. Mary, there are some really cool things I’ve heard about you. I would love to get the first-hand perspective. If you don’t mind, before we get into all the meat and potatoes, let’s get a little bit of background on you so we know where you come from and who you are. Where is your family from originally? Can you describe some of your life experiences growing up in the areas that you’ve lived?
Mary: I would love to. I am originally from Windsor Locks, Connecticut, which is a small suburban town outside of Hartford. It is the location of Bradley International Airport.
I grew up in Windsor Locks. I had three black families out of the entire town. When I was in high school, my family had a fire in our house. That kind of pitched us into a different way of living.
We went from living in a house to living in an apartment. I started hanging out with the wrong kids as a result of that. My parents shipped me off to boarding school.
Mike: We always heard those rumors.
Mike: You know, when you were a kid, your parents were always threatening to send you to boarding school or military school. But that actually happened to you.
Mary: Well, that actually happened to me. I went to boarding school in an even smaller town, Washington, Connecticut. While I was there, my parents moved to Virginia. They shipped me off to boarding school and then left the state.
Mary: That was a bit of a shock, but it was a great experience for me. I got to see a different part of the world in terms of educational opportunities. It was actually an art school, so I got to try my hand at photography, ballet, and weaving. Actually, I wrote a play while I was in boarding school. I went to New York City a lot for different cultural events.
My headmaster started talking to me about college, and so I ended up going to the University of Virginia for my undergrad. Met and married my husband and then went off to law school at Wake Forest University and started practicing corporate law, which I did for maybe 20 years.
Then I went into county government and became the director of social services for Mecklenburg County, which is where Charlotte sits, and then left county government and went to seminary. I actually have a Master’s in Christian Leadership. I am now in a doctorate program.
I’ve had lots of different educational experiences, work experiences, and just really feel fortunate that I’ve had such a variety of things that I’ve been able to do in my life.
Mike: That’s pretty epic. I now realize how much of an underachiever I truly am.
Mike: Thanks for putting that in perspective for me. That’s pretty remarkable, though, coming from all of the different ways that you’ve worked yourself into different environments, different career fields, and different educational fields. That’s pretty awesome.
It’s, I think, hard enough for a lot of people just to focus on one thing and you’ve kind of managed to run the gamut, if you will. What made you want to become an attorney? What was the driving force behind that?
Mary: It’s interesting. Two things: My dad was an entrepreneur, a general contractor, and built homes, senior living facilities, and apartment complexes. But he didn’t think women should be in that business. I don’t know why. I never got the opportunity to talk to him about that, but he was enamored of F. Lee Bailey. I actually have never gone back and researched who he was, but I think he was a famous trial attorney.
I like to read. I was an avid reader. I would go with my mom to different places and pick up pamphlets and just read whatever I could get my hands on.
And I’ve always been a talker. I think it actually comes from my family. We all talk a lot, and so my dad thought, “This is definitely the career path for you.”
But it wasn’t until I was at the University of Virginia. I was actually working a part-time job at the law school and I saw a black female student walk out of the law school. That single incident made an impression on me that I actually saw someone who looked like me who was going to law school, and it all came together.
My dad’s encouragement turned into something that I saw as a reality. Going to law school was just a fait accompli at that point. It was like, “Yep, I’m going to go to law school.”
In between undergrad and law school, though, I got married and had two kids. I loved family. I wanted to have a bunch of kids. I told my husband, “I’m going to have a baby every year.”
Mary: After the second baby (and they were like 16 months apart), he said, “Is there anything else you want to do?”
Mike: Yeah. Mission accomplished here. What’s next on the docket?
Mary: And so, I said, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to go to law school.” He goes, “Why don’t you go ahead and apply? I think we can make that work.”
With my husband’s encouragement, I applied to law school and went to law school. My son was 18 months old and my daughter was 3 months old. Neither one of us (my husband nor I) knew what we were getting ourselves into but we just knew it was a path that opened up for us, and so we just ran with it.
Mike: Wow. Awesome. That turned into a 20+ year career, kind of give or take, before you moved on. Now, you had mentioned it was a singular experience that kind of stuck with you that made you (at some point) decide that “Hey, this might be something I want to get involved in.”
Now, I’ve heard that you—kind of along the course of your career—may be kind of broke some norms or (I like to use the word) blaze some trails. What kind of obstacles and challenges did you experience as you were going through that process?
Mary: It’s interesting that you ask that question because I’ve actually had that conversation with a dear friend over the last probably six months. When I graduated from law school, it was 1985. Going into the corporate world, I was a corporate attorney.
At that time, I was probably on the early wave of women going into a corporate environment and certainly, going in, in a senior capacity. I wanted to be a corporate lawyer because I wanted to have time with my family. I didn’t want to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Mary: And I enjoyed being part of a team. I love being part of the corporation where you had marketing, sales, finance, legal, and procurement. You had all of those different departments, and we all worked together for the good of the organization. However, every job I had, I was probably the first minority and the first woman.
It was really an interesting challenge because I always walked in the door thinking, “Wow! I’ve had this great education. I’m a little older than most people because I went back to school after having my children. This is going to be great. I’m going to be part of a team. We’re all going to work together. It’s just going to be wonderful.”
Unfortunately, what happened is that I would run into these barriers where people would have certain expectations of how a woman was supposed to behave or how a minority was supposed to behave. I never fully understood that.
I think, for both women but also, particularly, black people, if you don’t understand the unspoken culture then you can often end up misreading the cues. You just don’t understand what’s going on.
I am pretty outspoken. I don’t think I’m harsh, but I am outspoken and I am direct. Maybe that’s being a Northerner.
Mary: I’m not sure where all that comes from. Maybe it’s being the youngest in the family and being able to say all those things in what felt like a safe place. I don’t know but, in most of the environments that I went in, I often felt like I was being pushed back, that I needed to step back and wait, and wait to be invited to speak or wait to be invited to participate.
I remember being in meetings and I’ll say something, you know, “I think we ought to do this,” or “We ought to do this,” and there’d be no reaction. Then 15 minutes later, a white male at the table would say the same thing and the response would be, “That’s a great idea! We need to run with that!”
I think, for me, it would just make me crazy. I would go home and talk to my husband. I’d say, “What in the world is going on?”
My husband grew up in the South. He’s a little older than I am, and so he has a different orientation and a different understanding of the ways, perhaps, of southerners and the ways of what I came to understand as to how white people interact with black people. Those were challenges that I really experienced throughout most of my career.
Mike: Yeah. I assume, at some point, it got to the point, hopefully, where you were able to work more cohesively with the team, or did that ultimately lead you down to different paths?
Mary: Well, I think that… I believe that I always worked well with the team, but I always wanted to advance in my career.
Mary: My personal decision was to move to another corporation that would give me another opportunity. As corporate legal counsel, my goal was always to be a general counsel, and so I kept moving for more experiences.
I would manage the HR function at one company and couldn’t move any further, so I’d go to another company and I would have international opportunities. I did mergers and acquisitions on an international scale for many years. Then, ultimately, became a regional general counsel and then, ultimately, ended up deciding that I wanted to move out of a corporate environment.
For me, it was a personal decision to move out of a corporate environment because being a corporate attorney became very combative. You’re always on the quest for the next opportunity for your corporation.
Mary: Oftentimes, you’re just in a fight. We want to do an acquisition. We want to do a merger. We want to gain this ground. We want to make more money for the company. That’s not a bad thing, but it impacts your personality, I think, at some point in time.
I can be combative. I can be aggressive. But that’s not who I wanted to be.
At one point, my company decided they were moving their headquarters out of Charlotte, and I took that opportunity to leave. I actually went to work for my church as the executive director of their community development corporation.
I have maintained my legal license all of these years, but I have stopped working as a corporate attorney. I’ve tried different platforms and different opportunities to exercise different parts of my brain, to give back to the community in a different way, and just to have a different experience. That has been wonderful for me. I really have enjoyed all of those different experiences, and I think it has just enriched my life and my family’s life in a big way.
Mike: That’s awesome. I’ve worked in several environments where you become what I call a product of the product. I have no doubt that, in some capacity, working in the legal field kind of turned you into a product of the product.
Clearly, though, you made an impact. You did some cool stuff. You moved on. I’d like to know; how did you end up coming to work with the folks at Aldersgate?
Mary: Well, it’s interesting. I have had some great board experiences over the years, and I’ve had some horrible board experiences.
Mary: I actually had a friend of mine (who sadly has passed away) ask me if I was interested in doing a board assignment with Aldersgate. I said, “Who is Aldersgate? I’ve never heard of them. I don’t know what they do.” They told me about Aldersgate, and I said, “Oh, I think that would be interesting because I am interested in working with elders.”
I’ve done some pro bono legal work for elders who have been taken advantage of from scams and different things like that. I’ve helped them kind of unravel some of those problems. I’ve helped them get assistance for disabled children and things like that.
I am interested in working with the elders, and so when I found out about Aldersgate, I said, “Okay. Tell me a little bit about them. Who is the CEO? What is that person like? What’s the board makeup? What do they do? Do they operate as a professional board?”
When I did my homework, I found out who the CEO was at the time, and still is Suzanne Pugh. I found out who was on the board, and there were several people that I knew. I found out that they had a very broad mission to help elders – I’m paraphrasing – to help elders live their best life. I think that was just so impactful that I agreed to serve on the board, and it has exceeded my expectation at every turn.
Mike: Awesome. You sent me a quick little correction earlier, so I wanted to call this out. Not only were you the first female to sit at the chair of the board; you’re also the first person of color to hold that distinction. Do I have that accurate?
Mary: Yes. That’s accurate, and I am just so honored to have been able to serve in that capacity.
Mike: Were you aware, at the time, that that was where you fell into that as far as the firsts. Was that something that you had thought about at all when you took that position?
Mary: No, not actually. I actually was a little intimidated about serving as chair at all because I am following two awesome chairs: Tommy Lawing and William Springs. They were so kind to me when I came on the board and really made me feel like I was able to make a contribution.
Several different things happened during the course of my serving on the board. I actually moved to D.C. for a year. My husband became ill with cancer and went through surgery. Through all that time, they continued to reach out to me, encourage me, and make provisions for me to participate. Even before COVID, we were having meetings by Zoom or telephone.
It really made me feel like, “Wow! These folks really value my contribution.” When I became vice-chair, I didn’t really think about that automatically turning into Chair.
Mary: I never thought about the succession planning, necessarily. I thought about, “Okay, how am I going to learn? How am I going to learn and contribute?”
When I spoke to Suzanne about becoming Chair, she actually mentioned, “You know you’re going to be the first woman and the first person of color.” I think I was a little bit stunned for a minute because this organization is over 70 years old. I said, “Surely not.”
Mary: It’s hard to believe that, at that time – What was it, 2018? – we were still having firsts. But, yes, we were still having firsts.
I appreciate the fact that Aldersgate has broken yet another barrier within its organizational structure, and I appreciate the fact that they allowed me to contribute in such a unique way. I guess, like our current Vice President, I want to say I’m happy that I was the first and I am very prayerful that I won’t be the last.
Mike: It’s funny you mentioned, you know, thinking about just 2018. I was even thinking back at the first part of our discussion here when you said, “Back in 1985.” I was like, you know, that’s just really not so long ago when you think about all of those barriers were still in place.
’85 is one thing. 2018 is another thing. It just kind of calls into question, is this really at the forefront of enough people’s minds to where it’s going to not be a thing. Clearly, in some capacities, we’re still facing some of those barriers.
What do you think are some of the accomplishments that you’ve had there on the Aldersgate chair that you’re most proud of?
Mary: Well, I don’t know that I have any singular individual accomplishments.
Mary: One of the things that I am really grateful for and proud of is that our board is very collegial. We work well together. We know each other as real colleagues and, in many cases, I would call the board members my friends; people that I feel like I could pick up the phone and call and ask a question.
We have been a board that is eager to move forward and improve the organization for the people that we serve, which are clearly all of the residents of Aldersgate. We have embraced a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, which I think is just huge for a board to be intentional about learning more, engaging more, and involving ourselves in activity more.
We’ve really moved forward on our master site plan in order to transform the campus right here at Shamrock. We’ve been successful in continuing the initiative of the generations facility on Providence Road, which started under William Springs’ leadership and Tommy Lawing’s leadership. I have been able to continue that initiative.
We’ve looked at implementing a living wage among our staff. I think that has been a huge initiative to really value the people who provide so much service to the elders that live here at Aldersgate, and really give them a higher quality of life and even greater stability in their employment.
There have been so many things that we have worked on and initiatives that we’ve looked at. But again, none of them have been singularly my initiative. It’s been the cohesiveness and just the commitment of the board to show up and to do the work. That’s been really incredible, and I’ve been so grateful to be a part of that.
Brooks: Mike, if I may—
Mike: You may.
Brooks: –something Mary said—Thank you.
Brooks: Something that Mary said about the board being willing to move forward, it’s a very unique board. We’ve made the intentional journey (years ago under Suzanne’s leadership) to have a board that represents what we want to represent in all layers of our organization from diversity and inclusion, equity, all the way through.
It is a board that really does want to move forward, but it strikes me—each time that we go through something like livable wage or our master site expansion—how everybody on the board comes at it from a different angle and wants to make sure that all bases are covered, that everyone is included, and everybody’s voice is at the table. If their voice isn’t at the table, is that our blind spot? Is that the spot that we’re missing? Do we need to actually bring somebody in from that area?
While it is a quick-moving group, it is a very thoughtful, intentional group. It is not one of those, “Oops. We’ve got to move. Let’s do it real quick,” and then go, “Oh… We didn’t think about that.”
My time with Mary has been fulfilling for me never more so than when we did the March for Equity and Justice. Mary, your speech that day to kick off our march – we did an internal march on campus for the residents (at the residents’ and team members’ request), as well as an external march down in the neighborhood that we live in. Mary was the kickoff speaker, and the depth and the authenticity that you spoke from was just inspiring.
Mary: Thank you so much. I get emotional just thinking about where we are in our country in terms of racial reconciliation. It is just a blessing, to me, to be able to participate at Aldersgate and have a venue where I can share my concern and my heart.
I don’t expect everybody to agree with me. But just the fact that people are willing to listen, to me that makes such an impression. That has been just heartfelt, a joy being at Aldersgate and being able to share that, having that venue and that platform and this opportunity.
I understand these are difficult subjects and difficult topics. I don’t expect everybody at Aldersgate to agree. But just the fact that I can talk to a resident about where we’re going and what we’re doing, as a board, and they can say to me, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go there. I’m afraid.” But to have enough relationship that we can have a conversation about it, that means so much. To me, that’s how we change the world.
We’re just doing our part. It may feel like a small part here at Aldersgate, but it has a ripple effect. We talk to each other. We talk to residents. Hopefully, they’re talking to their friends and family members. Our small contribution has such a ripple effect, and I am just so delighted to be a part of it.
Mike: I think that when I talk about Aldersgate and when I hear people talk about Aldersgate, there is always kind of a word that gets thrown out, which is “progress.” I feel like Aldersgate really does make progress in the goals that it sets out to accomplish. What are your thoughts on that?
Mary: I think we make progress. I think that we make progress in the right way and in the right time schedule. To Brooks’ point, we don’t always move fast by some people’s standards, but I do think we move fast for the size organization that we are. We have conversation about all of it every step of the way.
The master site plan is a great example of where we’re going on this campus and how we are opening it up in some ways to provide housing for other elders who may not be able to afford the type of product that we sell at Aldersgate Shamrock Main (for lack of a better term) but to be able to offer housing to elders who may be retired teachers, retired military, retired police officers, or retired firefighters. To be able to offer a high quality of housing for that population on our campus, I think, is a wonderful opportunity.
That conversation has been going on for probably five years or more, and so it is not a fast conversation. We are taking every comment and every feedback that we receive, and we are having further conversations about it. If people are afraid that the housing is not going to look like a housing stock in the community, we have taken busloads of people throughout East Charlotte to look at the variety of housing stock that’s in the area and to look at how we make sure whatever we build blends in.
To address people’s concerns about who are the people that may be moving into this housing, we’ve talked about [it]. Even our CEO has said, “My mom might be one of those people.” You know?
Mary: My husband is retired military. My husband and I might be one of those people.
We’ve taken the time to really answer the questions. That doesn’t mean that everybody is going to be a cheerleader. But I think what we have done is to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and that we are taking the time to answer the questions that are raised.
That means we’re still moving forward, but it’s not at the speed of light. But we are still moving forward. I think that is a great testament to who we are as a board and an organization.
Mike: Yeah. That’s pretty epic. All of that being said then, obviously, you hit on a couple of points: Have the conversations. Bring it to the table. Be willing to face the tough topics.
What still needs to be done as a society? What steps do we need to take to move everything forward in that sense? It’s a big question.
Mary: It is a big question, and it’s interesting that you ask the question because it’s actually one of the things that I’m trying to determine in the doctorate program that I’m working on. I have the opportunity to ask the question, to ask a question in my doctorate program, and do all of the research to answer that question (or at least tee it up for somebody else to take the question the next distance).
Mary: One of the things that I’ve really been thinking about is how do we advance racial reconciliation? I think Aldersgate is a great example of how we can do that by having an intentionality around understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion. We all have our own understanding of what is diversity, what is equity, and what is inclusion. But we don’t have, I think, an opportunity (all the time) to really have conversation about it.
One of the things that I want to look at in my doctorate is, how do we engage small groups of people in an intentional way to understand what is diversity, what is equity, and what is inclusion. There are different models out there. One model is what Aldersgate has done, which is to bring that learning to the board in an intentional way every month. We are now doing it every week with engagement of reading opportunities or videos.
When we have our board meetings, we will have an intentional activity where we do something and then we debrief on that. You know, how did that make you feel? What did you learn?
I think, we have to be intentional about doing that. If boards are intentional about doing that, you might capture some people who might not otherwise be intentional about doing that.
We can also set up voluntary opportunities for groups of people to come together. There is actually a group called Be the Bridge, where you might have a group of five white people and five black people who actually come together and do a deep dive into what does it mean for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I’m kind of experiencing all of those during this period of study for my doctorate. I am so grateful to have had some intentionality of experiencing it through Aldersgate. I’d like to see Aldersgate continue with their training for the board. I know they’re doing training—even opportunities and exposure opportunities—for residents and for staff.
I think that’s what we’ve got to do because we don’t learn it in school. Many of us go to our church of choice, which may be more people that look just like us, and so we don’t have social groups that we necessarily do it. And so, I’m just hopeful that Aldersgate will continue to be that instrument of change in our community and continue to invite people to participate in different ways to just learn more.
This is a study opportunity. It’s a learning opportunity because so many of us have grown up with different ideas that we have inherited and no one has ever told us that that idea may not be truthful or that idea may not be right. And so, Aldersgate, to me, is just a leader in so many ways to encourage those conversations.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, I often refer to Aldersgate as a conduit, and your analogy as well, being kind of the instrument or the tool of that. It all kind of ties in together.
Brooks, that was a whole bunch of, “Here’s how awesome Aldersgate is and why I love it.” What’s your response to that?
Brooks: You know it’s humbling and I would say I’d love to take all the credit for myself.
Brooks: But that is just not the case. It is chock full of people who are here for the right reasons. COVID has, if nothing else, proved that. We have a phenomenal team here. It also is reflective of our board and our residents. I am very fortunate to be where I am and do what we can to help promote our elders and do a little bit of battling of ageism.
Mike: Yeah. Well, I think you’re both doing fantastic work. Everybody over there at Aldersgate clearly has a mission to change the world for the better. Mary, it’s about time to wrap this up. What closing thoughts do you have? What do you want to leave us with today?
Mary: Well, I think the thing that I would want to leave people with is, if you want to change the world, you just do it one step at a time, one conversation at a time. Read one book. Find out something you didn’t know.
I actually did not grow up in the black church, surprisingly. Most people assume I did because I’m black and I attend a black church now.
Mary: Yeah. Last night, I was watching a series on PBS about the black church, and so there’s so much information out there about different cultures. I don’t know a lot about Asians, but I’m learning more about Asians. I don’t know a lot about Indians, Native Americans, or Muslims. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I’ve got to be curious about things other than my life, I’ve got to be able to see it from someone else’s perspective, and I’ve got to challenge my own bias.
What I would encourage people is we’re still on this Earth for a reason. I believe in God. I believe that he has us here for a reason, and we’re still here.
We’re here to serve. I think we’re here to love other people. We ought to be curious about people that are different than us. I think it just enriches our life so much.
I would just encourage people to be curious. Learn something new about someone else. When you hear their story, it may spark in you a desire to go the next step and try to find out, what can I do to change some of the bad parts of what someone has experienced? How can I contribute in that way? I just think there are so many opportunities for that, and I would just encourage people to do that.
Mike: Yeah. Well said. Brooks, final thoughts from you.
Brooks: Again, I am just fortunate and thankful to be in a position to affect change and be surrounded by people who make me even better.
Mike: There you go. Well, Mary, this has been an absolute honor and a blast having you on the show. I almost don’t believe you when you say that you’ve never done this before because you are in fact a pro. This has just been an amazing experience and I appreciate all the contributions you made. I’m sure the project you’re working on with your doctorate is going to be another epic addition to your legacy. Thank you for sharing all of that with us. I’m truly, truly blessed to have been able to have this conversation with you.
Mary: Thank you so much for having me and thank you for making me feel like a superstar just because I’ve done a podcast.
Mike: This is not just a podcast. This is Aldersgate OnAir. We are the podcast. We are, of course, working to change the world.
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