HIGH PROFILE: Tjuana Byrd, new president of Women’s Foundation of Arkansas
Slim, chic and soft-but-firm-voiced, Tjuana Byrd emanates a warmth that is not diminished by her calm, cool demeanor and enviable poise. She’s the embodiment of the empowered woman that the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas is working so hard to replicate throughout Arkansas.
Anna Beth Gorman, the foundation’s executive director, loves how Byrd presents herself.
“She’s literally the sharpest-looking woman that I’ve ever seen. … She is a consummate professional in her appearance,” Gorman says of the foundation’s president.
But Byrd is sharp not only in the way she dresses, but how she thinks, Gorman assures.
“One of her skill sets, which is really valuable to us, is governance and bylaws,” says Gorman of the woman that she, and others, affectionately refer to as T-Byrd.
She tells the story of Byrd keeping her sorority’s book of bylaws in her purse at all times … and, should a bylaws-related question come up during Women’s Foundation board meetings, Byrd’s readiness to whip the book out and answer the question. “I love that about her,” Gorman says.
Her quick thinking and readiness have stood Byrd, a lawyer, in good stead during what is her fourth year on the board, and resulted in her emergence as the organization’s new board president, a position she assumed in January. She is the first woman of color to take the position.
“Everything she does, she does with grace,” Gorman says. “And she’s believed in our mission, and she’s believed in our work, for several years now. But for her to take on the leadership role at a time when we are really trying — and I feel like succeeding — at being impactful for the women in this state, I just cannot be more proud of her leadership and her presence on our board.”
Byrd remembers her first encounter with the foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls economically through education: She attended the organization’s major fundraiser and awards program, the Power of the Purse luncheon.
“I just remember that feeling of empowerment, walking out of that room, being in there with all of these women from all kinds of backgrounds — professionally and ethnically, and who were celebrating each other,” she says. “The good work of other women, I loved that feeling. And [though] I didn’t have a good understanding of what Women’s Foundation of Arkansas was at the time, I knew I liked that part.” Invitations from former director Lynnette Watts and former board president Leila Dockery resulted in Byrd’s membership.
“The work of this foundation is unique in that there’s no other organization doing it. Not in Arkansas. Not here, specifically, for its purpose,” Byrd says.
Byrd’s heart for children has further bonded her to the Women’s Foundation. “Everybody knows that if you can improve the economic status of women in Arkansas, you’re going to improve the lives of children.
“I’m proud of the research that the Women’s Foundation has done — and excited about this new piece that’s coming out.”
POWER OF A WOMAN
She’s speaking of Women Empowered, an economic initiative begun by the foundation to give women in Arkansas a much-needed boost in their economic well-being. According to the Women Empowered outline on the foundation’s website, about 18 percent of women live in poverty; 41 percent of single parent households with children live in poverty; and 80 percent of single-parent households are headed by women.
With these numbers in mind, the foundation partnered with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for production of a research report on the economic status of women in the state, with a focus on gender-based pay disparity. In addition, women in different parts of the state will be interviewed about their real-life economic challenges. The foundation will use this information, Byrd says, to “strategize on our approach to solutions based on actual numbers and actual stories.”
“We’re excited to see what is born from this.”
Byrd is also excited about the foundation’s Girls of Promise program, designed to encourage eighth-grade girls to pursue higher-level education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (commonly known as STEM) and introduces them to women who work in those fields. Girls of Promise culminates in a two-day annual conference in which female presenters who work in STEM fields will talk about their career decisions and provide hands-on activities for the girls. The next conference will be April 1-13 at the Arkansas 4-H Center in Ferndale.
“Girls of Promise is rocking,” Byrd says. “We have corporations asking us, ‘How can we help to sponsor [it]?'”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
When it comes to young people in general, Byrd has always been one who wants to see no child left behind. From a law career dedicated to youth-advocacy cases to “singing with her babies” at church, she’s all about being part of the community she believes is so essential to raising a child.
“We’ve got to re-engage the village. The village is scared now. I’m not scared. I’m not afraid.” Growing up, Byrd says, she benefited from adults who knew her family and served as her village, imparting “seeds of encouragement” to her along the way.
Byrd was born in Fayetteville, N.C. Before seventh grade, she moved with her stepfather and mother, Alex and the late Flossie Tolbert, to the small community of Furlow, near Lonoke, where Alex Tolbert, a North Little Rock native, had bought some farmland. She’s from what she calls a “traditional-nontraditional black family.” She has a stepsister; a cousin raised by her parents; and a half-sister with whom she shares a biological father, Narvell Kelley of Lake City, Fla. “So I basically have three sisters.” The cousin even shares a first name with Byrd, but it’s spelled differently … Tywanna.
After graduation from Lonoke High School in 1985, she headed to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville with aspirations of becoming a pediatrician. She chose pre-medicine natural sciences as her major, but then she learned that medical students don’t get a whole lot of sleep. “I am a person that requires a good amount of sleep,” Byrd says. “And so I changed my major. I was like, ‘I’m going to go to law school instead.'”
After earning her bachelor’s in criminal justice, Byrd went to UALR to what is now the William H. Bowen School of Law, attending classes at night. By day she worked as a probation officer, serving with Judge John Langston that first year, then Judge Marion Humphrey — “two really good and smart judges to work under,” she remembers. Both courts maintained a laid-back atmosphere, but she felt like more of a “counselor-nurturer” in Humphrey’s court. “He was all about giving people chances if they deserved them.”
It reminded Byrd of her time living with her grandmother in North Carolina. “That was when the village was still alive and well, and everybody took care of everybody,” she says.
After receiving her juris doctorate in 1996, Byrd became a public defender in Little Rock District Court, where the late Judge Lee Munson presided.
As a public defender, “you don’t get to choose your clients,” Byrd says. “And some of them are charged with heinous offenses, for which some of them are very guilty. And so you have a choice. You can either talk to them like [they’re] an animal, or you can talk to them and treat them like a person and add some value to the experience.
“And it worked out. No threats. Got a few thank-yous in there.”
Nice, she is. Pushover, she isn’t.
“I’m truthful, now,” Byrd assures. “If you’re telling me some stuff that didn’t even make sense, I’m going to tell you ‘Now, I’m having a hard time believing that.’ But it’s certainly affected my approach.”
Byrd then switched to juvenile court, where she worked with Judge Joyce Williams Warren. “Juvenile court just stuck in my heart, and I knew that that’s the work that I was really called to do. But most people know that juvenile work is not lucrative.”
Eventually, she got a contract as an attorney ad litem representing children in foster care, also in Warren’s court. Byrd still performs that role in Poinsett County. Meanwhile, the majority of the work she does in her practice is juvenile-related — children who have committed criminal offenses, are involved in Family in Need of Services (FINS) cases, have run away from home or have behavioral problems.
ALL ABOUT THE CHILDREN
“Advocacy for kids, that’s what matters the most to me,” Byrd says. “That’s, I think, the most impactful work that I’ve done because they, so often, don’t get a say. They are either born into or subjected to traumatic circumstances that they should never have to be exposed to. And while advocating for them doesn’t necessarily take away any of that, it just helps to ensure that every opportunity to get their needs met” is utilized.
Byrd also helps nurture and encourage young people through Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., into which she was initiated during spring 1988 at UA. She later joined the sorority’s Beta Pi Omega Chapter, of which she is a past president.
Mary Louise Williams, a retired educator and administrator and former regional director for Alpha Kappa Alpha, praises Byrd for her people skills. “I love her because she loves seniors,” Williams says. “She is one who takes her time with senior members and makes sure that they get to the meetings, not only to sorority meetings but any other meetings. She’s going to call and say ‘If there’s anything I can do for you, call me.'”
But it’s not just senior citizens who benefit from Byrd’s generous spirit, adds Williams. “She mentors young people well.”
That is fitting for such programs as ASCEND, Beta Pi Omega’s signature youth enrichment program, geared toward ninth- through 12th-graders and designed to help high school students reach their potential. The program’s name comes from its areas of focus: achievement, self-awareness, communication, engagement, networking and developmental skills.
“We’re trying to shape and impact the lives of young people and expose them to some of the same things as the Women’s Foundation, [such as] STEM careers,” Byrd says. “We want them to see people that look like them, so that they can be what they see.”
Other chapter activities include providing meals and seasonal products to the homeless; supporting historically black colleges and universities; and providing scholarships. Byrd currently serves as president of the Ivy Foundation of Little Rock, Beta Pi Omega’s fundraising arm.
In addition, Byrd is on the Pulaski County Youth Services advisory board and is a member of Continental Societies Inc., also geared toward the betterment of children. At Saint Mark Baptist Church, she’s a children’s church volunteer, responsible for large-group storytelling, and co-director of the Watson Primary Ensemble, which consists of children ages 2 to 12.
“I have just found her to be someone who is not just content with serving in ministry — which is huge in itself — she has a genuine heart for kids that is so greatly appreciated and just an invaluable part of our ministry,” says Raymona Ellison, the children’s pastor at Saint Mark. “Her creativity and her energy really help to make the Bible story come alive for our kids each month, which is something that she helps with right now. The kids are always excited to see her here. We’re all blessed by her joyful spirit.”
Gorman says she’s impressed by Byrd’s energy, and focus, in general.
“Any organization that she gets involved in, she is really involved in. I mean she’s not going to be a passive member of anything or a passive volunteer. She’s going to be actively engaged.”
When not in court or in the board rooms, Byrd stays fit with the help of trainer Curtis White; enjoys music; and travels, her favorite vacation spot being Jamaica.
Right now Byrd is working to plan the next Power of the Purse. The foundation, meanwhile, is dedicated to increasing its diversity … “in our board, in our volunteers, in our [donors],” she says, adding that the board now includes two men.
“As we go out to these various places across the state, when they see Women’s Foundation, we want them to see themselves, too. And that matters a lot to me.”
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