Andrea Harris is a person who doesn’t like silos—or, for that matter, any box or barrier that limits people. Throughout her career, she has refused to be deterred by obstacles and has been guided by her vision of what should be. Her life has been dedicated to hands-on help and shoe-leather advocacy for families of limited means. She has worked on behalf of the very young and the very old. She has worked for families in urban and rural areas.
She has befriended people with all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs, and she has brought them together.
Now we at Self-Help Credit Union are fortunate that she has brought her many talents to us. In 2017, she joined us in Durham, NC as our first Senior Fellow, where she continues to advocate for education, health and better economic opportunities. Recently we at Self-Help persuaded her to speak at a lunchtime session open to all Durham staff. The talk was facilitated by Lois Deloatch, a member of Self-Help’s executive team.
Here are just a few highlights from Andrea’s remarks:
“Education is the single most important factor in upward mobility. HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) have the best record of making a difference here in North Carolina.”
Andrea attended Bennett College in Greensboro, as did all the women on her mother’s side of the family (except one who attended Fisk University). Her college years came at a particularly intense time in the civil rights movement. While she was at Bennett, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed and, locally, a Klansman also murdered a young black A&T student. Demonstrations broke out. Andrea, who had a car, recalls that she drove to A&T to pick up young men who were being shot at by the National Guard who occupied the campus.
In college, Andrea didn’t have specific career plans, but she had a vision: “I was going to be a revolutionary,” she said. “Like most young people, I thought I was invincible.”
Johnnetta Cole once said “Being the first to do this or that means you have the responsibility to work in the interest of a second, a seventh, a nine hundredth to follow where you pioneered.”
After college, Andrea started on her revolutionary track by working with a Community Action Agency in her hometown of Henderson, NC. The Agency works to help marshal resources to assist low-income people to help them acquire education, skills and new opportunities. Andrea was appointed as the Executive Director when she was only 23 years old—the youngest director in the nation of a community action agency. She provided leadership to the Agency for several years, focusing on projects such as Head Start for children, work force programs and better housing. While serving the community and also learning a lot about how “the system” works—or doesn’t work—for families living in poverty.
Building Minority-Owned Businesses
On her time in state government: “I’ve never seen so many meetings in my life!”
Andrea served a relatively brief stint at the North Carolina Department of Commerce, focusing on minority-owned businesses. This wasn’t her favorite job in her long career, but it was a valuable one. Here she learned more about the needs of businesses owned by people of color in NC and their struggle for start-up and operating capital. She also learned a lot about how NC politics work from the inside—knowledge that would come in handy.
NC Institute of Minority Economic Development
On building coalitions: “People do business not with people they know, but with people they like.”
Knowing that she would always face too many silos (and meetings!) in state government, Andrea decided to continue her work independently. In 1986, she and two colleagues founded the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting minority and women businesses.
With the Institute, Andrea had many accomplishments. Just as one example, she was able to leverage the federal Community Reinvestment Act (requiring banks to better serve all parts of their community) to make Supplier Diversity part of agreements that banks incorporated into mergers that were taking place at the time. She also focused on bringing people together who didn’t normally associate by hosting an Executive Networking Conference to build relationships between minority businesses and corporate leaders. During that time, the Institute had much success in helping to establish state and local public policies that promoted access to opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs).
It was around this time that she ran into a “short, red-headed man” down in New Bern, NC – Martin Eakes, the man who is now the silver-haired founder and CEO of Self-Help. Both he and Andrea were interested in starting worker-owned business cooperatives. Neither was successful in that particular venture, but they forged a friendship and an alliance that they both have valued ever since.
Andrea Harris recently gave an informal lunchtime talk at Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, facilitated by executive staff member Lois Deloatch (right).
Continuing the Work
“We need to make sure we always have people at the table who are most affected.”
As Self-Help’s Senior Fellow, Andrea continues her work in virtually all the areas she has focused on throughout her career, with an emphasis on housing and education. She is actively involved as an advocate for HBCUs and sits on the NC Department of Transportation’s HBCU Advisory Board. She continues to promote M/WBEs as a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Historically Underutilized Businesses. Currently, she is calling for a state legislative field hearing on affordable housing. And she’s constantly talking to leaders and policymakers from around the state to advocate for more resources and better policies for lower-income communities and communities of color.
Near the end of her lunchtime talk, a Self-Help staffer asked Andrea, “How can a person be a good organizer today?” She replied as follows:
“Organizing today is not a lot different. Maybe we just need to value coalitions more. We need to look at how we build coalitions. We are so siloed and put in all these little boxes. We need to figure out, ‘So who has an interest in this?’ and bring them together. Secondly, we need to make sure we always have people at the table who are most affected. Too often we see people organizing and trying to resolve different issues who never have had any contact with people they’re trying to help. … We need to hear more voices and understand that changes don’t happen overnight.”
Note: We are indebted to a biography on Ms. Harris by Mary Tyler March as well as supplemental information provided by Ms. Harris herself.