As president of the Tri-County Urban League, Dawn Harris Jeffries works to further the organization’s vision of creating equitable opportunities for success, empowering people and improving lives in central Illinois. In addition to more than 20 years of experience in financial services and global wealth management, she is the founder and executive director of Girls Light Our Way (GLOW), a mentoring program for girls in Peoria who are working to better themselves through health, financial literacy and self-efficacy. A proven leader who brings a wealth of knowledge and diverse experiences to her efforts, she holds the Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor (CRPC) designation and earned her EMBA degree from Bradley University.
Tell us about your family and childhood. Where did you grow up? Who were some of your earliest influences?
I’m originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother died when I was nine; she was a schoolteacher and had a profound impact on who I am. My father raised my brother and me. He is an amazing father—the best daddy in the world! My parents were early influences, and my aunt Florence Mae, who was the secretary at St. Mark Baptist Church, taught me about accountability and leadership. She always had me involved in the hierarchy of the Junior Usher Board, the Youth/Young Adult Usher Board and the Youth/Young Adult Choir. I was a soprano, but I always thought the altos had more fun.
Tell us about your educational background and early career path. How did you get into the financial services industry?
I went to Catholic schools all my life, from first through 12th grade. From there I decided to go to Spelman College because my best friend’s grandmother started talking about the Spelman Sisterhood at a sleepover. I figured, if this woman was talking so emphatically about sisterhood in her 80s, I had to have what she had! I went to an “interested students” weekend at Spelman and sat in on an English class. Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles asked a series of questions that ended with the answer being in a book they were reading: The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson. I applied only to Spelman—I didn’t want to go anyplace else. Once at Spelman, as an Econ major, the thing to do was to work on Wall Street. I got a job and started my career at the Federal Reserve Bank. I loved New York so much. I traveled the world while I was working there and had a wonderful time. I even lived in Ireland for a couple years until I got called back to work on a special assignment. I loved my career. I never thought I’d do anything besides working in the financial sector.
Describe your vision and plans for the Urban League. What is your favorite part of the job so far? What has been your biggest challenge?
My primary vision is to continue to shape the team and practice so we can achieve maximum impact on the lives of people in our community. I want to be able to quantify how we address the unemployment rate, the poverty rate and violence through our services. My favorite parts of the job include when the children come into the office to say hi or give me a hug, the time a college student cried because we helped her with tuition, when we learn of a person who got into a program, when our food bank supplies are being used, and when every room in the building is occupied. My biggest challenge: We are all different. None of us are the same.
And, I’m on a continuous journey to create a systemic approach to get people to realize that some social safety networks will not always be as abundant as they are—to convince people to believe in themselves enough to get more skills. I am not sure if they have the foundational tools to empower themselves or leverage opportunities for skills improvement. We’ll need to operate as I suspected: “guerilla-warfare style.” We will have to go out to reach them and meet them where they are.
What inspired you to start GLOW? What have been some meaningful moments or experiences, and what lies ahead in the future?
I started mentoring girls at Manual High School as part of another organization. However, as much as we interacted with the girls, I knew they needed more. So, as part of my master’s thesis in my Bradley EMBA program, I came up with the mission and general structure of activities for the girls. The most meaningful moments are the random text messages that let me know I’m on their minds—some of those messages tell me I’m among their first line of defense. The “I need you” texts usually start with “Ms. Dawn?” and immediately put me on alert.
The first group of girls are now seniors in college. I was at their eighth-grade and high school graduations, and I’m looking forward to their college graduations. They are starting to come back to mentor the girls and lead sessions and the organization overall on my behalf, because they know what I want for them. GLOW is evolving to fit into the Tri-County Urban League’s practice and programs. This year, GLOW is partnering with the Caterpillar Women’s Initiative Network, so they will still have the benefit of very special and unique experiences. And since I’m now at the Urban League, we can bring this program to more girls.
What was the most pivotal point in your career? Why?
Throughout my career, I’ve always been presented with a choice between two great offers. The first was an offer from a medical practice in Atlanta and the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. I chose the Federal Reserve Bank. The second was a major bank in New York (Chase Manhattan – now JPMorgan Chase) and the New York branch of a French bank called Societe Generale. I chose SocGen. The third was between Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. I chose Merrill Lynch.
Each of these choices was pivotal and has shaped who I am. I have a global, strategic mindset. I know a lot about what life can offer when you have support and work hard. That’s what I want for people in our service area. The Tri-County Urban League has the support. I am building a team, with focus, and strategic efforts to support our service area every day—and ready to show up for people however we need to.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
During a heart-to-heart conversation with my original GLOW babies (she’s graduating early from Grambling State University this spring), one of them told me, “You can’t save the whole hood, Ms. Dawn!” Despite my best of intentions for the community, I cannot change everyone’s life. However, that won’t stop me from trying!
How do you maintain a balance between your community work and personal life?
At the moment, balance has been difficult. This position and the plight of our community consumes my mind and most of my thoughts. However, we find moments each day to talk about our day, have a late-night meal, and catch one of our favorite series.
In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
I believe men and society are a bit more accommodating when it comes to children in the family. However, I do not believe society does the same with women and power, especially African American women. Most halls of power are paved by men—particularly white men. And, in the moments we do have power, much of it hinges on the decisions and whims of others.
What social issue fires you up?
Don’t get me started! Any issue that does not provide everyone an opportunity to thrive systemically. The easiest way to summarize it would be to share my organization’s legislative priorities. They include: COVID-19 relief and health-related programs; racial justice issues, including voting rights, criminal justice reform, and digital equity and inclusion; investments in economic recovery, including education, employment, entrepreneurship and anti-poverty programs; and appropriations for job training, education/mentoring, and housing/community development.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be Annie Gordon on steroids! Many successful people in our community have a story about starting their first jobs at the Urban League with Mrs. Gordon. I want to equip as many Peorians with the opportunity for a better life as I can.
If you hit the jackpot tomorrow, what would you do first?
I would invest most of it. Then, I would use the dividends and interest to buy more property in New Orleans and a few of my favorite places around the world. I’d hire a few of my favorite chefs to cook lovely meals for us. I would increase my staff’s salaries and hire more people who made a choice to change the world like did. And, once I convinced Jay to retire, we’d fly to see our families more often.
What inspires you?
Children. They are so inspirational. They are resilient, funny, intelligent and strong. When they come into the office to say hi, or give me a flower or a hug, I know all can still be right with the world.
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
Sitting on our couches with my husband, exchanging ideas, praying silently for his life and success (I know he does the same for me). We watch football (Go Saints!), Marvel shows and the occasional Asian series with subtitles.
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a nurse to help people who were sick. Then I wanted to be a psychologist. I guess I ended up somewhere in the middle.
What is your favorite music?
I love to dance—it nourishes my soul and makes me feel free. Any kind of music will do. I love house music, especially the classics. Then, I’ll settle into a bit of good jazz and onto Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. Go-go music is fun. To calm my spirit, I listened to all African American female opera singers when I wrote my dissertation. But my all-time favorites are the sounds of New Orleans, my hometown—from Bourbon Street blues to bounce. Second line music moves me so much; I feel connected to my ancestors. They move through me—and I let ‘em.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I love Peoria. It is my heart’s desire to see Peoria shine for us all! PM