Photo: Ben Goldstein
Hometown: Douglasville, Georgia
Challenge: Getting buy-in from her male colleagues on the police force
Breakthrough: Changing the way she presents her idea is key
Takeaway: A six-month plan
As a girl, Cerelyn Davis watched Police Woman so often that her whole family knew she would become an officer herself. But while she has succeeded in earning the rank of major in the Atlanta Police Department, the climb has been a struggle in a male-dominated world (according to the National Center for Women & Policing, women today constitute only 13 percent of the country's officers). "I've had to work above and beyond," says the 48-year-old Davis, "to deal with men not accepting me as a credible leader. A policewoman doesn't get respect until she runs a robber down. But women in these roles contribute so much. I've had experiences where my presence prevented the situation from turning into a shoot-out. And there are some things I can tell a battered woman, things that aren't so protocol." Davis' conviction that women's peacekeeping is essential to police work lies at the heart of her initiative, Sisters-in-Law—a support network for women in law enforcement that also encourages girls to consider the profession by offering real-life role models.
On Saturday morning, Davis and the other Women Rule! winners are divided into breakout groups of five. Led by experts the White House Project has selected, the groups will meet several times during the weekend to focus individually on each woman's project and determine the next steps to move it forward. Davis' facilitator is Aliza Mazor, a consultant for nonprofit start-ups, who begins by going around the table asking, "What is your biggest obstacle right now?" Davis explains she's put out feelers to a few police departments about adopting Sisters-in-Law as an in-house program. "But the men think that I'll bring in an army of women screaming about equality," she says. The group suggests that she change her presentation: Rather than emphasizing the need to serve and uplift women, she should highlight Sisters-in-Law's value to the force, articulating how it will make a department better. Davis pauses to take in the idea. "You're absolutely right," she says. "Just sitting here, I'm already tweaking what I'm going to say."
At dinner that night, Davis listens raptly to a presentation by Julie Gilbert, a senior vice president at Best Buy. "It was a boy's toy store, designed by boys for boys," she says. Gilbert decided that if she wanted to make the store a good place for women to shop, it had to be a good place for women to work. So she started the Women's Leadership Forum—WOLF—to develop a female contingent of innovators within the company. At one point she consulted a male friend in management. "Do you need money?" he asked, trying to be helpful. Realizing that she was about to encounter resistance from on high, she answered, "No, I need a heat shield." Later Davis says she almost wept hearing this story—a heat shield is exactly what she could use in the police department. She also heeds Gilbert's counsel: "Think about all the possible reasons for hearing no, and write them down. It helps you get clear in your own mind."
After the breakout groups reconvene for their next session on Sunday, Mazor asks, "When you push for what you want, what do you feel others are thinking?" There's a simpatico laugh at the response of Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham, who started a neighborhood center for disconnected young adults in Manhattan's mostly Hispanic Washington Heights. "I probably make people angry," she says, "but I need to let them react and not worry that they're thinking, 'Oh, she's PMS-ing.'" Davis tells the others that her female colleagues are hesitant to "make waves"; Mazor counters by suggesting she look at the younger women—this new generation assumes job satisfaction as a birthright, and they are probably ready to join her. "Form a group and brainstorm around the idea, 'What is women's policing?'" says Mazor. This way, Davis can start speaking publicly about the program as a new concept. They discuss how Sisters-in-Law could be organized along the lines of the Police Athletic League, with officers going out in the community to work with girls. Do some research, Mazor suggests: Measure the program's potential impact and demonstrate that it will not distract officers from their other work. As the session wraps up and each woman states her intentions for next steps, Davis says her six-month goals are to establish a stakeholder group (including, everyone jokes, one token "alpha male" to keep things lively) and develop a mission statement that she can hand to the chief.
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