Monica Kaufman Pearson is quick to tell to you that she was not the first black member of The Junior League of Atlanta. She was the second, and in the same breath, she will proudly add that she has been a Junior League member for 40 years.
That achievement alone would make her a critical member of the Atlanta community. But any discussion of her achievements have to include the fact that she was the first woman and the first minority to anchor the evening news in Atlanta, while winning 33 local and regional Emmy awards for her work.
We asked Monica to share her experiences, thoughts, and reflections on her time with The Junior League of Atlanta; including what motivated her to be a member and how she has seen The Junior League operate as a driver of diversity over the years.
I have been a member of The Junior League for over 40 years now. And the way I got into The Junior League was, I worked for a TV station and the wife of the then meteorologist [Eleanor Beckman] said to me, “I think you would make an ideal candidate for The Junior League of Atlanta.” And I said, “Me?”
I said it that way because when I thought of The Junior League, I always thought of ladies in pearls and gloves and high heels and hats; and white women. It did not occur to me that The Junior League is something that I could be interested in, or would even be accepted in. And the more I talked to her, the more she said “I think you would be good and I would like to sponsor you.”
“Tell me why you think it would be good for me,” I asked her. When she started telling me about the community involvement—from working at Grady Hospital, to the programs that they did in schools, the drug awareness programs, to working in the Nearly New Shop, all of the things that dealt with education, with generational poverty—all of a sudden, The Junior League was not what I thought it was. Again, I thought it was a place for tea and crumpets and white women and hats and gloves and high heels, and not a place where a girl from Louisville, Kentucky would feel comfortable.
Then the next thing I knew, I met more women through The United Way who came up through The Junior League, and I also learned that The Junior League was the way to prepare the next generation of female leadership. That’s when I said, “yeah this is where I want to be.” Not only because I can meet some interesting women but I can learn how to make my community better through the programs of The Junior League.
I have really seen The Junior League, and its partnerships with other agencies, make a huge difference in communities. Some people say “well, it’s all you middle class women coming in and helping poor folks.” No. That is not what it is at all. The women of The Junior League get in there and get down and dirty because they understand what the philosopher Loberg said “that if all the hands that reach could touch.” When we touch, we really make a huge difference. And that is what I love about The League.
Once I got involved, it was wonderful. And I will tell you a big difference. Back then, somebody had to sponsor you for membership. And now, you can apply for membership. That is really different because back then, when you think about the number of black women who knew white women, who could advocate for them to be a member, the number was small. I really thank Eleanor Beckman, not only for coming to me and saying “I think this is something you could do.” But also as a white woman saying, “I think we need her because we need this diversity.” When you think back 40 years ago in the city of Atlanta, that was a huge step for her.
We once had someone come speak to us; a person from another television station who was talking to The League about how to get their programs covered. Because when you talk about The Junior League of Atlanta, or The Junior League period, most people go, why would we cover a bunch of socialites. So he was trying to show us how to be good PR people and how to use media to get what we wanted.
During that process, he made a statement that riled me to no end. I still remember it to this day even though it was 20 years ago when it happened. He said “when you go into the projects and you help these people, you really can’t expect what you do to last any further than that day because they are never really going to grow out of their environment.”
And I raised my hand to him and said you are absolutely wrong. My mother was divorced. She was a single parent. I was the second person in my family to graduate from high school and the first to graduate from college. And you do not write people off based on where they come from. It was a teaching experience for him because the last thing he expected to see from The Junior League of Atlanta was a black woman who came from modest poverty background.
That’s why I love the League. They look at who you are. How you can be trained and how you can make an impact in the community.
They don’t look at color. They look at content.
They are huge advocates for things that black women and black girls are victims of, as are young white girls who come from rural areas. Atlanta is number one when it comes to human sex trafficking and many of them are young women, black and white. And The Junior League has been an advocate, not only locally but regionally, for advocating policies to protect women and girls at risk.
To me, when it comes to what the League has done, these women have said we may not look like the people who need our services, but we understand that we are all connected. And unless we go to bat and fight for these people who do not know how to fight for themselves, our city and our state is never going to be what it should be.
So yeah, these Junior League women, they may have on gloves. But they are not white gloves. They are boxing gloves and they know how to use them.