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Dr. Marquita Davis: Through love, loss, and leadership, Alabama was ‘best decision of my life’

Marquita Davis didn’t drive 650 miles from DeKalb, Illinois to Alabama in 1989, navigating a Ford Escort and U-Haul trailer, to become a purveyor of true change.

But that’s what happened.

She did it because after growing up in Peoria, Ill. and graduating from Northern Illinois University with a degree in family social services, she wanted to follow in the paths tread by her mother (Julia Graham, who went to North Carolina Central; grandfather (Clarence Graham, who attended North Carolina A T), and great grandmother (Priscilla James Robinson Graham, a proud alum of Fayetteville Normal, now Fayetteville State University) and attend an historically black college.

Her choices came down to Virginia State and Alabama AM. She can’t exactly recall why she headed South rather than East.

It certainly wasn’t to become a profound contributor to Birmingham’s philanthropic community, particularly in lifting families and their children out of poverty and striving to improve education and the social services that impact the ability to learn.

Nor to become a university professor, earn a Ph.D., work at and later head (read: rescue) the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity, known to most as JCCEO, and become the first African-American Finance Director of the state of Alabama, working for two Republican Governors (Gov. Bob Riley and Gov. Robert Bentley), although she is a “professed Independent”.

But that’s what happened.

And certainly not to fall in love with (and later marry) a man she met at her best friend’s Labor Day cookout, then together endure the deaths of two daughters—Sydney and Hope—before either survived five months in her womb.

But that’s what happened.

“Issues of fertility and loss are real in our community,” she says. “We just don’t talk about them.”

Today, interestingly, Davis is poised to have a profound impact on the lives and futures of children throughout the United States.

In 2017, she and husband Michael—a retired principal at WJ Christian K-8 in Birmingham—packed their Honda and headed west to Seattle, where Marquita would become a leader with one of the most prestigious philanthropic organizations in the nation, the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation, as Deputy Director, Early Learning (Pacific Northwest), seeking to improve the quality of Pre-K education in the U.S., particularly for African-American and Latino children.

“We were like the Clampetts [Too young to know of The Beverly Hillbillies, Google it],” she says, recalling the 2,531-mile journey with a laugh. “We were thinking, ‘Will Montana every end?’”

Davis, now 51, lived in Alabama for nearly three decades. Glancing into her rear-view mirror, she calls moving to the state “the best decision I made in my life.”

“The cost of living, the sense of community, the sense of history and what it did for African-Americans, it was a good place for me to grow. And I grew.”

EARLY TRAGEDIES

Marquita was just 11 years old when her father, George Furness, an 82d Airborne Army vet, died of heart attack. He was 37 years old. By then, the youngest of his and Julia’s two daughters was already scarred. At seven months, she reached for a cup of hot coffee sitting on the table. The contents left third-degree burns on the toddler’s neck, chest, arms; to repair them, doctors took skin grafts from her legs.

“My mother told me that when she saw me in the hospital,” Davis says, “she fainted.”

The scars remain today. “I have one picture of me without scars,” she says. “I was three months old.”

They’re largely invisible, though, relative to the scars caused by the losses of Sydney and Hope.

“I do carry the scars of not having living children,” Davis says. “I would give up my greatness professional accomplishments to have my children.”

Like what typically happens in the South, relationships spurred the newcomer’s ascension in Birmingham—along with a fearlessness perhaps formed in a young child who already survived a life-threatening ordeal.

“Even when you’re afraid of change,” she says, “if you close eyes and jump, once you open them, it will be beautiful.”

Davis issues $18 million challenge to AM alums

While teaching working as a minority faculty recruiter at the University of Montevallo and earning her Ph.D. at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Davis crossed paths with Carole Smitherman (then in private practice). The woman who later became Birmingham first female mayor and Judge of the 10th Judicial Circuit) introduced Davis to then-Fairfield girls’ basketball coach Arnika Clements (now Edwards and Director of Women’s’ Basketball operations for the University of Dayton), who soon became Davis best friend. (It was at Clements’ apartment in 1991 where Marquita met Michael; they were married in 1997.)

Smitherman also connected Davis with then-YWCA CEO Suzanne Durham, which led to Davis’ first board appointment.

“From there, things just blossomed,” she says.

A FUTURE STAR

“I knew back then she was a star waiting to shine,” says Judge Smitherman. “Her smile, her sense of humor, and positive attitude are contagious.”

In 2004, Davis became deputy director of child development services and director of head start at the JCCEO, then “joined every board I can think of that had something to do with children.”

Indeed, her CV lists about 25 education-related boards, committees, advisory councils or foundations on which Davis has served since 2002. “I have to say, the YWCA was my favorite,” she says, “because it was the first.”

After participating in a statewide meeting on early childhood education, Davis received a call from then Gov. Bob Riley’s office asking her to join the Governor’s cabinet.

“I was like, ‘What?’” Davis says with a laugh. “Being a drama queen, I said I had to think about it.”

For the rest of Riley’s term, Davis served as Director of the Office of School Readiness and Commissioner of Children’s Affairs. In those roles, she managed a $19 million budget and 31 employees.

When Robert Bentley succeeded Riley in 2011, however, Davis began updating her resume.

It wasn’t necessary. “[Bentley] put me on his transition team to find someone to replacement,” Davis says, before pausing. “I couldn’t find anyone.”

Davis stayed in the role until Bentley called her into his office and asked her to become the state’s Finance Director, overseeing Alabama’s then-$19 billion budget, as well as a department with a $140 million budget and a staff of 530.

Her first reaction: She had no financial experience—other than managing programs with significant budgets, such as the $30 million Head Start program. Yet Bentley said: “You understand budgets, you’re a leader and I trust you. The rest you can learn.”

That helped change Davis’ view, but she still knew, as an African-American woman, being appointed to the high-profile fiscal role would garner scrutiny, even a few side-eyes: “I’m not a Republican, so to work in two Republican administrations and become Finance Director without any finance experience, I had to be prepared for the backlash: I got it because I was black, I got it because I was a woman.

“But most of the white men who had the position before me didn’t have a financial background, they were lawyers,” she says. “No one asked for their credentials.”

RESCUING JCCEO

Davis took the job and remained for two years until JCCEO came calling, after the sudden resignation of long-time executive director Gayle Cunningham in March 2013. Cunningham and her daughter were later charged with stealing nearly $500,000 from the agency and using it for personal expenses, such as mortgage payments.

Both women eventually entered guilty pleas. In March 2014, Cunningham was sentenced to two years in prison; her daughter was sentenced to home detention and probation.

Davis succeeded Cunningham as JCCEO Executive Director. “That was a tough one because I consider Gail one of my mentors,” she says. “There’s still some brokenness for what happened; it was deeply painful. I loved the agency and loved the work. I felt I had to do it.”

Not surprisingly, returning to the agency at such a tenuous time was not wholly welcoming.

“I didn’t have any axes to grind,” Davis says. “But I quickly learned the person who comes back to rebuild cannot stay. If you’re the ‘fixer’, a lot of people won’t like your fix. I had to make a lot of hard decisions that upset the status quo.”

Hard, draining decisions that eventually returned the important agency to solid ground, but left Davis open to leaving Birmingham when two of the most respected names in business and philanthropy came calling with an opportunity to impact early education for children nationwide.

She was open, that is, until learning the Gates Foundation gig was based in Seattle.

“When they asked if I was interested, I said, ‘Nope.’,” she says. “They asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘There are no black people in Seattle! I need to get my hair done, I like Caribbean food, my mom is in North Carolina, my husband’s parents are in North Carolina…’

“They asked me to at least talk and tell them what I want.”

Davis wanted to live in Washington, D.C., where the foundation also had an office. And there were plenty of hair salons and presumably at least a few Caribbean restaurants.

They said okay.

So, in 2017, Davis left Alabama. She and her husband, before moving to the nation’s capital, lived in Seattle for nine months.

“They do have black people; I found them,” she says with a laugh. “I found my Links sisters, a hair salon and a Jamaican restaurant. And non-black people wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts.”

Early Learning/Pre-K is one of three areas comprising the Gates foundation’s education division. “The investment [in children] has to happen before third grade,” she says. “The smartest, most creative teachers need to be in those years, teachers who care about and want to be there, not riding out time—teachers who value children, no matter who they are and what they look like.”

Davis oversees a $20 million annual budget (the Gates Foundation’s overall assets total $5 billion) and invests in school systems in three states: Washington, Oregon, and Tennessee. (So, don’t call her asking to your school, church or 501(c)3.)

“We invest in whole systems to determine, based on data, how to improve the quality of education for students in those states, then determine how to scale it to make large, systematic changes,” she says. “No one size fits all, but we’re looking at how to have a large and make sure it’s real, sustainable and measurable over time.”

THE IVY LEAGUE OF JOBS

Davis calls her newest role “the Ivy League of jobs, like working at an Ivy League college.”

“It’s like a think tank,” she says. “You’re using your brain and being pushed to the limits to think through possibilities and process. There’s the cycle of trying to figure things out, test your assumptions and hypotheses, then do it again.

The Gates themselves, Davis says, “just seem really normal.”

“They move around the foundation just like everyone else,” she adds. “They don’t have bodyguards, things like that. They speak to the whole foundation monthly occasions and do unplugged sessions on whatever we have on our minds.

“They really are guided by the principals of their families. Bill’s father is still alive. Once they started acquiring wealth, he was the one who moved them into the direction of establishing a foundation, He was like: What are you going to do with all this money? How are you going to make things better for people? They really do believe all lives have equal value. I’ve never worked at a place like that.”

The place is teeming with smart people. “There are people with two PH.Ds,” she says.

“You do sometimes wonder: Am I good enough? But going there later in life, I just want to do good work. I’m not climbing’ it’s not that kind of place. They simply expect you to work your butt off to do good work.”

Although Alabama is in her rear-view, Davis glances back at her years here—as a pioneer, change-agent and self-claimed “free spirit”—with fondness and appreciation.

“I am grateful,” she says. “All my capital is in Alabama. I hope I made a mark beyond the hookups.”

It may not have been supposed to happen, but it certainly did.

This article is part of the Black Magic Project, which is a series of stories focusing on those who do inspiring things in the black community. If you’re a Facebook user, you can join our Black Magic Project group, where we talk about stories and issues concerning black Alabamians.

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