Wendy Byrd, “Agitator for Justice”
Posted: March 11, 2021 | By Marianne Villalobos Stanislaus Connections
Each year, at the Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration, the Martin Luther Wendy Byrd, “Agitator for Justice” King, Jr. Legacy Award is announced, recognizing an individual or group for their persevering work on behalf of underserved people in our county, work that reflects Dr. King’s vision of building the “Beloved Community.”
As in so many other ways, 2021 is not a normal year and the event could not be held in person, but rather, was presented on-line to the community on February 27. Instead of a well-known guest speaker, this year’s program highlighted individuals who are making life in our community better. Given that focus, it was even more appropriate that the recipient of the 2021 Legacy Award was Wendy Byrd who has spent the last three decades contributing her talents and motivating others to improve life for all in our community.
As are so many Californians, Wendy is a transplant. She was born in Toledo, Ohio, raised in a two-parent home with three sisters and shaped by her family, church, sports, teachers, mentors and other role models. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Cameron University, Lawton, Oklahoma, and in 1989, was the first African American to earn a master’s degree in Behavioral Sciences from that university.
Wendy’s professional and personal contributions to our community began in 1989 when she was commissioned by the Modesto City Council to head a study to find alternatives to cruising. For the next decade, she served as Teen Services Supervisor for the Modesto City Parks and Recreation Department. In that capacity, she forged agreements between the City of Modesto, the Police Activities League (PAL) and city and county schools to develop after-school programs for at-risk youth, evening basketball and late-night entertainment for youth and young adults, as well as promoting the renovation of the Maddux Youth Center.
From 2000 to 2013, Wendy served as the Modesto Junior College (MJC) Director of Student Development and Campus Life. Her work was instrumental in helping students finance and develop the Mary Stuart Rogers Student Learning Center where she served as manager until retiring in 2013. She also taught a leadership development course at MJC and developed cultural diversity programs with the aim of strengthening understanding and positive relationships between groups.
Wendy’s work in community service, social justice and civic engagement extends far beyond her professional career. She is a graduate of Leadership Modesto (2005) and the American Leadership Forum (2009). She was an inaugural board member of the Education Foundation for the Stanislaus County Department of Education and served on the Stanislaus County Mental Health Advisory Board and the Stanislaus County Equal Rights Commission.
She was president of the local NAACP chapter from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2016 to the present and is a member of the National Coalition of Black Women. She has been honored by the Stanislaus County Women of the Year, the King Kennedy Community Spirit Award, California State Black Caucus Advisors Commission, has received Congressional recognition, as well as numerous other honors. In the course of her professional and volunteer work, Wendy has also organized many community events, perhaps the most recent being the Virtual Community Town Hall on Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Marian Martino, also a senior fellow of the American Leadership Forum, Great Valley Chapter (2009), has worked with Wendy over the years and describes her as always upbeat, optimistic realistic and highly effective. She says that Wendy is an “exquisite bridge builder” in that her authenticity and calmness allow people to listen with the respect they feel from Wendy. Marian has observed Wendy to be equally effective with young people and law enforcement, adding that in some potentially tense moments, she has seen Wendy calmly, quietly, suggest more effective behavior. After the George Floyd killing, Marian and others in the Great Valley Chapter looked to Wendy’s leadership to develop a successful series of on-line sessions on race for the Senior Fellows designed “to challenge ourselves as leaders in the community.”
But what motivates Wendy to do all this? For me, her formula is embedded in the keynote speech she gave for the 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at the Revival Center of Modesto (available on YouTube.com at https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=2csbwAWu8sQ). Wendy told me that she spoke “off the cuff,” as many of the thoughts she had planned to share had already been expressed by other speakers. Yet Wendy’s speech was inspired and has many important messages for us.
First, pointing out that the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday is unique in its designation as a National Day of Service, she emphasizes that rather than simply recalling what Dr. King did, each of us should ask ourselves what we can do and what we are going to do. She borrows Reverend Joseph Lowry’s image of the washing machine agitator whose function it is to shake the dirt from the clothing. Wendy does not shy away from controversy and points out that like the agitator, in order to make change, we must confront the issues. But what is special about Wendy, is that she can “agitate in a good way,” by confronting issues that need to be addressed, working toward positive change and still retaining friendships. And to accomplish that, she says, it is necessary to build relationships; to “build bridges before you need to cross them.” For example, she points out that it is important to get to know the police chief before there is a problem so that you can sit down and work together when the problem arises. And those who know Wendy can attest that this is how she handles things.
For Wendy, her work is also about faith: “In order to be in the Civil Rights business, you have to be God-centered.” Her faith leads to compassion and to action, and ultimately to change. She compares the civil rights marches led by Dr. King and others to the marches last summer inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. The marches of the 1960s led to civil rights legislation and the marches last summer have led to a heightened awareness of the need to deal with police brutality.
Wendy attests to the importance of grass roots organizing in working from the bottom up; that when each one of us takes ownership of the problem, then each of us can also take ownership of the solution. For me, this recalls a saying of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” In Wendy’s words, “Civil Rights is like a set of stairs. One step leads to another step, but we can’t sit back and expect other people to be the builders of those steps. This is something we all can do.” And she points out that we must realize that we are all in this together. We need to really see each other; to see “the me in you,” thus making it hard to hurt others, recalling the phrase the “love is the only thing that conquers hate.”
Wendy told me that her speech on Martin Luther King Day was hard to deliver, coming as it did just twelve days after the insurrection of the Capitol, an act so clearly about race and white supremacy; a rebellion of many who felt they were losing their white privilege. She said that George Floyd was an eye opener about police brutality and January 6 was an eye opener about domestic terrorism. In light of that, it was hard to avoid being negative and, as she listened to the other speakers, she raised a silent prayer.
In her prayer for the right words, Wendy found the exact words we all need to hear. She closed with a message of hope. Referencing Dr. King again, she quoted, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” And, as Wendy pointed out, this past year has provided us with challenge and controversy in abundance, resulting in creative solutions such as successful interactions through Zoom and the discovery that much work could be done from home. She suggests that as we emerge from COVID-enforced isolation, we should not simply return to the life we had before, but rather heed the lessons learned in order to create a better life. Wendy’s expectations are that we won’t be focused on standing on the shoulders of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders but that we will focus on strengthening our own shoulders so that we can do the heavy lifting.
If Wendy is an “agitator for justice,” in Reverend Lowry’s term, she is the most charming and compelling agitator I have known. She does, indeed forge relationships and friendships, build bridges, and empower others to do more than we think we are capable, creating that grass roots force for change that is so needed in our community and across the nation.