Suzanne Plihcik of the Junior League of Greensboro (NC) has been recognized for a lifetime of outstanding service, both as a League member and as an advocate for racial equity, by The Association of Junior Leagues International with the 2017 Mary Harriman Award for Community Leadership. The award, which is The Junior League’s most prestigious, was made at AJLI’s 95th Annual Conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul on May 19.
Ms. Plihcik joins such past Mary Harriman Award winners as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; Martha Rivers Ingram, chairman of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trustees and a noted philanthropist and patron of the arts; Karen Cullen Luke, lifelong civic leader in Oklahoma City and vice chair of the committee that built The Oklahoma National Memorial & Museum; Florence Shapiro, a long-time member of the Texas Senate; Samira Modad, a tireless advocate for public health and education initiatives in Mexico; Lyda Hall, a noted Texas philanthropist; as well as last year’s winner, Martha Strayer Russel of the Junior League of Toronto.
“Anyone who doubts the ability of committed Junior League members to create lasting civic impact has obviously never met Suzanne Plihcik,” said AJLI President Carol Scott. “Like Mary Harriman, Suzanne stepped outside of an inherited cultural role, working to guide others to understand, and address, racism as the root cause of many issues facing our country today.”
Ms. Plihcik joined the Junior League of Greensboro in 1982 at a time when Guilford County was considering merging its three school districts – and race was a central issue. Met with passionate opposition, the merger would not take place for another decade. Chosen as one of 20 community members to study the potential merger and communicate their findings to the Guilford County Commissioners, the work that Ms. Plihcik and the other committee members put into the early years ultimately contributed to a smooth transition.
For Ms. Plihcik, however, the experience led her to continue to question the traditional problem-solving approach of identifying a problem and then creating a top-down solution. She also came to believe that those who want to influence and change public policy on issues like school integration need first to understand the racial bias that impacts all systems—not just education but also outcomes in healthcare and law enforcement interaction.
From there, Ms. Plihcik began a journey that has made her into one of the foremost white anti-racism speakers and advocates in our country. Among her many achievements was the co-founding, in 2008, of the Racial Equity Institute, an alliance of trainers, organizers and institutional leaders devoted to the work of creating racially equitable organizations and systems.
About the Mary Harriman Community Leadership Award
In 1901, a 19-year-old debutante with a social conscience rallied 80 of her peers to improve the squalid living conditions of immigrants on New York City’s Lower East Side, forming the first Junior League. Eighty-nine years later, in 1990, the AJLI Board of Directors created the Mary Harriman Community Leadership Award as a way of recognizing an individual Junior League member whose volunteer efforts embody Mary Harriman’s pioneering spirit, her sense of social responsibility, and her ability to motivate others to share their talents through effective volunteer action. It serves as a modern-day link to our rich heritage—and to the tradition Mary began.