Compassion and communication are key to a better unified Mercer
(Editor’s Note: For Black History Month, the Harrodsburg Herald is giving voice to Black community leaders on how to bridge the gap and improve racial relationships.)
A lifelong resident of Mercer County, Melinda Wofford graduated from Burgin Independent High School in 1991. She received her undergraduate degree from Berea College, Master of Business Degree from Eastern Kentucky University and is currently working on a Accounting Certificate which would allow her to sit for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Exam upon completion.
She has worked at Corning, Bluegrass Community Action and now the Kentucky Public Pensions Authority. Wofford has also become a fixture in the community, as a board member with the Mercer County Chamber of Commerce, Advisory Board for Mercer County Extension Council and Family and Consumer Science, founding member for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day planning committee, Sunday School Superintendent and Vacation Bible School Director at her church Little Zion Baptist, a Girl Scout troop leader, a member of the Society of Black Professionals Member where she has served as president and secretary and United Way Day of Action Project Leader, along with several other boards and organizations.
President and Secretary.
Asked what would help improve race relations in Mercer County, Wofford’s answer is simple: “empathy and compassion.”
She believes it is important to practice empathy, to try and see things through other people’s eyes. When people don’t take the opportunity to listen and learn, it creates misunderstandings, she said.
Wofford says one of the best ways to bring people together with different perspectives is to volunteer.
“Donating money is fine, but to really make a difference, people need to donate their time,” she said. “When you work with someone, it makes you more comfortable to have conversations while working for a common goal.”
She said it is important for leaders to make sure boards and leadership positions are filled with people who represent the entire community.
“Mercer County is made up of whites, Blacks, Hispanics and more,” she said. “We need to reach out and ask people, all people, to be involved. The more we work together, the better we get to know each other.”
The MLK planning committee is looking to expand their activities beyond the annual one-day celebration, including a service project
to clean local cemeteries this spring and community discussions around diversity and building and mending relationships.
An avid runner, Wofford is working to run a half marathon (13.1 miles) in each of the 50 states by the time she turns 50. She’s completed 32 so far. On each trip, she has made it a priority to learn something about the area’s history. After reading John Lewis’ The Truth Marches On, she visited important sites during the civil rights movement while running in Alabama.
“It’s important to educate yourself and experience what you can,” she said. “We have to find out for ourselves and ask questions. We can’t take someone else’s word or the media’s word on a situation. We have to educate ourselves.”
Wofford said she is proud to have graduated from Berea College, a school known for breaking barriers and providing opportunities for everyone. Carter G Woodson also known as the Father of Black history was a 1903 Berea College graduate with a Literature Degree. He was the second person of color to receive a law degree from Harvard and he established Negro History Week which eventually became Black History Month.
At Berea, Wofford said she was exposed to different people and cultures. It taught her how to better understand people who didn’t necessarily share her worldview.
“We need to work on acknowledging everyone and to have the mindset to do something better or different, if you know you’re a certain way,” she said. “Generational learned behavior can be good or bad. It’s up to us to do the little things each day to be a better person and lift ourselves up as a whole.”
While Wofford has experienced some difficulties in Mercer County, she said she has faith that with communication and compassion, the community can be lifted as a whole.
She referred to a difficult situation she experienced while out with her Girl Scout troop.
“We just wanted to be greeted in a friendly manner,” she said, “and that isn’t always the case. It’s not hard to smile and everyone deserves a friendly smile to make them feel welcome.”
For Wofford, the experience was an opportunity to teach about empathy.
“It’s important to acknowledge the situation, but not get angry,” she said. “You can’t control others’ actions, only your own.”
Wofford challenges others to be a part of the solution of creating a more unified Mercer County through volunteering.
“We are better than ‘it is what it is,'” she said. “We gain respect for people and from people by getting to know them. Working side-by-side with someone volunteering is a great way to get to know someone.”