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Washtenaw United: UWSEM President working to building foundations of leadership opportunity and success for women

Dr. Darienne Hudson, President/CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
United Way for Southeastern Michigan
Dr. Darienne Hudson, President/CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.


Dr. Darienne Hudson is a high-energy, dynamic nonprofit executive and life-long educator serving as President and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, located in Detroit. Before joining United Way in July 2018, she spent the previous four years as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the largest school district in Wisconsin. Throughout her career, Dr. Hudson has initiated a series of bold reforms designed to ensure equity for all.

Most recently, her ability to mobilize corporations, foundations, and individual donors to orchestrate a coordinated community-based effort in response to the coronavirus pandemic has garnered international praise and recognition. In her role at United Way, Dr. Hudson has begun to develop and initiate programs to improve the lives of children and families in Southeastern Michigan. Dr. Hudson believes strongly in the power of collective impact and in the importance of public-private partnerships to solve societal issues and inequity. Since her tenure at United Way, she has cultivated relationships in Southeastern Michigan to do just that. Dr. Hudson is purposefully and intentionally leading the 100-plus-year-old organization in a direction that places an emphasis on listening to the community and addressing its greatest needs.

Dr. Hudson is familiar with the power of United Way. She previously served on the Board of Directors for the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. Prior to being named superintendent, Dr. Hudson was MPS' first Chief Innovation Officer. In that role, she successfully narrowed the achievement gap in MPS' Commitment Schools, which are the schools with the greatest need for improvement.

Before her tenure in Milwaukee, Dr. Hudson served as Deputy Chief of Empowerment Schools for the School District of Philadelphia. Prior to her time in Philadelphia, she was the Coordinator of Strategic Management and Accountability, as well as Special Assistant to the Superintendent in Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia. Dr. Hudson began her career as an elementary school teacher in Detroit Public Schools, a point of personal pride. Dr. Hudson's academic achievements include a doctorate from Harvard University in Urban Superintendency, a master's degree in education from Harvard University, and a master’s degree in curriculum development from the University of Michigan.

Her undergraduate degree in child development is from Spelman College. In addition to her work as President and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, Dr. Hudson serves on the steering committee for Launch Michigan, the Wayne County Afterschool Partnership, and is on the Mayor’s Workforce Investment Board. She serves on the board of Detroit Children’s Fund, is a trustee for Educational Testing Services, and was elected to the Board of Overseers for Harvard University in 2017. She was named a 2019 Business Powered by Women Honoree. In 2020, Dr. Hudson joined the Board of Directors at the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. Most recently, Dr. Hudson became a member of the International Women’s Forum Michigan Chapter.


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David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to the last Women's History Month edition of Washtenaw United for 2024. Today, we wanted to talk about women in leadership roles and how best to perhaps remove some of the remaining barriers to access and opportunity. Every day, we make progress. And every day we do, it sets a new historical benchmark. Our guest today serves in a leadership role, and part of what she works to do is create those same opportunities for other women. Doctor Darian Hudson is the president and CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. We appreciate you making time for us today.

Dr. Darienne Hudson: Oh, it's my pleasure. Wonderful to talk with you again.

David Fair: Women—they've always provided significant contributions. It seems it doesn't matter whether it's science or it's politics or social progress. Women have made a difference. But, as we celebrate Women's History Month, there is evidence everywhere that we've failed to adequately document history with a sense of fair credit. What has this month of celebration meant to you?

Dr. Darienne Hudson: So, we had our Women of Influence Summit on March 8th, which was actually International Women's Day. And the theme this year is "Inspire Inclusivity." And, for me, it is a charge and a challenge and an assignment. I recognize that I've been very blessed in my life to have the opportunities to serve. I've been a CEO now for ten years, and it doesn't matter if I haven't done my part to make sure that there are ten more women, hundreds of more women, lined up behind me to do the exact same thing and if I'm not reaching out to partner and lift other women who are trying to lead in this capacity. So, when I think about Women's History Month, I think about all the women who've come before me. But I also think of the women who are here now. And I'm asking myself every day, "What am I doing to inspire and demand inclusivity and to make sure that all of us have the opportunity to leave and serve in the ways that we do so naturally as women?"

David Fair: When you were growing up, what women in history did touch you in a way that you kind of took them on as personal role models?

Dr. Darienne Hudson: I always remembered Madam C.J. Walker. She just stood out to me for so many reasons. She was the first African-American woman millionaire, starting her own product line for hair care and wellness. And I used to think of her often and just recognizing she was born right after the emancipation and what it had to have taken for her to start her own company under the toughest of circumstances. And it's always pushed me to want to continue that legacy. And my grandmother was a cosmetologist, and she had her own hair salon. And I used to always just think about, again, what it took for her to be able to do that, raising a family and still kind of striking out on her own. And so, it's such a strong legacy that we come from, and it's a rich history. That has just really makes me proud.

David Fair: It sounds as though she helped create big dreams for you. And sometimes, dreams get trampled. I certainly don't want to put words in your mouth and don't want to make any assumptions. But, as a female and as a woman of color, did you find that there were extra barriers you had to overcome to achieve your big goals and aspirations?

Dr. Darienne Hudson: So, I was fortunate, in my family. You know, I talked about my paternal grandmother was a cosmetologist and entrepreneur, and my maternal grandmother was a teacher. And my parents were both health care administrators. Education was front and center in our family. I was always reminded of what being a Black person meant in this country. My parents were raised in the Jim Crow South, and I understood that there were going to be barriers. But I also knew that, with faith and with my education, that I did have the tools to overcome those barriers. I will also throw in another barrier for me is my age. And so, getting people accustomed to seeing me. I mean, I will tell you, David, there's times when people look at me and I can tell they're like, "Huh. So, how did you get here?" You know, not only are you Black and you're a woman, but you're also young. And so, for me, it really was having the village, having mentors from all walks of life who were able to say, "No, you can do this!" My father was 33 when he became the number two administrator at a hospital. And having that type of a role model at home with you every day, there were there were just no excuses. He's like, "You can do anything you set your mind to." And you're going to be surrounded by people to support you. And even if you don't have that support, you have to build the support. You have to create that village and continue to push and continue to pray to get to the places where you want to be.

David Fair: We're talking with Doctor Darienne Hudson on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Doctor Hudson is president and CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. You mentioned that sometimes people give you a particular look. Now, some of that is probably based in stereotype. How much barrier does stereotypes about gender and race create in serving women who want to ultimately get to leadership roles?

Dr. Darienne Hudson: You know, I do think that unconscious bias is a real factor. That is women, especially women of color, we all always have to overcome. I do feel that pressure. I was the first woman to serve as a superintendent when I was in Milwaukee. I'm actually the first woman to serve in this role as the United Way for Southeastern Michigan CEO. So, you always feel that everything that you do is going to determine what happens to those who come behind you. And so, I feel that part of my role is not only leading by example, but also to educate and to inform. I sit on a lot of different boards, and you'll be amazed how many times sometimes I have to lift. Are you all aware that there's privilege in the comment that you just made? You know, are you aware of the fact that for women it's a little bit more difficult to advocate for issues of compensation or advocate for the types of resources that are needed in an organization? I mean, there's all types of reports out there about how difficult it is for Black leaders who are fundraising, who are doing this work in philanthropy and how challenging it is for us to raise money. And so, I think once we know that there are these issues, there's evidence to document it. We have to lift it and address it. But then, we've got to make sure we're educating people, so that the cycle doesn't continue.

David Fair: As you mentioned, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women with post-secondary certificates or who have graduated from top-tier universities are still only making about $0.71 on the dollar as compared with men at the same education level. How do you help counsel? And what programs can you develop to help women get what they deserve, particularly when we have a government that won't pass the Equal Rights Amendment?

Dr. Darienne Hudson: That's such a challenging question, because I think about the kind of scrutiny that women are under when it comes to their compensation. And even those who are making equal to or more the way that they are scrutinized in the media, the way that people even refer to them as if they don't seem to deserve the salaries that they are making. We have so much to undo. I think a lot about organizations. Like, I'm part of the International Women's Forum. There are a number of women's advocacy groups across our state, where we have women who have been in leadership for decades who are doing all that they can to help lift communities and to help mentor those who are coming behind them. And I think that that's part of it. But we also have to make sure that men are a part of these conversations as well. A lot of times we tend to separate ourselves and put all the onus on ourselves as women. And I've had this experience myself with my board chairs. I've had four men as my board chairs. They have been significant advocates for me, whether it was when I had a baby, when I first got here, when we merged. All of these different teams, they were supportive of me and vocal about their support. And I think we have to do more to not just put the onus on women's organizations or institutions, but we have to find ways to bring men and women together to talk about these tough issues. And when men are advocates, push them out there to be advocates for us. I don't know that we do that enough. I feel that we try so hard to do it on our own. And I think we've got to find ways where we are coming together around these issues. Women's History Month shouldn't just be about all of us, who are leading and having these conversations. The same questions need to be asked to the men who come on your show, right, or to the men who we know are advocating to make things better.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on WEMU. And we're talking with Doctor Darienne Hudson, the CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. What is the next evolution in the empowerment movement?

Dr. Darienne Hudson: I think we are getting closer to seeing more women with women-owned businesses. I do think, in terms of elected officials, we are starting to see more women ascending to the highest levels of government. But I still think that our best day will be when we aren't only talking about Black issues in February or women's issues in March or Arab-American issues in April, but when this conversation is something that is happening every day and we start to see the actions behind it. We know there are a lot of laws that have been passed recently that are sending us back in time, whether it's college admissions or whether we see what's happening with with reproductive rights. And I believe that we can't reserve these conversations for election years and for affinity months or month that celebrate different groups in our country. But we have to get to the place where these are everyday conversations. We get comfortable being uncomfortable. And when those people who are ascending to these positions of power where they can make a difference, we have to rally ourselves around them to be able to provide that support. And I think, as women, we are naturally empathetic. We are natural leaders. We are naturally resilient to help be able to lead this type of transformation in our community.

David Fair: Well, I want to thank you for sharing your story of leadership and work with us today, Doctor Hudson. I'm most grateful.

Dr. Darienne Hudson: Well, I'm grateful for you as well and look forward to speaking with you again soon.

David Fair: That is Doctor Darienne Hudson, the president and CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, talking about women in leadership. Doctor Hudson was the final Washtenaw United guest for our Women's History Month series. If you'd like to hear the others, just pay a visit at your convenience to our website at wemu.org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


March is Women's History Month and United Way for Southeastern Michigan is thrilled to have conversations centering the accomplishments, identities, and adversities of women and girls everywhere.

Did you know that 75% of United Ways are led by women? The United Way for Southeastern Michigan is one of them!

Women’s History Month and the overall wellbeing of women are held in high regard by United Ways all over the world.

Annually in Southeast Michigan, United Way hosts the Women of Influence Summit on International Women’s Day, and Power of the Purse event in March. Both events raise funds to support women and their children. The Women United group—a diverse network of female leaders in our region—also helps facilitate these events while focusing on programs and initiatives that affect women and early childhood education.

While we recognize and celebrate women’s history, it’s important to keep in mind:

1. Honoring Women’s Contributions:

  • Women have played pivotal roles throughout history, contributing to science, arts, politics, and social progress.
  • Celebrating their achievements acknowledges their resilience, creativity, and determination.
  • It reinforces the idea that women’s voices matter and their impact is invaluable.

2. Representation Matters:

  • When we celebrate women, we provide role models for young girls. Representation matters—it shows them what’s possible.
  • Seeing women in leadership positions, STEM fields, and other domains inspires girls to dream big and break barriers.

3. Breaking Stereotypes:

  • Celebrating women challenges stereotypes. It reminds us that women are not limited by traditional roles.
  • By highlighting diverse achievements, we break down gender norms and encourage girls to pursue their passions.

4. Empowering the Next Generation:

  • When we celebrate women, we empower young girls. They see themselves as part of a legacy of strength and resilience.
  • It fosters a sense of belonging and encourages them to aim high, knowing they stand on the shoulders of remarkable women.

5. Investing in Education:

  • Celebrating women goes hand in hand with investing in girls’ education.
  • Educated girls become empowered women who contribute to society, drive innovation, and create positive change.

6. Championing Equal Opportunities:

  • Celebrating women reminds us of the work still ahead. We must continue advocating for equal opportunities.
  • Gender equality benefits everyone—it’s not just a women’s issue but a societal imperative.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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