Dr. Karen Bankston,
nominated by YWCA Greater Cincinnati
by: Anita Calo
She was a smart child, and that, she was told, would be her way out.
Dr. Karen Bankston grew up a child of the 50s and 60s in Youngstown, Ohio, at a time when integration was a dirty word. In addition to dealing with the nuances of being black, she was also the eldest child of a single mother, which caused her to be bullied as it was not the norm.
Karen’s grandfather had left the South and migrated north for a job when he was accused by the Ku Klux Klan of allegedly whistling at a white woman. This meant that Karen, her mother, and her two younger siblings lived with her grandparents, her aunt, and her uncle. “They were all our parents,” she remarked. Her aunt, who was a school teacher, and her grandfather, who had never finished school, poured into Karen the importance of an education and instilled in her the belief that despite the circumstances in which they were living, she had the potential to go farther than she could envision for herself.
While excelling academically, Karen became pregnant her senior year of high school. She hid her pregnancy and gave birth to her first child two weeks after graduation.
She married the father of her child, who turned out to be an abusive spouse. She and her husband lived with her in-laws, her father-in-law was against her going to college because she was a woman. Karen’s mother, however, insisted, saying, “She is not going to scrub floors for a living the way that I did.” Karen began her college studies, majoring in nursing, and ultimately divorced.
Following college, she began her nursing career and became pregnant with her second child. This time she did not marry the father and the relationship did not last. She married a second time and again found herself in an abusive relationship and was nearly killed on two occasions. In less than a year, she divorced and decided it was time to focus solely on her work as a mother and a nurse. She earned her graduate and doctoral degrees, honed her nursing and leadership skills, and experienced success.
During her years in college, she had witnessed study groups and friend groups forming, to which she was not invited.Through this experience, she developed the skills necessary to integrate with her peers to gain the outcome she was seeking. These skills have continued to serve her throughout her career and community involvement in how she manages people — learning that where there are similarities, there are opportunities for leveraging those to serve the greater good.
Karen credits much of her success to the people in her life who saw things in her that she didn’t see in herself, those on her path who encouraged her to seek opportunities. This has led her to a lifetime of service.
YWCA of Cincinnati, an organization close to her heart due to her own experiences of domestic violence. She explained, “When I went through it, I didn’t know of any resources. Subsequently, I have been able to be a voice and a listener.”
Karen credits the challenges she faced in her upbringing for providing her with faith in God and the skills, strengths, and insights that propel her to help others. “I have a hard time saying no,” she reflects, “because people need you to hear their story. It’s like the starfish story; you don’t know if you are going to save just that one.”
If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
“I would change the way we look at one another and see the good that exists in each other.”
What is the most important piece of advice you would share
with a young woman growing up today?
“I would tell them to know what you value and value what you know. Know what you believe in — what’s good, what’s bad; what is success and what is failure.”
What’s your favorite quote?
“All things work together for good to those who love God according to His purpose.”
~ Romans 8:28
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