Dr. Margaret C. Simms is a nonresident fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute. Until April 2018, Dr. Simms was an Institute fellow and director of the Low-Income Working Families project at the Urban Institute. A NAPA member since 2019, Dr. Simms currently serves as the vice chair of the Standing Panel on Social Equity in Governance.
When asked about her educational opportunities, Dr. Simms shares her journey, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a pretty segregated city. I was in segregated schools until 6th grade (for at least two years, I had to walk about a mile to the Black elementary school because the school around the corner from my house was still for white children). When I was in sixth grade, I was selected for a city-wide program designed to offer enhanced educational opportunities and transferred to a majority White school. I also attended a majority white high school, but one in a working class neighborhood where many of the local students had only modest aspirations or expectations about higher education. My parents guided me in college applications and I ended up going to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where I started out as a Math/Science major. I shifted to Economics when I couldn't figure out what I would do with a Math or Science degree. Of course, I didn't know what I would do with an Economics degree either, but it seemed more practical somehow. During my junior year in college, I got selected into a program for people interested in the Foreign Service, which seemed like a good way to use an economics major and they provided support for a year of graduate study. That led me to Stanford University, where I shifted focus again and became more interested in urban economics than development economics because of the urban riots taking place in the later part of the 1960s. At the time I applied to Stanford, I was not aware of the fact that only one African American and no women had received PhDs in Economics from the university.
While working on my dissertation, I took a job at the University of California at Santa Cruz. After a year there, I moved to Atlanta University where I worked first in the School of Business and then moved to head up the small Economics Department. It was during my time in Atlanta that I became very active in the Caucus of Black Economists, which evolved into the National Economic Association.
Dr. Simms is an amazing scholar who shares her time and talent in fostering equity through research. To develop her leadership profile, she provided description and detail to help us reimagine the circumstances leading to the development of thought-leaders. Dr. Simms shares: I was not early to leadership. I did not take leadership roles in high school or college as many others did. But in segregated St. Louis there were many opportunities to observe leadership within African American civic and social organizations. My parents were officers of almost every type of sorority/fraternity, community board and church organization in the community. My first real experience with stepping up was when I was on the faculty at Atlanta University. There I got involved with leadership of the Caucus of Black Economists, later named the National Economic Association. I started as a board member bringing the recent graduate student perspective to the group. Then I was asked by my boss, who was President of the organization. to help with some restructuring and then I ended up as President before the end of the decade. I also took on chairing the Economics Department and got a chance to observe academic leaders. At the same time, I got the opportunity to interact with local and state government leaders at a time when African Americans were taking advantage of new opportunities in elective office. Two of my academic colleagues were elected members of the Georgia state legislature and Maynard Jackson was initially Vice Mayor and then Mayor during my time in Atlanta. I served on one of his advisory committees and got the opportunity to see a little of the inside operation of the Mayor's office.
On the national level, Dr. Simms describes the circumstances that led to move to Washington, DC on a permanent basis in 1979. She adds: My experience with national government leadership occurred in parallel with some of my other experiences. I spent two summers during undergraduate school working at the State Department, in anticipation of a career in the Foreign Service. Before I left graduate school, my interests had shifted to domestic public issues and I was able to have an up-close experience as a Brookings Economic Policy Fellow, while on leave from my academic position. I worked for Donna Shalala at HUD during the time when President Jimmy Carter was developing an Urban Policy initiative. Through observing a number of program and office leaders across the federal government who were working on the interagency task force, I was able to identify different styles of leadership and this helped me when I went on to leadership roles in the nonprofit sector.
While Dr. Simms has worked between the Urban Institute (1979-86; 2007-present) and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (1986-2007) in several leadership positions, she credits good timing and sponsorship for her success. Dr. Simms reveals, I also entered the economics profession at a time when the few established women were banding together to move the association and the profession toward a more accepting position toward women. I was recommended for one of the American Economic Association committees by a silent mentor, Phyllis Wallace, who was a real pioneer and role model for Black women in the field. That opportunity gave me another perspective on leadership that I could incorporate into my informal "training."
When asked about the elements of leadership that guided her career, Dr. Simms asserts, There are two general styles of leadership, coaching and directing. It is important to know which style to use and when. As if developing her leadership profile was an award-winning curriculum for a master-class in leadership, Dr. Simms goes on to share a valuable lesson on leading by convening. To convene leaders around crucial conversations and critical action, she notes, Leaders must know when to step up and when to step out. There are times when leaders must recognize that they have something important to offer to an organization or a group. Then, it is time to step up. As we move our nation forward, Dr. Simms shares her winning strategy:
Know the people you are working with, be sensitive to what motivates them, learn how to use the strengths of the people you work with. Set them up for success and not failure. Know when it is time to let people move on to the next stage, don't hold them back. Know when people are not going to work out. Try to help them find a graceful exit, if possible. Then there is a time when you have contributed all you can or should. That is when it is time to step out. That doesn't have to mean that you no longer care or help when called upon. But you do it from the coaching bench, not the front line. – Margaret C. Simms
Read more about the accomplishments of Dr. Margaret C. Simms (2008), in her Acceptance Remarks Samuel Z. Westerfield Award published in the Review of Black Political Economy, 35:13-18.