Barbara’s Story: A Lifelong Legacy

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Barbara Williams: Air Traffic Controller Extraordinaire

Barbara’s Story:                                                                                                                                                          please note the following excerpt was written by the daughter of Mrs. Williams. You can visit the original article here. Check out their awesome blog, Grandma Got STEM, to learn about more amazing women!

“Most travelers don’t think about who is keeping them safe while they crisscross the country on America’s airways. Sure they know the pilot is flying the plane and the flight attendant is servicing their every in-flight need, but they rarely, if ever, think about the approximately 15,000 dedicated Air Traffic Controllers that skillfully direct about 2 million passengers per day and more than 60 million aircraft annually.

Well, I was blessed to always have one special Air Traffic Controller watching over me – my mother Barbara A. Jordan Williams. Not only did she help navigate millions of planes through the skies during her 35 plus year career in aviation, she continues to help me navigate the ups and downs of life. And as one of few African American women in her field, she was and continues to be a trailblazer for other women and people of color striving to become a part of this very specialized STEM field.

My mother was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. A product of the Cleveland Public Schools, she graduated from Glenville High School in 1963 (Go Tarblooders!). After attending Cuyahoga Community College and holding a variety of jobs, she decided to pursue a career in Air Traffic Control, inspired by an article she read in Ebony Magazine.

While Air Traffic Control has and continues to be a tough job for women and people of color to break into, it was especially difficult when my mother began her journey in this field. The reception from many of her white colleagues was quite cold. She was often told that she was taking a “man’s job” and that “’you people’ shouldn’t be here.”

But my mother has never been one to shy away from a challenge. She work hard and became the first minority female in the state of Ohio hired into the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control training program. She went on to complete training to become the first minority female air traffic controller certified at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin, Ohio.  Later in her career, she became the Interim Air Traffic Manager at Cleveland Hopkins Airport (first minority female) and Operations Manager at Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin, Ohio.

During her career she received numerous awards. Most notably, she received the National Partnership for Reinventing Government Award, known as the “Hammer Award” from former Vice President Al Gore. In 2010, she was featured in the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM) 100 Ohio Women in Air & Space Exhibit, honoring trailblazing women who made their mark in aviation and space history and celebrating the 100th anniversary of American women in flight.

My mom retired from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2006 with 36 years of service and 40 years of government service overall. Since retiring, she stays busy mentoring young people in Aviation and STEM careers and is the Director of the Nikki Kukwa Memorial Aviation Camp at Kent State University.

Now as an adult, I reflect on the accomplishments of my mother with great awe and pride. She accomplished so many firsts for black women, overcame so many obstacles, blazed so many trails – and to think, with all of these awesome achievements she still always made time for me.

While I have chosen a somewhat different career path than my mother, she has most certainly inspired me to continue to strive for excellence and not be afraid to pursue opportunities that some might deem non-traditional for women or minorities. Her example has inspired me and others to always aim high.

And every time I get on a plane and I ascend into the sky, I think of my Mommy and how she has and continues to be my personal Air Traffic Controller.”

While Barbara is currently retired, she does annually conduct the Nikki Kukwa Memorial Aviation Camp at The Kent State University every summer, where 10 girls are taught in three days the benefits, lifestyles, and intrigues of a career aviation. Each girl also receives the chance to fly an airplane. Although Barbara is recently out of contact, she encourages everyone to chase their dreams high into the sky!

Special thanks once again to the blog Grandmas Got STEM for their contribution.

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