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October 1997

Brenda Williams McDuffie:
A Quiet Doer

 

by Gene BAGEN

They say first impressions are lasting impressions. Your first impression will be one of a tremendously energetic woman who spends untold hours each week balancing obligations to her family, career and community. She is passionate about making our community a better place to live. She works tirelessly to help people gain the skills they need to secure high quality employment here so they can provide a quality life for themselves and their families. She leaves a lasting impression.

She is Brenda McDuffie the Executive Director of the Buffalo and Erie County Private Industry Council, Inc. (PIC). She is also a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend and a community leader. She works constantly to balance and hold together all of these roles, and she does it amazingly well!

Getting Here

Brenda Williams was born in Brooklyn, New York, the third of five children. She grew up in a public housing complex which had a profound influence on her.

In those days, life in public housing was very different. Residents were very family and community oriented. Not only was it common to have other members of one’s family living in the same complex, it was equally common for neighbors to become part of the “extended family.” It was in this family oriented atmosphere that Brenda Williams grew up and thrived.

For the first eight years of her life, Brenda and her family lived across the street from her paternal grandmother. In order to provide for their family, both of Brenda’s parents worked. Consequently she spent a great deal of her formative years with her grandmother and her aunts and uncles.

Sharing quality time with her family (left to right) Brenda, daughter Myllissa, son Gerald,
husband “Duffie”.

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When she was eight, their family moved to a larger apartment on the opposite side of the complex. It was also at that time that she lost her beloved paternal grandmother.

Although this loss certainly affected her, the family’s move brought Brenda across the street from her maternal grandmother. This move provided Brenda the opportunity to spend lots of time with her and other aunts and uncles.

Brenda emerged from her childhood tremendously influenced by her parents, grandparents, family and friends. They were, and continue to be, a source of inspiration and support for her. In those years, she came to learn the essentials of family life—caring and taking care of each other.

Martha’s Vineyard

Brenda’s parents wanted to expose their children to the many opportunities life had to offer. They encouraged them to strive for excellence.

Summer vacations at Martha’s Vineyard had a profound influence on Brenda. It was there she met large numbers of successful professional African-American families. These families, in stark contrast to the families she had known growing up in Brooklyn, gave Brenda new insight on what could be.

Time spent at the Vineyard was a time for Brenda to meet new people and develop new friendships, which would endure beyond the summer and become important relationships for life.

An evening with the man in her life, Gerald.

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The Vineyard experience was itself a powerful source of motivation. Getting there each year meant that everyone had to do their part and work together. For her father, it meant working several jobs to be able to afford the family vacation. Each of the children worked during the summer to contribute to the vacation effort.

Shuffle Off To Buffalo

Upon graduating from Canarsie High School in three years, Brenda was confronted with a decision—where to go to college? She was certain of one thing, she wanted to go “out of town”. She wanted a small academic environment where she could get to know people.

Brenda was also looking for a college with a city atmosphere. She knew little about Buffalo, other than the fact that it was the second largest city in New York State. She chose Buffalo State College, with its intimate academic environment and big city atmosphere, as the place Brenda decided to pursue her college studies.

Through the Educational Opportunity Program (E.O.P.), Brenda was provided the opportunity to obtain a college education.

Buffalo proved to be a real culture shock. It certainly was not what she expected nor was used to. It was quiet, slow paced and laid back, all the things New York was not. Her move to Buffalo proved to be a difficult adjustment for Brenda initially.

There was a real learning experience which came from living away from home. Brenda soon learned that in college, your performance and success are based upon your motivation and judgment. Being someone for whom success was the only acceptable outcome, she quickly got herself into the swing of things and completed her undergraduate degree in three and one half years.

Graduation Dilemmas

After graduation, Brenda accepted a job with the American Red Cross. She planned to keep the job until September and then move from the area. Although not sure where she wanted to settle, Brenda was certain she did not want to return to New York. Neither did she plan to stay in Buffalo.

Brenda and several friends, including her future husband, Gerald McDuffie, decided to take a three month trip cross country to check out places where they might consider re-locating. At the close of this adventure, she returned to Buffalo with the intention of collecting her belongings and moving on. Even then, she was not sure where she was going.

However, several things had already been set in motion which hindered her planned move. Principle among these was the fact that her relationship with Gerald was becoming more serious. Gerald had strong local family ties and responsibilities which impacted on his ability to leave Buffalo. So Brenda decided that she too would stay in Buffalo, at least for a while.

A Job That Became A Career

Having decided to remain in Buffalo, Brenda took a position with the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act Program, CETA, in its Division of Research and Statistics. When she left CETA she joined the City of Buffalo’s Division of Manpower as part of its Planning Unit.

When the Private Industry Council was established in Buffalo in 1979, Brenda became its first Director of Planning, a position she held through June, 1994. In July 1994, she was named Executive Director of the PIC.

The PIC is the primary workforce development agency for Buffalo and Erie County. As its Executive Director, Brenda oversees the provision of training and employment services to local business and industry as well as over 5,000 job seekers annually. PIC’s services are designed to support maximum productivity for area businesses and the maximum level of employment for area residents.

Brenda maintains a high level of involvement in the community through many Boards of Directors on which she sits. These include: Independent Health, Millard Fillmore Hospital, the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County; the Western New York Foundation and Buffalo State College. She is also a former Board member of the Buffalo Urban League.

Her Philosophy On Life, Work And The Future

Brenda credits much of that which is good in her life to her relationship with God. A deeply spiritual person, she treasures her relationship with God and works hard to keep God’s grace and presence a part of her daily life.

Her work is very much an extension of her faith and life. Through it, she is able to touch peoples’ lives and make those lives richer and better as a result.

According to Brenda, the future is a place of tremendous hope. She is very optimistic, “Our future offers great potential, new traditions and boundless opportunities. As a community, we need to help each other embrace the future and say, ‘...it can happen!’”

Friends and Motivators

There are many special people whom Brenda feels have had a deep and lasting influence on her. Brix Barrell, Florence Baugh, Jan Peters, Robert Bennett, Dan Acker, the late Bill Gaiter, Jonathan Soffin and Leroy Coles have each provided influence and support that helped Brenda become a more valuable force in our community.

Things Valued

Among all that she values— Brenda’s family remains her greatest treasure. Family and friends mean a great deal to her, so she works very hard to be sure they always know just how important they are.

Brenda resides in Buffalo with her husband, Gerald. They have three children—Geralinda, a mother and student at the University of Buffalo who also works at Vastola Heating and Air-conditioning; Myllissa,a student at City Honors; and Gerald, Jr. who attends Campus East School.

Brenda and Gerald have four grandchildren.

Because of the importance she places on family, Brenda makes spending quality time with them a priority. They enjoy doing things together. But she also makes sure she does things with each family member individually in order to reinforce how special each one of them is to her.

One family tradition which Brenda has revived is summer vacations at Martha’s Vineyard. Because this experience had such a powerful influence on her as she was growing up, she wants to be sure that new generations are afforded that same opportunity.

Future Plans

Brenda McDuffie believes that our future as a community will largely be determined by our ability to come together, create a strong economic base, provide opportunities for people, address the needs and interests of the entire community and create an environment that fosters diversity with wholeness. She intends to play a part in creating this future.

She would like to help build a community where all people are able to work, play and thrive if that is their wish.

Musing about what she might like to be in the next stage of her life, Brenda states, “I’d like to be a philanthropist.” Realistically, she points out several obstacles to this. First, she lacks the financial resources philanthropy would require. Second, she lacks the capacity to say “no” to anyone’s request for help.

The American Heritage Dictionary describes philanthropy as, “...the effort or inclination to increase the well-being of mankind, as by charitable aide or contribution. Love of mankind in general...”

Maybe Brenda McDuffie will never become one in the sense of having a great deal of money to give away. In reality, however, she already is a philanthropist. She dispenses huge amounts of herself, her time and her talent to satisfy needs in her community. That is the essence of philanthropy.

Gene Bagen is the Public Relations Officer of the Private Industry Council, Inc.

Photos courtesy of Brenda Williams McDuffie.

 

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