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January 1999

Ellen Grant Bishop
Turns Problems Into Opportunities



Growing up in the Kensington housing project wasn’t easy for Ellen Grant. Racism was much more open in those days and some bigoted white neighbors petitioned to have the Grants evicted for no reason other than color. Fortunately, most of their white neighbors saw that the Grants were trying to do something for their children by preparing them to live in the majority culture. They knew too that Ellen’s dad was a hard-working citizen who commuted daily to Bethlehem Steel and that children in the family went to the nearby Bethany Lutheran Church every Sunday. And so the petition failed.

Little did Ellen Grant know then what life had in store for her. She began as a practical nurse at the Erie County Medical Center, where she found a career love of working with the disabled. Continuing her education simultaneously, Ellen Grant soon earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the State University of Buffalo. By 1974 she had a Master’s degree in social work and by 1979 she had earned her doctorate in communication and organizational behavior.

Along the way, Ellen met and fell in love with George Bishop Jr., a businessman retired from the U.S. Navy. He is now vice president of the Naval League, Buffalo Division, and recently served as vice president of the Naval and Service Park. Bishop has also served on the executive committee of the Greater Buffalo Partnership, on the board of directors at Blue Shield and several other boards.

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Son Justin, husband George and Ellen, 1997.

When asked what she considers to be the greatest of all her accomplishments over the past 30 years, Dr. Bishop said, “Other people may say I have done a good job serving the community, but I think my success has to be measured first as the job I have done as a Mom.” The Bishops’ son Justin is now age 13 and is in the 8th grade at the Elmwood-Franklin School.

One of the most interesting things Dr. Bishop told Living Prime Time was: “Early on I was able to get over all that negative stuff about being black in a white community.” Indeed her views on this subject have helped her be a better Mom and more focused on her successes.

Her particular interest in children led Dr. Bishop to establish the Children’s Enhancement Program. With the New York State Office of Mental Health, she developed an intensive case management program for the seriously and emotionally disturbed child and adult. In 1988 she was instrumental in providing in-patient psychiatric facilities for children at the Erie County Medical Center.

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Ellen and her brother Herman, 1951.

Demonstrating her strong belief that education is the key to growth for the underprivileged, Ellen Grant Bishop worked closely last year with Dr. Keith Weller Frome, headmaster at the Elmwood-Franklin School, to bring the College Summit concept to Buffalo. This is a program that helps high school students with low test scores write their college entrance essays, fill out financial aid forms, and complete college admissions applications. Students are also advised on compiling a list of schools in which they are interested and where they are most likely to be admitted. 200 students have participated in the College Summit programs to date, 45 of them in the first Buffalo summit last year at Medaille College. According to Frome, “90% (of these) have been admitted to the college of their choice.”

Speaking to the 1996 graduates of Medaille College, where she was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters, Dr. Bishop said, “Just because you haven’t been there before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt the journey.” In that same address, she advised the students on the importance of working together, “So we all can walk as one.”

Reading through Dr. Bishop’s resume, one is in awe and wonders how any one person could accomplish so much in just three decades. Coming from licensed practical nurse at the Erie County Medical Center in 1968 to Commissioner of Mental Health for the County of Erie at the present time, she has held human service positions at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center and the Buffalo General Hospital, ranging from social worker to administrator. She was the first black Civil Service Examiner for New York State, a Clinical Instructor at the UB School of Medicine, an instructor in the New York State School of Labor Relations in the Buffalo Extension Program of Cornell University and served as an assistant Professor at D’Youville College. She is a member of numerous boards including the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Conference for Community Justice, and the University at Buffalo Foundation. In 1996-1997 Dr. Bishop was president of the New York State Association of Counties. She was appointed to serve on this board by Dennis Gorski to represent him.

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Ellen and her sister Brenda, 1958.

Dr. Bishop has been published several times, including a book titled “Managing in Black and White, a Guide for the Professional Woman of Color”, a chapter in “Self Marketing Skills for the Administrator” and articles in professional journals.

Ellen Grant Bishop’s list of awards fills an entire page and includes the Social Worker of the Year Award of the New York State Chapter, National Association of Social Workers and the Nelson Mandela Community Service Award by the New York State Black Psychologists.

As Commissioner of Mental Health for the County of Erie, Dr. Bishop has another long list of accomplishments, not the least of which was saving the county $1.5 million shortly after she accepted the Commissioner’s position in 1988. This was done by putting transportation contracts out for bid. Additionally, she undertook the development of a joint alcohol/substance abuse plan for all multi-disciplinary agencies working in the field.

In 1992, Ellen Grant Bishop helped to persuade the Erie County Legislature to establish a Mental Health Committee and she supervised the creation of an educational video titled “Mending Shattered Families.”

Always concerned with minorities’ inaccessibility to services, Dr. Bishop expanded the County’s disability service to the Hispanic and Native American communities as well as the black community.

She considers herself fortunate, as an administrator, to have such an excellent and hard-working staff and she cites her boss, County Executive Dennis Gorski, as a role model. Dr. Bishop considers him to be the most disciplined leader she has ever met.

In 1996, Dr. Bishop was named a Fellow in the International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation, a landmark program designed to help women expand their leadership skills. She was one of only twelve women chosen world-wide. In this program she participated in a year-long leadership training program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Susan Greenwood, president of the IWF Leadership Foundation said, “The Fellows program, now in its third year, has truly attracted the brightest and the best of our women leaders.”

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Ellen Grant Bishop being sworn in by Dennis Gorski, 1996.

Sam Hoyt, Assemblyman, with Ellen Grant Bishop at the White House, 1996.

She has mentored many young Buffalonians, male and female, white and black, in her quest to enrich the entire Western New York citizenry. Ellen Grant Bishop’s life is not all work-work-work, however. An avid runner, she participated this past September in Women Run New York, a statewide marathon celebrating the achievements of women since the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848. She also enjoys traveling. She has been to China, Peru, Egypt, Tahiti, Australia, and New Zealand among others.

Asked to sum up her philosophy of life in a few words, Dr. Ellen Grant Bishop said, “I just think you have to be motivated to emphasize service to others and a holistic approach to work, personal development and shared decision-making.” This philosophy, called servant leadership, was first brought to her attention in the early 1970s by Robert Greenleaf, a corporate officer at AT&T.

Is Western New York lucky to have Ellen Grant Bishop as one of its leading citizens? Yes indeed!

Joe Radder is a writer for Living Prime Time.


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