Remarkable community activist Felicia Davis shares her powerful story as a leader, driver for change in Chicago

Felicia Davis is fiercely dedicated to community through inclusive service to others. As president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Foundation for Women, she leads their efforts to invest in women and girls as catalysts for change and build stronger communities.

In July, Felicia was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chairman of the Zonta International Leadership Development Committee.

Felicia spoke fondly of her mother, who was the first person to teach Felicia about intersectionality—before it was a popular term—and her identity as both a woman and a Black person. Her mother also stressed the importance of education to Felicia and her three siblings. A high school dropout, Felicia’s mother went back to school to earn her General Education Development (GED) diploma, taking Felicia and her sister with her to classes because she did not have a babysitter.

Felicia said that single act changed their lives and taught her the power of supporting women and girls in education.

“When we educate a girl or woman, we actually educate the whole family and we can change the trajectory of that entire thing,” she said.

Felicia grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a family that faced many challenges. But despite their meager circumstances, her mom from instilled in Felicia a sense of obligation to help and a concern for the collective well-being of others.

Though she started her career as a detective for the Chicago Police Department, Felicia held multiple roles at Kendall College at National Louis University and served as the interim president at Olive-Harvey College, a community college in Chicago. She also spent five years working for the office of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“Each one of the career professions that I’ve worked in has been about extending myself in service of others, and that’s the thread throughout,” Felicia said.

Even as a young girl, she was often trying to challenge the status quo and pointed out when things felt wrong or unfair, a theme that has carried over into her work with the Chicago Foundation for Women.

One issue the Chicago Foundation for Women focuses on is the gender pay gap. Felicia said if equal pay was achieved, US$5.8 billion would be added to Chicago’s local economy each year.

“It’s different for white women than it is for Black women than it is for Latina women than it is for Asian women and Native women. But these disparities persist year after year,” she said.

Felicia talked about how research shows that men and women are treated differently when being considered for jobs or promotions and quoted former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who said, “There is plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.”

While we have had some successes over the years of pressing for advancement and gender equity, Felicia says there are still challenges.

“When you look around the world, certainly there continues to be a great number of challenges—access to voting, climate change—those are impacting women first; so there’s still a lot of work to do,” she said.

She went on to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the inequities and the fact that care work, and therefore our economy, is overwhelmingly dependent on women.

“Our economy virtually came to a standstill because we did not have the ability to provide here, which means that women had these choices. They had to choose between their families—the safety, health and well-being of their families—and earning an income. Sometimes that’s not really a choice,” Felicia explained.

Felicia is encouraged that there is a generation of girls who are growing up with women of color in leadership. Locally, Chicago’s three top offices are held by two Black women (mayor and treasurer) and a Latina (city clerk). Nationally, the United States’ vice president is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants.

When asked about her own leadership abilities, Felicia said one of her greatest gifts is compassion.

“I have never forgotten what it's like to be the other. And because I have never lost sight of that, I am always trying to create space to bring people in,” she said. “I know what it feels like to be pushed out onto the margins, and I always believe that we are stronger as a community. As a leader, I solicit and really expect the team to bring their ideas and thoughts to the table.”

A mistake some leaders make, she said, is believing they are the smartest person in the room and drowning out all the voices around them. Instead, Felicia wants smart, talented people around her who bring their creativity and ideas every day.

When life gets challenging, Felicia likes to get quiet and center herself and her thoughts.

“I try to listen for the thing that is resonating with me. If it’s that little voice like when I was a girl, saying, ‘This isn’t right,’ what part about that is bothering me? What part of this challenge do I think is going to be really hard? So, I try to workshop that a little bit in my head.

“But I also have family, friends and colleagues that I know I can go to for counsel. We all need mentors; we all need people. In my career, I have learned as much from women on my team or junior people in my organization that I’ve worked with as I have taught them.”

Though Felicia still sees herself as a “simple girl from the South Side,” she is considered a role model in her community and she said she has been challenged to stop and honor the path she has been on and what she has accomplished.

“Continue to do the work but also every now and then just stop and give yourself some recognition and acknowledge that you have done some okay things in your life. That spurs me,” she said.

Characteristics Felicia believes remarkable leaders have in common include courage, resilience, being able to pivot, and belief in yourself and your goals.

When asked how she sees things changing for women in the next decade, Felicia said we must accelerate the rate at which girls are educated.

“We have to remove the prohibitions around education. As they currently exist, we are cheating ourselves by not having every possible person to tackle some of these really big challenges, like the economic challenges we have in the world and the global climate crisis,” she said.

“As a society we say, ‘This is women’s work, or this is the type of education for a woman, or this is the type of job for a woman.’ I hope we have stopped that and removed those gender barriers to all of those things—that, on their own, do not have a gender assigned to them—so leaders aren’t just men.”

To achieve this, Felicia said we must parent our children differently and raise them in a way that doesn’t make those things exclusive to men. For her part, she is raising her four sons to be feminists.

“We need more of our sons to be taught that so that there are men in the board rooms and conference rooms who don’t do that,” she said.

Felicia also believes the biggest changes in society come from unity.

“I believe in the power of women and I think Zonta is a really powerful organization,” she said. “I believe that a powerful force of women working globally, raising the same issues, is unbeatable. … We can help make change and drive change and equity.”

Another way to achieve change is through the activism of young people.

“I see younger people who are really using their voice and who are challenging the status quo at a time when others are comfortable and don’t want to rock the boat,” Felicia explained. “Encourage the young people that are in your life to lift their voices. Echo their voices and connect them to opportunities for speaking or to be on committees. Showing them the proactive ways in which their voice, their agency and their activism can help drive change is one way we can do that.”

Click here to watch Felicia's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session.