A Message From The President

November 2021

When Athena’s new members were invited to introduce themselves and tell their stories as part of the October bonus, Chloe Coney did something remarkable.  

Not only did she give a rousing rendition of her upbringing and revitalization of East Tampa, she played a professionally produced award video lauding her efforts!  Which raises the question: When women are culturally encouraged to be self-effacing, how many of us would have the chutzpah to play our own video?  

Study after study demonstrates the difference between men and women in stating – or even accurately assessing — our value.  The so-called confidence gap costs us daily in wage inequity.  How often are we taught not to use I statements?  How often do women deflect, instead of unequivocally accept, praise?

Chloe and I discussed her mindset and approach to promoting herself in a time when too many women suffer imposter syndrome.  Most of what follows are Chloe’s words.

“Oh Tina,” she said.  “This is really a confirmation.  I’m mentoring several young ladies with whom I just had this same conversation.  I am forever pushing them!  I said, I know you get sick of me, but if you don’t tell your story, who’s going to do it?

“I tell women, I tell nonprofits, if you don’t tell your story, someone’s going to tell it, and you’re not in it!  I’ve been too many times in places and watched people sacrifice, make a commitment, lay down their life, and because the story was not written and told, it went down a whole different way, and the person was never honored who made that sacrifice.

“I want to tell my story while I’m alive.  I’ve had a lot of women who I’ve known 20 years say, `Chloe, I’ve never known that about you.’  My desire is to train and teach our next generation because we still have glass ceilings that have not been broken yet.”

Chloe’s speaking style and stories feel like a rollicking ride, and all you can do is grin and, well, hold onto your hat.  One member responded the night Chloe told her story to Athena: “Preach, sister!”

In 1972, Chloe started her career as Tampa’s first African American female probation and parole officer in an all-white, male dominated Department of Corrections.  Her first day on the job, she and her male supervisor stopped for gas in Ruskin.  The owner chased Chloe’s supervisor out of the gas station with a shotgun, until Chloe pulled her badge and assured him they were not a couple.

“First day on the job, gunpoint!  I almost died!  I don’t got time, so no, I don’t care what you think of me.  I’m grateful.  I didn’t do it to be recognized, but it’s good to tell your story.  We don’t do a great job telling our story, especially in a male-dominated environment.  Most of the jobs I’ve had have been in white, male dominated positions, so when I walk in, I’m automatically, you have to know the rules.  I say c’mon Chloe, you just gotta take it in, just like my grandmother told me, you know you’ve got to be twice as good.”

After finding herself at the wrong end of a shotgun that day, Chloe went to see George Edgecomb at the State Attorney’s office. “I told him I’m going to quit.  He said, no you can’t.  Other women will be standing on your shoulders later, because I was the first black female there.  That’s why he gravitated to me because he had walked that path himself.  Judge Edgecomb told me, when you do any type of work, when you receive letters of commendation, have your file, make a file for your office and a file at your house. Come to tell me, you will never be appreciated for who you are and the work you do.  You must have your own records.  If you don’t have it in writing, it doesn’t happen.  Truly as he said that to me, it came to pass.  

“I took my creative thinking going into the jail as a woman, doing little things like having women collect all their JET and Ebony magazines and taking them to the women in jail to make their lives better.  When it came time to get a promotion, true enough, they said I had done a good job, but I had not done anything extraordinary to be promoted.  Lo and behold, I brought my folder from my house and showed them, this letter came from a client, this came from an employer, and I did get the promotion.  That has stayed in my mind my whole life.  If Judge George Edgecomb had not told me that, I would have just been a black female working there in a white male dominated world.  There were only two of us and a hundred or so men.  I learned early, integrating the school system, so I’ve always been a fighter.

“Even though I’m homegrown in Tampa, we grew up in West Tampa and lived in the projects before Carver City.  It wasn’t a poor thing, we had to live in those neighborhoods because we couldn’t live anywhere else.  You could either live in East or West Tampa.  Our neighborhoods were large and clean and well taken care of.  We sent kids off to college, and you might be living next door to a maid, a priest, or a teacher.  We had to live there because we were black.  We couldn’t live other places.  It was a strong sense of community.”

In 1963 Chloe helped integrate the school system by moving to the predominantly white West Tampa Junior High School, then on to Hillsborough High School, where she remembers being spit on and called racist names. She said that at this wealthier school, she had to fight for recognition.  She ultimately earned her bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University and a master’s from Florida Beacon Bible College, lived in Oldsmar, and worked for Florida Power.

“I didn’t know East Tampa was a war zone when I went back to do an internship at a church on 29th.  A woman said, `I’m down on my luck.  Can you come to my house and pray with me?’  It was a culture shock because I didn’t know – I went to work in Clearwater, I had not been in the projects like that.  She had no food, nothing, with her child there.  So I prayed with her, and I said, `God, if you want me to do this work, let me know.’  That’s when I took the spirit of `me and my,’ rebuilding the walls so we would no longer be the reproach of the city.”  

Chloe founded the Corporation to Develop Communities (CDC) of Tampa, transforming East Tampa with rental apartments, single family homes, a Youth and Family Center, open air market, the East Tampa Business Center for six micro businesses, job training, and the Chloe Coney Urban Enterprise Center.  Three decades later, Fifth Third Bank is pledging up to $20 million to redevelop East Tampa in concert with Chloe’s CDC, now led by her son.

“30 years later, I’m glad for my eyes to see that.  That thing you’re seeking is also seeking you.  Those are the stories we need to tell.

“One thing, you have to have heart.  When we built the laundromat as the first building, the main drug dealer said, `because my mother is so happy she has a brand new place to wash her clothes, tell Ms. Coney no one will ever break into that place.’  And no one ever did.  We have to tell our story.”  

How would Chloe advise women who struggle to self-promote for fear of seeming egotistical or narcissistic – the familiar backlash?   As an article for Medium cites, “We’ve heard time and again that strong women are perceived as bitches in the workplace. Women who are assertive, tough, and self-confident typically have a more difficult time getting a promotion than men. Successful women are considered less likable.”

“I’ve seen some real bitches on the job,” Chloe concedes.  “They were all about me, it’s all about me, look at what I did, I’m promoting me for a promotion.  I ask the Lord, don’t let that be me.  You saw the community; it was never about me. God just made me the vessel.  It has to come from the heart.

“Some people may say, she seems arrogant, but the projects were never about me.  If it had been about me, I would have stayed at the county, shut my mouth and played the game, and been sitting here with a great retirement, but I could not do it.  I’m glad I didn’t.  With every house we build and job we created, I’m glad I didn’t.  So if I tell you I’m promoting myself now, yes I am.  Yes, I am.  Yes, I am!

“There’s a difference in being proud in what you’ve done, but who have you helped?  People went before me, who helped me, who put people on the bus tour of East Tampa. I had to tell those people, this is not Haiti, this is Tampa! Deanne Roberts helped my campaign.  Bill McBride helped with my legal work.  Where is your passion and your commitment?  How are you going to make Tampa a better place?  I’ve seen God work through me to help me and my.  East Tampa is now a better place, so yes, I am proud.  We want to be the next downtown, Channelside, Tampa Heights — to bring businesses, houses, jobs.  It’s time.”

What about the research that says women, unlike men, wait to act until they are, as The Atlantic put it, “perfectly ready and perfectly qualified?”

“Let my mother tell you, if I ever make my mind up, I’m going to do it,” Chloe responds.  “So help me God, I’m going to do it.  Integrating schools, she said, why’s it got to be you?  Because we got to be fully persuaded!  This is what we need to do!  But if you’re doing it to make yourself look good, you’re always going to have that hesitation.  Just do good.  Sure, there’ll be a backlash.  I truly doubted myself.  Sometimes I said God, why you got me doing this?  Why?  Why?  I just knew with my whole spirit and being it was the right thing to do, so I did it. 

“Anxiety, apprehension, women do that.  My mentor, Alex Sink, she was the president of Bank of America, and she did some fantastic things among white males.  We built the first single family houses together, and when we built the first apartments, she sent the bank there.  She actually gave me a bank building on West Hillsborough.  One of her staff came and brought in commercial real estate women, I called them phenomenal women!  I had them wearing hats, and we took that 24,000 square foot bank building, gutted it all out with a $100,000 grant, construction managers, architect, predominantly women.  They adopted that project, and we took all the bank materials out and made it into an office for the CDC, leasing the second floor out.  Then we sold it to Suncoast Credit Union because we need more financial institutions in East Tampa.  Women friends mentored me, and I’m grateful.  Alex has a story in her own rights.  We gotta tell our women stories!”

These days, Chloe has a team of seven at her own company, Community Enterprise Group, further spearheading workforce development and community engagement.  “I think we need to hear from the people themselves,” she says.  “At 71 years old, I’m not only taking the mountain.  I’m taking all you young folks with me.”