Panel Promotes Women’s Equality at Air Force Base

Leaders discuss challenges they face as women.

By Jessica Lindsey

Oprah, Madam C.J. Walker, and Issa Rae all have something in common. All three are women Nadia Colom said she would like to have dinner with.

Colom, the owner of Potter Property Management, was part of a women’s leadership panel at the Columbus Air Force Base for Women’s Equality Day. She was joined by state Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, Director of Project SEARCH-Mississippi Faye Culpepper, and Jennifer Richards, water quality and tanks program manager for the 14th Civil Engineering Squadron at CAFB.

The four gathered at the front of the room at the Columbus Event Center to answer questions about being a female leader at the local, state, or national level. They discussed roadblocks in life they have run into as a woman, advice they would give to young women, and how to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Richards, also a captain in the Army Reserve, said one instance that stands out to her was when someone tried to undermine her authority when she was deployed to Afghanistan.

“In my time as an Army officer, especially in my recent deployment to Afghanistan during the drawdown … I had a very combative civilian who tried to tell me that I needed to make an approval for an emergency contract,” Richards explained. “What he wanted to do was steal other firefighters from other key critical bases and support his base. … He then tried to overrule me by going directly to the director who has the authority to approve those projects.”

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Richards’ supervisor, also a woman, backed her up.

Culpepper works in her job to help place people with disabilities in jobs. She said if she could give one message to young women in their own careers it would be to fight for what they believe in.

“It goes back to being a lifelong learner and fighting for what you want, what you believe in,” Culpepper said. “Never stop and don’t settle for a second. Be the best you can be, and make a difference with what you do every day because someone is going to get some good out of that.”

Colom added to Culpepper’s advice and said it is important for women to practice self-care.

“I’m sure everyone (in the panel) can agree with this,” Colom said. “I had to learn this, and I’m learning it still from my mom. I think when you’re a woman and wear so many hats and are constantly called and pulled, it’s easy to put everybody’s needs before yours. The reality just is that if you drain yourself, there won’t be any left to give anyone else.”

Across the four branches of the United States military, the Air Force has the highest percentage of active duty women at 21.1 percent, according to data from 2020 from Military OneSource, a Department of Defense-funded program to help military members with information.

Turner-Ford was asked about the opportunities the Columbus AFB found despite the challenges COVID-19 brought to the aviation industry. She said she has seen research stating there has been a slight uptick in female pilots since the pandemic began.

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“One thing that I saw, we had to step away and retool, reconfigure our basic, ordinary operations,” Turner-Ford said. “In doing that, a lot of us had virtual meetings. … I think that why a lot of people don’t enter into certain professions is because they maybe have not been exposed to them or they may think, ‘this is not something I could do.’ Perhaps there’s a way to provide more outreach, which can be done in virtual formats for young women to know, ‘I can become an airplane pilot.’ If there is some way for someone to share her story, maybe that can help someone to realize, ‘I can do this. This is a goal I can reach.’”

After the panelists spoke, Col. Justin Grieve, the commander at Columbus AFB, said he was honored to be in the room to hear the panel. He noted a point in a speech President Joe Biden gave on Thursday saying the women of today “are trailblazers for America’s daughters.”

“We, gentlemen, are guided every day by strong, powerful, wonderful women,” Grieve said. “To the panelists’ point, I think the quote was, ‘Listen to her.’ What I want you to know, what I need you to know is that Columbus Air Force Base is being guided by a very powerful, very influential team of women.”

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Photo Source: Jessica Lindsey/Dispatch Staff

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