Giving Back and the Making of History
Historical figure Dale Atkins became the first African-American woman elected as Clerk of Civil District Court in the State of Louisiana in 1990. While widely-known as one of the longest serving local public officials in recent memory, many may not know about her compassionate soul that cares for her community and giving back during her off-hours.
Atkins grew up in New Orleans 7th Ward near what was then the St. Bernard Housing Development as the oldest of three children, born to David and Yvonne Atkins. At an early age, her parents stressed the value of getting a good education and the importance of community service. She attended Xavier Prep High School and, upon graduation from Xavier Prep, Dale was selected by the school’s faculty to receive the Mother Katharine Drexel Award. The award is named for the school’s founder and is given to an outstanding senior who most closely exhibits the values and achievement of its namesake.
“I grew up in a family that stressed helping others and I learned this from my grandparents John and Nina Williams and in church at Fairview Baptist Church where selfless service was stressed by Rev. Andrew Darby. It was significant in terms of my life and the young people in Fairview where he encouraged us to do whatever our dreams are but most importantly to help others. I just believed based on that the blessings I have had growing up in that neighborhood going to public school then having the opportunity to go to Xavier Prep, then to the University of Notre Dame and Southern Methodist University Law School it was only because lots of people helped me and it is the only way I began to repay is by helping others,” Atkins says, speaking of why giving back has been an important part of her life.
A Commitment to Service and the Helping the Next Generation
In addition to her work as Clerk of Civil District Court, she serves on numerous boards and commissions; engaging in many activities dedicated to empowering others. Some of which include: the Louisiana Council on Child Abuse, the Mayor’s Domestic Violence Advisory Board, the YWCA of New Orleans Board of Directors, and on the Advisory Boards of the American Red Cross and the United Negro College Fund. She has also served as a member of the United Way Campaign serving in 1990-1991 as Chairman of the United Way and Non-Profit Groups. She has volunteered with the Covenant House Mentor Program.
“In my position as Clerk I have tried to give back in very specific ways. One by helping our young people by providing them with summer employment, internships, two by providing them with opportunities to advance in their careers by nurturing entry level positions such as in our payroll department, human resources and finances and three by giving individuals an opportunity for employment to those who may be challenged in different ways. Specifically, the office was recognized in March of this year by the Lighthouse of Louisiana for hiring employees who have some physical challenges. This use to be Lighthouse for the Blind; but this is not the first time we have received recognition, because I just believe that everyone if given an opportunity can contribute to the work place in some meaningful manner and that if people have meaningful employment they will be productive citizens so we provide an environment where we try to look at where your talents are and match them in some way with what we do.”
Atkins received numerous awards and certificates in recognition of her accomplishments and her commitment to the community, including the Louis A. Martinet Presidential Award, the Covenant House Volunteer Award, the N.O. Chapter of the SCLC Rosa Parks Award for Community Service and the YWCA Role Model Award. She is a member of the New Home Full Gospel Church where she serves on the Scholarship Committee. One service that remains close to Dale’s heart includes her work with her high school Alma Mater. Dale is a founding member of the five-person alumni group, 5116 Magazine St., LLC, who came together in 2013 to keep open her high school, Xavier Prep. Thanks to the efforts of 5116, the school reopened in the fall of 2013 under the name of St. Katharine Drexel Prep. Dale serves as the Chairperson of the Board of Directors for 5116 Magazine St., LLC and on the Board of Directors for St. Katharine Drexel Prep. She is glad she can help to inspire and uplift young people.
Giving her formula for success to the next generation she says, “You have to believe whatever your faith is there is something greater than them and all of us because that faith will carry you through difficult times. The second thing I would tell them is it’s not just words when people tell them if you work hard you can achieve; and I know that means you must have the opportunities to achieve but don’t think upon background or family economic status, you can’t achieve whatever your dreams are because your talent and abilities are not based on money. Dream big, always dream big and realize that often times it is not the smartest person in the room who achieves, it is the person whom works the hardest.”
Finding Solutions and Building Bridges of Understanding
Throughout her life and career, she is the eternal optimist who has worked with people from all walks of life solving the problems of New Orleans and beyond. When speaking of the political divide that we are experiencing on a local, state and national level and possible solutions she says, “I don’t think there is a single answer, but there is an answer. When I think about what is going on in the country there is a lack of respect and recognition that we all are human beings, and I believe all lives matter and there is a certain amount of decency that we should treat each other with. We basically must find a way as a society to provide decent jobs and healthcare for individuals and I think that starts with the recognition that no matter who we are; our race, creed or color or facts of sexual orientation we all deserve to be treated with respect. We all want the same things that every other family has, we want to provide our family with a decent place to live, a decent education for our kids and if we have this available it can help contribute to an environment where we can all prosper together as a City, state and nation.”