Before she even entered college, Catrena Norris Carter was already surrounded by some of the biggest names in the civil rights movement — Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King.
During those impressionable teenage years, Carter was given an internship by Faya Ora Rose Touré with the 21st century Youth Training Program (21C). For the next several years, during her summers and spring breaks, she would meet with young people at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from across the country. She spoke with everyone from kids and politicians, to homeless kids and those who had been in prostitution — where leaders of the Movement would share their knowledge and experiences to inspire, assist, organize and develop young people to be skilled community focused leaders.
Carter soaked it all in and has since been a mover and shaker in the Yellowhammer State. Which is exactly why she is Alabama Today’s February’s choice for our Alabama Women of Influence feature.
When you speak to Carter, it’s easy to recognize you’re talking with a force of nature. But before we mention all that she’s doing to change the world for the better, it’s important to look back to the program and people who influenced her to be the woman she is today.
Created in 1985 by Touré, who would ultimately become Carter’s lifelong mentor, 21C was the breeding ground of Carter’s passion for helping those around her find success.
“It was very influential in making sure that we all gave back to our communities. That we don’t just go away and get jobs and work on our personal success, but how important it was to reach back down and make sure that you pulled everybody up around you,” Carter told Alabama Today.
The program was also where Carter learned a valuable lesson: legislation and politics are the keys to change.
“It was always instilled that legislation and politics are the way for freedom, and the way out of poverty, and the way to look at life,” Carter explained. “Most people don’t look at life politically. They just kind of live day-to-day. Without asking those questions of ‘why is this law a law’ or asking why the process works.”
During these years, Touré, Alabama’s first black female judge and the wife of state Sen. Hank Sanders, taught Carter about the power of a single individual.
The notion has stuck with Carter over the years, she now hopes it will one day be her legacy: for people to know the power of one.
“Unfortunately, most people just kind of go along to get along. Which is how we ended up with things in the past that didn’t so well — for the Jewish people, for women, and with slavery,” Carter said. “You have to understand, all of that was legal at the time. Just because something was legal, doesn’t necessarily make it right. Or make it just.”
She continued, “Don’t just accept everything that comes before you. You have a right to challenge it. To overthrow if necessary. Never sit idly by, and just go along to get along. Don’t go down without a fight.”
That fighting spirit came to the surface in her local community in 2014, when the Hoover, Alabama school system looked to cut the school bus program.
When her sons came home with the news that April, Carter knew it was time to act.
Encompassing a 53-mile radius, many families like her own depended on the system to get their children to and from school. So she took the organizing skills she learned over the years and at the 21st Century Youth Training Program and put them to good use. From rallying other mothers to getting the Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund involved, Carter ultimately helped stop the proposal over a year later.
“Instead of just accepting it, I got with some other moms, and we fought them. It took pretty much an entire year, but in the end, we won,” Carter reminisced. “It was nice to get a victory. Because we don’t get them very often. The underdogs don’t usually win when you’re up against a system that big and that powerful. It felt good. And it helped thousands of lives and families.”
At a time where many young women across the country are looking at issues in their own backyards that they’d like to change, Carter has one piece of advice: get involved.
“Join some organizations that are into human rights and injustice issues. Find an organization that you feel passionately about. Even if it’s down to the heart association or something. Because everybody’s not going to be political, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be involved with social,” Carter affirmed. “Do something that helps leave the world a little bit better than you found it.”
Rest assured, Carter is practicing what she preaches.
Outside of her day job, yes jobs, the list of Carter’s involvement is beyond impressive. She’s on the Board chair of the Greater Birmingham Boy Scouts of America, Board Member of League of Women Voters, Board Member of Ancient African Slavery Museum, and a Member of Alabama New South Coalition.
When she’s not serving on various boards or volunteering you’ll find her working. Not only the only is she the Associate Publisher of Who’s Who in Black Alabama, the Managing Partner of C&C, and the President & CEO of Women Of Will (WOW) —a statewide, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) working to advance a richly diverse mass of women into leadership positions at work, in the community and in politics. WOW aims to recruit more women for leadership positions, from the boardrooms to the courtrooms — she also serves as National Coordinator of Selma’s Bridge Crossing Jubilee. Before this role, she was Executive Director of the Selma to Montgomery 50th Anniversary Commemoration Foundation, as well as the Executive Producer of Centric/BET’S “Salute Selma” Docu-concert and SHEROS documentary featuring some of the female living legends of the movement.
Before this role, she was Executive Director of the Selma to Montgomery 50th Anniversary Commemoration Foundation, as well as the Executive Producer of Centric/BET’S “Salute Selma” Docu-concert and SHEROS documentary featuring some of the female living legends of the movement.
With just a few weeks until this year’s Jubilee, Carter is hard at work preparing over 40 events, for the four-day celebration.
“It’s so important that you keep history alive,” Carter said. “That bridge is one of the few standing entities that we have that represents freedom. Some things are worth us committing to, and making sure that the legacy continues. Whatever I can do to keep that history alive, I intend to that and be committed to it.”
She added: “I ask that everybody, at some point in your life, come and bring your children to the Bridge. Because without that bridge, without that story, that narrative about that Sunday, where would we be? It led to everybody having the right to vote. And if you don’t know where you’ve been, how are you going to know where you’re going?”
The University of Alabama at Birmingham graduate and mother of three boys is a native of Selma, Alabama.