WHOLE HEALTH MATTERS Urban League CEO Stephanie Hightower learned early on how to clear life’s hurdles
Courtesy of Columbus Business First
By Mark Somerson
November 19, 2021
Stephanie Hightower doesn’t sleep much. In fact, she hasn’t for quite some time.
That’s because the Columbus Urban League’s president and CEO said her brain never quite shuts off. That’s why she scatters notepads around her house, so she doesn’t forget a single thing.
“I just don’t sleep,” she said. “If I sleep eight hours, that means I’m sick.”
Then again, Hightower doesn’t have time to be sick. Even when she got Covid over Labor Day weekend – months after she was vaccinated – she worked nonstop from home.
That’s understandable. The past year has been a busy one for the Urban League, which is working to stay ahead of the local and national examination of equity, diversity and inclusion.
Hightower, who has challenged Columbus business leaders to be “instigators, agitators and mediators” in the fight for social justice, is used to overcoming hurdles. She was a standout hurdler in high school in Kentucky and at Ohio State in college. She is a four-time U.S. champion in the 100-meter hurdles and a five-time U.S. indoor champion in the 60-meter hurdles. She won the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials and won a silver medal at the 1987 Pan American Games before becoming president of USA Track & Field.
The following interview was edited for clarity and length.
Tell me about when you started running. Me and my brother are the children of an active military person. And when I was around 12 or 13 years old … they used to have the (Presidential Fitness Test). And I remember very distinctly we were in Bamberg, Germany, and we were going through that whole event. And I lined up with the boys and I beat all the boys.
I kind of knew I might have had a gift of being able to run fast.
And then fast-forward to when we moved from Germany to Fort Knox, Kentucky. The Fort Knox High School girls’ track team were state champions. And so I wanted to be a part of the state championship track and field team. I walked on as a freshman and all of the sprint slots were filled. But there wasn’t a hurdler time … and that began my journey.
But I didn’t really begin to understand the fitness part of it until I got to Ohio State, where they taught me the importance of what I was doing as far as my running and how that would have a long-term impact on my health and wellness. That was the beginning to learning how to eat right, measuring body fat, glucose levels – all those things.
You know, up until I was about 45, I never really had a drink.
How long have you been back in the office? We’ve been in here working since March (2020). We are first responders. The Urban League is at the tip of the spear of looking at the racial inequalities, the social justice movement, looking at health disparities, looking at how Covid has impacted the black community in an adverse way.
And because everybody is woke now, we are working 14- to 15-hour days.
I was gonna ask about the pressures that are on the Urban League to keep the conversation going. I was just saying to someone this morning who I was interviewing for a HR position that we have to slow down now. … I could get on a Zoom call starting at 7 o’clock in the morning and could literally sit at this desk all day. I finally said to my executive assistant, “I need you to stop. I can’t do it.’
And on top of last year, for me, my parents became sick. And so I was driving back and forth to Louisville from March until finally, in June, I said to them, “You have to move to Columbus.” I packed them up, out of the house where they had lived in for over 40 years and brought them to Columbus. And within two months, both of them were dead. They weren’t able to get the proper care that they needed to get because of Covid.
Now I have that time back but now it’s spent going into work. I still haven’t created the outlet that I need to sort of decompress.
What have you done to help yourself get though these times? I will say this, I have a great fiancé. He has been taking a lot of that away for me.
And cooking is a de-stressor. It gives you that time to not think about anything except chopping up the vegetables.
The other big thing for me is just getting in the car and driving. I’ve been able to do a lot of explorations around the city – places I didn’t know about.
And movies. That’s another way for us to unwind. We can just sit and watch a whole Netflix series, right?
Are you a radio listener or are you driving silent? Yeah, I’m Miss Spotify. I got everything that I want.
What else helps? I’m old school, you know? I get on my knees in the morning. That prayer is important. … That higher power and that spiritual strength is bringing that calm.
I was gonna ask you about your knees. I stopped running probably at about 45 years old. Now I walk.
What time do you typically wake up? I’m usually up about 6:30. … Yesterday, I started work at 8 o’clock with my first meeting. And I finished up last night at 9:15.
Tell me about your meals. If I can get a cup of tea and a breakfast sandwich – my favorite is bacon – then I’m off to the races. And I am trying to have really, really, really light lunches. Like a salad.
When you do get home, how do you turn your turn your brain off? Being an African American leader, and being a Black woman leader, there are different expectations. We don’t get the same grace as maybe folks from the majority community if things don’t go right, or things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to.
So there’s a different level of scrutiny. And I think that’s what keeps me up at night.
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