Lorraine Cole Biography
Broke Barriers to Attend College, Studied Communication Disorders, Built a Career as Association Executive
Women's health advocate, association executive
Much of Lorraine Cole's professional life has been devoted to the service of people, causes, and not-for-profit organizations. Inspired by the strength, integrity, and creativity of her mother and father, she not only became the first in her family to finish college, but she also earned her doctorate and went on to hold high positions in several important professional organizations. As President and Chief Executive Officer of the Black Women's Health Imperative, Cole has combined her skill at managing organizations with her passion about the importance of health issues for African-American women.
Cole was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Sherman and Eleanor Cole. Her father was a World War II veteran and served in the Naval Air Force until he died when Lorraine was only six. Eleanor Cole raised her family on her own, working as a fashion designer and seamstress. In spite of this early grief, Lorraine had a secure and happy childhood, enjoying both school and play in her mostly black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's south side. She was an excellent student and spent many of her leisure hours practicing the piano, taught by her great aunt, who was a concert pianist.
Broke Barriers to Attend College
Before the mid-1950s, many schools in the United States were racially segregated. This meant that schools intended for white students did not allow students of color to attend. Instead, African-American students attended schools that were largely black.
These black schools often did not receive as much funding or supplies as white schools, which were usually placed in more affluent neighborhoods. This practice officially ended in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must admit all students equally. Even though segregation in schools became illegal, blacks and whites still often lived in different neighborhoods. Schools served their local neighborhoods, so white and black schools continued to exist, even after legal segregation ended. This continued unofficial segregation often kept black students in underfunded schools which did not tend to encourage them to aim high in their career goals.
During the late 1960s, a counselor at Lorraine Cole's largely black high school told students at an assembly that they could not succeed in college because they would not be able to compete with white students. Because of such attitudes, Cole did not at first view college as a possibility, even though she always had been an excellent student. She began to think that following her father into the Navy would be her best chance for higher education. However, her mother encouraged her to apply to college, and Cole's grades and hard work earned her a scholarship for tuition to the largely white Northern Illinois University, located within the small farm town of DeKalb.
As she was adjusting to life away from the fairly sheltered and familiar world of her family and completing her first year of college, Cole suffered another deep loss. Her mother died of breast cancer at the age of 44. Lorraine Cole was 18, in college, and suddenly on her own. Her mother's support had given her the confidence to enroll in college, but her own determination and work would keep her there. She paid the expenses not covered by her scholarship by working in the dormitories as a resident assistant and modeling for local fashion boutiques.
Studied Communication Disorders
Cole had chosen NIU because it was close to home, and because it had a strong program in physical therapy, which is the treatment of injuries and disabilities by using physical methods like heat, cold, or exercise. Cole had written a high school paper on physical therapy and thought she would like to make it her career. However, after taking a speech pathology class, where she learned about the various problems that can make it hard for people to speak, she changed her focus to speech-language pathology and the larger field of communication disorders. Communication disorders include both speaking and hearing problems that make it difficult for people to express themselves or understand others. Cole had always been fascinated by the ways people learn and use language, and she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in communication disorders.
For several years, Cole worked as a speech-language pathologist, helping those with speech and language difficulties, especially children through the national Head Start program and the University of Illinois Division of Services for Crippled Children. She also continued her education, earning her doctorate in communication disorders from Northwestern University in suburban Chicago.
After she received her Ph.D., Cole moved to the Washington, D.C., area to take a job with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) as Director of the Office of Minority Concerns. ASHA is the organization that certifies and offers support to speech and hearing professionals. During her thirteen years as Director of the Office of Minority Concerns, Cole started many programs to help increase understanding of cultural and linguistic differences in the speech-language pathology and audiology professions, as well as creating a minority scholarship fund. She also began to develop new skills in managing organizations.
Built a Career as Association Executive
Cole's success in her role at ASHA led to even more responsible jobs. She became Executive Director of the Minority Health Professions Foundation (MHPF), an organization that provides funds for biomedical research conducted in historically black medical, dental, pharmacy, and veterinary schools. She worked there for three years, supervising large research projects at eleven different colleges and universities.
Cole left the MHPF to take another very responsible job, as Executive Director of the National Medical Association (NMA). The NMA is a professional organization of black physicians. It was founded in 1895 to offer connections and support to African-American doctors, who were not permitted to join white professional organizations like the American Medical Association. The modern NMA is a complex organization with more than 25,000 members, and it prospered under Cole's leadership.
Became a Health Advocate
In 2001, Cole left the NMA and moved on to another challenge. She took a job heading the National Black Women's Health Project (NBWHP), an organization that had been formed in 1983 by Byllye Avery. Avery was an African-American woman who had been an activist in the movement for women's health that had been borne out of the women's liberation movement. Avery saw that the health issues facing black women were different from those of white women. Partly, this was due to cultural and lifestyle differences between the races, but mostly it was due to the stress that racism and poverty causes in the lives of many black women. Avery started the NBWHP in order to empower African-American women to take steps to improve their physical, mental, and spiritual health.
The goals of the NBWHP struck a deep chord with Lorraine Cole. Not only had she lost her mother to breast cancer while she was still a teenager, but by her mid twenties all of the other women in her family who she was close to had died from various health-related causes. Cole believed that the poor health and early deaths of many black women were due in large part to the fact that the medical and political establishments paid little attention to black women's health. She also believed that the first step toward changing this was to get more African-American women involved in their own health issues. One of her first acts as head of NBWHP was to work towards increasing membership of the organization by abolishing membership dues and publicizing the group's goals nationwide. Between 2001 and 2004, the membership of the organization grew from 6,000 to over 150,000, and Cole has continued to work to attract even more members.
In 2003, the name of NBWHP was changed to the Black Women's Health Imperative. Imperative means something that is important and urgent, requiring action, which expresses well Lorraine Cole's attitude toward the health of African-American women. Cole had become an advocate for black women's health, speaking out about a causes and ideas as a service to others. Along with publicizing health issues, Cole has devoted herself to promoting the importance of advocacy among black women, because legislation about health care and other health issues will directly affect their lives. She has also been a part of organizing history-making events, such as the April 2004 March for Women's Lives, where she spoke to a crowd of over a million people who had gathered in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate about women's rights and health issues.
As head of the Imperative, Cole writes and speaks frequently about women's health issues. She addresses government groups, the medical establishment, professional societies, and black women themselves in order to publicize the importance of these issues. Because of her work as a health advocate, she holds a place on various advisory boards of corporations, government agencies, foundations, and national magazines.
Though much of Cole's job at the Imperative has been to sound an alarm about African-American women's health issues, she has remained hopeful and positive. She expressed both of these positions from the rally stage at the March for Women's Lives when she said, "The health of black women is in a state of crisis. Black women are suffering and dying too often, too soon, and needlessly. …When we leave here today, let's turn pain into promise, let's turn promise into partnership, and let's turn partnership into power."
Network News, May-June 1995, p. 1.
Ebony, October, 2001, p. 56; October 2002, p. 43; October 2003, p. 84; October 2004. p. 26.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, www.asha.org (October 8, 2004).
Black Women's Health Imperative, www.blackwomenshealth.org (September 27, 2004).
"Lorraine Cole, Ph.D.," The Office on Women's Health, www.4woman.gov/owh/MinorityPanel/lcole.htm (September 27, 2004).
"About NMA," National Medical Association, www.nmanet.org/about_nma.htm (October 8, 2004).
"1,150,000 March on Washington, D.C.," March for Women's Lives, www.marchforwomen.org/content/index.php?pid=119 (September 27, 2004).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Lorraine Cole on October 8, 2004.
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