By Brandon Martin
On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and women all across the country gained the right to vote. After almost a century of protest, American women could now, not only voice who they wanted as their representatives, but also run for office themselves.
This year marks the centennial of women’s suffrage and over those 100 years, many women have been elected to hold public office. In Martinsville-Henry County, women currently hold nine of the 23 total seats between the collective school boards and governing bodies.
Of each of these groups, the Martinsville City Public School (MCPS) Board is the only one that is majority female.
Their leader is Donna Dillard.
“What a long way we (women) have come,” Dillard said. “As women, we get straight to the point when making decisions. We set very high standards. We are not different than our male counterparts. While some may say that we’re breaking the glass ceiling, I’d like to argue that the ceiling is now shattered!”
Dillard was born and raised in Martinsville as the third of four children to Edwin and Shirley Clark. She graduated from Martinsville High School in 1983 and has been married to Joe. A. Dillard for 34 years. She was appointed to Martinsville City Public School Board in 2016, where she served as vice-chairman in 2017 and 2018 before taking over her current role as chairman.
The Martinsville native said that she considers “not attending college after high school” as potentially her greatest obstacle.
“It wasn’t a prerequisite from our parents,” she said. “My siblings and I were expected to make good grades in high school, respect others and be good citizens.”
Dillard said that it wasn’t until after she, and her husband, had their first child that she fully recognized the doors that open from a good education.
“I knew I wanted her to be the best that she could be in life,” she said.
The couple have two children: India Nicole Dillard Brown and Ian Michael Dillard.
India graduated from the University of Virginia in 2009 and is now married to Rev. Matthew L. Brown, the pastor of St. Paul High Street Baptist Church. Ian graduated from UVA in 2013 and still resides in Charlottesville.
Dillard said that the success of her children inspired her to revisit her own greatest obstacle.
“After having both of our children graduate from the University of Virginia, I decided to attend college; after all, I needed to practice what I preached,” she added.
When facing a potentially greater obstacle in attending college while working, Dillard said she simply but her nose to the grindstone and never gave up.
“While in school, I continued to work and fulfill my duties for the school board and my church,” she said. “However, I kept my goal of obtaining a post-secondary education in the forefront and persevered, but not without sleepless nights and stressful days, of course.”
Now, Dillard can proudly say that she is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Averett University.
Many people may find Dillard’s story inspiring. In fact, Dillard credit’s her own inspirations growing up for her current success.
“My mother and my older brother were my biggest inspirations growing up,” she said.
Dillard added that her mother Shirley Clark “was the strongest woman I have ever known. She gave every part of herself to her children with no excuses. She was remarkably resilient. Her selfless sacrifice is what inspires me to be the best mother I can be.”
She said that her mother instilled the importance of being kind. While they weren’t wealthy, Dillard is happy with the fact that they still “managed to get by comfortably.”
“She worked hard to provide for her family and those are lessons that I took to heart,” she added.
Dillard said that her brother did quite well for himself as well. Her brother, Edwin K. Clark Jr., graduated as Valedictorian of the Martinsville High School Class of 1980 and received his Ph.D at the University of Maryland. In addition to his academic success, “he was one of the best tennis players in this area in the late 70’s/early 80’s,” according to Dillard, adding that a memorial was erected in his honor at Virginia Tech in 2010.
“We weren’t rich by any means growing up; however, he was never let his circumstances define him,” she said.
The lessons that she took from her mother and brother are what continues to push her to this day.
“My mother and brother are why I am so adamant that all children are provided opportunities no matter their circumstances,” Dillard said. “I want MCPS students to know that they shouldn’t define themselves by where they start. They must keep going, stay the course, and they will persevere.”
Dillard has taken this concept from her mother and brother and formed her own idea of what a leader should be.
“Leadership to me means helping others reach their highest potential. I don’t equate leadership with being in the spotlight or having authority over others. Being a leader is about empowering people to make themselves great,” she said adding that “leadership is not selfish or boastful.”
As she looks ahead, Dillard said that the country could benefit from a little more understanding of each other because “we are a biased nation.”
“We see the world through our own lens, we see what’s comfortable, what makes sense to us. However, there are greater factors. In this new year we must learn to be equitable,” she said.
As far as things changing, Dillard said that she “would like to see more unity and acceptance among one another” on the national level, listing “kindness, acceptance and inclusion” as virtues that could be worked on by everyone. For the community that she currently serves, the area continuing to “to grow and redefine itself” is enough, according to Dillard.
“At the local level… I would like to see the local government and citizens working together to do what is best for our entire community,” she said.