“What I hope you take away from my story is not that a girl from the projects can go to Harvard. Instead, I want you to see the reality that the generational cycle of disadvantage can be reversed when we invest in opportunities that give kids hope.”
Emma Battle was born at Kate B. Reynolds hospital in the early 1960s. Her two parents, who had moved to Winston-Salem before finishing high school, worked in the domestic care industry and for RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.
“Dad had a good-paying job at R.J. Reynolds, and we were having a pretty good life in our Claremont Avenue rental house while my parents saved to buy us a home. And then, my father was convicted of manslaughter. He was sentenced to four years in jail while my family served four years on public assistance in the Kimberly park housing projects.”
From that moment on, Emma remembers her neighborhood as a struggling community—a place where kids would spend their time at the dime store buying layaway school clothes or counting blood drops on the pavement on the way to church to try and guess who had been stabbed the night before.
“We used to walk alone to and from our neighborhood elementary school, North Elementary, but our friend Tweetie was raped. She was just five years old.”
Violence and destruction were common. Police would patrol the streets and park their mobile crime units near the neighborhood recreation center. Sometimes, they would invite the kids in to see graphic photos of people shot in the head—to teach the children that crime does not pay. According to Emma, police would also circle the Black Panther house, one of her favorite places in Winston-Salem, because the members “were cool. They served food and taught us about black hair care and skincare. We used to sing about black power and standing up for our rights.”
“In the midst of all the drama, there was some goodness: school. I got the chance to go to Head Start and discover a new world. Head Start was my first life-changing experience and a key event that helped my siblings and me avoid the American Dream Crisis.”
Emma found solace and energy in Family Service’s Head Start program. There, she met with a guidance counselor who convinced her to apply for a scholarship to a boarding school in Massachusetts. Because of Head Start, Emma was able to realize her potential as a student and lifelong learner.
She graduated from Duke University in 1983 and received her MBA from Harvard Business School in 1990.
“The measurable impact of positive intervention and early education is profound. A ray of hope can transform lives, and transforming even one child’s life will impact generations of children.”
Emma Battle, an alum of Family Service’s Head Start program, is currently the President and CEO of MarketVigor, LLC, a strategic consulting, e-commerce marketing and digital analytics firm. She also serves as the President and CEO of Higher Education Works, a non-profit organization that advocates for support of North Carolina public universities and community colleges. She previously served as the President and Chief Operating Officer of CRISP Agency, a digital advertising agency, before which she served in executive and senior marketing and sales roles at Red Hat, Inc. and Hanesbrands Inc. She also holds a BA in Economics from Duke University and a MBA from Harvard Business School.