February 1, 2024
Rhoda Overstreet-Wilson ’06: Twice a First in Central New York
It’s fitting that Rhoda Overstreet-Wilson ’06 is making history in Auburn, NY, the city that abolitionist Harriet Tubman made her home after freeing slaves on the Underground Railroad.
This year, Overstreet-Wilson became the first African-American woman elected to the 175-year old Auburn City Council. Before that, she was the first African-American woman to serve on the school board for the Auburn Enlarged City School District.
As a City Council member, Overstreet-Wilson plans to ask a lot of questions and push for change. Why are qualified minorities not landing jobs? Why are there not more people of color in leadership positions in the city’s non-profits? Why do these things still happen?
“I want people of color to see that you can ask the question and impact change,” Overstreet-Wilson says. “I want to create the pathway.”
A Tough Start
Overstreet-Wilson was born and raised in Auburn, NY where her grandmother landed after leaving Georgia on a bus during the Great Migration. Overstreet-Wilson and her four siblings were raised by a single mother who worked as a certified nursing assistant at Auburn Memorial Hospital and a grandmother who labored on a farm, grading potatoes and shucking corn.
“We were on welfare,” she says. “We received public assistance and got food stamps. We didn’t have a car, and there was a lot of walking.”
As a high school senior, Overstreet-Wilson was encouraged by a friend to take the SATs, but she didn’t know what the tests were. “When I went to sign up for the SATs, my high school guidance counselor said, ‘I didn’t know you wanted to go to college,’” she recalls. “I was graduating, and there was no expectation of anything. I was just going to graduate and be in the community.”
Even today, that memory stings. It also drives her work. “As a little kid, I never heard anyone ask me ‘Rhoda, what is it that you want to be when you grow up?’” she says. “It became my mission that no other kid will ever feel the way that I felt. I decided I’m going to ask every kid what it is they want to be.”
At 19, Overstreet-Wilson became a single mom. She was determined to make money to support her son. “I didn’t want to be the parent who didn’t have money,” she says. “I wanted to be able to buy my son nice clothes and have food and furniture.”
Her cousin’s wife helped her land a job at a juvenile justice center. Overstreet-Wilson thrived in her job, but discrimination persisted. “One supervisor told me to sit on my hands and hold my head straight, so I don’t intimidate people — and I did,” she says. “The same person told me I was never going to amount to anything.”
But others took notice of her smarts. When an opening came up at another residential center, the executive director said he wanted to promote her, but she needed a college degree. Pregnant with her second child and now married to the father of her sons, Overstreet-Wilson decided to go to Cayuga Community College for an associate degree in community and human services.
While there, she heard about Empire State University. She loved the idea of working with a mentor and decided to get her bachelor’s in community and human services. It wasn’t easy, but her mentor wouldn’t let her lower standards and taught her a life lesson.
“I was in my last semester, and I was exhausted,” Overstreet-Wilson says. “I was still a young mother, working in residential. I’m in one of my last courses, and I said to my mentor, ‘I just need to get through this. How do I get a D?’
“She said ‘Don’t you ever, ever put a value on yourself that’s less than A. You’re an A.’ And I started to cry. I couldn’t stop crying. It woke me up. If you don’t expect more from yourself, how do you expect people around you to respect you? And that was that.”
Overstreet-Wilson went on to get a master’s in organizational administration at Keuka College and an Ed.D. in executive leadership from St. John Fisher University. She also began teaching sociology as an adjunct at Cayuga. “I could see what education could get you, how it could get you from point A to point B,” she says. “It started to manifest into my wanting to be an advocate.”
Becoming an Advocate
Years of working in juvenile justice made her keenly aware of the systemic racism that landed so many kids in residential facilities, unable to overcome the generational cycles of poverty and discrimination. Overstreet-Wilson began asking hard questions, especially when she realized that many of her sons’ friends were unable to read.
“My kids were in school at that time, and my house was the place to be, and I was realizing that some of those babies couldn’t read,” she says. “The reading comprehension wasn’t there. How do you get to the 10th grade with no teacher seeing that? If you can’t comprehend what you’re reading, then you can’t get a job. It’s all cyclical.”
Her concerns compelled her to run for the school board in 2017. She won a second term in 2020.
When her stint on the school board ended, people began suggesting she run for the City Council. A series of sermons from her pastor convinced her it was time. In December 2022, with the support of her husband Roy and her two sons, Overstreet-Wilson announced her candidacy. She won and was sworn in on January 1.
Today, Overstreet-Wilson has her own consulting firm, EID Blueprint — equity and inclusion equals diversity — which works with not-for-profits to advance diversity. She has taken a second adjunct job teaching a leadership course at Tompkins-Cortland Community College. In addition, she is president of the Harriet Tubman Center for Justice and Peace, vice president of the Auburn/Cayuga NAACP, and a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission.
Her sons have followed in her footsteps. Her older son Jahnere Wilson works with youths in state residential facilities. Her younger son Dejuan Wilson is a student at SUNY Empire, studying community and human services.
Now that she’s in public office, she feels both the honor — and the pressure. “There are so many expectations around me, and I do not want to fail,” she says. For Overstreet-Wilson, that means continuing to advocate for people of color and serving as a role model for young black girls.