Dr. Joanne Flowers (nominated by Elijah Yale, grandson) wins 1st place in our Do It For the Gram contest!
Dr. Joanne Flowers is a force to be reckoned with.
She now leads a church in Harrison, Arkansas, but the path there hasn’t been an easy one. Elijah said that it’s his grandmother’s determination and ability to truly make an impact on the world around her that inspires him deeply. Her dynamic personality and wealth of life experiences have made a huge impact not only on her family but on everyone who crosses her path.
After being declared legally blind in one eye at a young age and facing many obstacles in school, Dr. Flowers developed an insatiable desire to succeed. Her commitment to learn about the world propelled her beyond the limitations her school and even her hometown of Louisville, KY. had placed on her. She is a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) graduate, retired Navy Commander, decorated academic, and most importantly “grandmommy” to her adoring family.
Dr. Joanne Flowers usually tends to her garden on Saturday mornings. Her zinnias, nasturtiums, Shasta daisies, tulips, brown-eyed Susans and various varieties of daffodils all adorn the grounds of her parsonage. It serves as her happy place for what she calls “exterior decorating.”
“Gardening is my creative outlet,” said Joanne. “I love designing landscapes in such a way that it is a place of beauty throughout the four seasons.”
She has always had a love for gardening and has fond memories of planting zinnias with her grandmother. She says that she really got into horticulture after moving to Washington state in 1993.
“Of course, I couldn’t stop at the surface,” said Joanne. “I had to dive deep so I went through the Master Gardener program.”
Like with so many other things, Joanne’s tenacity and thirst for knowledge has led her on many interesting paths throughout the years. Most recently, her calling as a minister has made a deep impact on her journey, with her garden serving as a backdrop for both reflection and planning for the future on most Saturdays.
“I’m usually in the last throes of finishing my sermons for that Sunday,” said Joanne. “I work well under pressure.”
Indeed she does.
In addition to being a mother and grandmommy, Joanne is a graduate of a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), a retired Navy Commander, a decorated academic, and most recently a minister to her congregation in Harrison, Ark.
“She’s very modest,” said Elijah. “She’s done more things than I think she even has a concept of.”
It was Elijah who nominated Joanne for Aura’s “Do It for the Gram” contest, calling her a force to be reckoned with and noting her tenacity, warmth, and strength as all well-deserved reasons for her to rise to the No. 1 spot.
“How can I not tell anyone about my grandmother?” said Elijah. “She has so much grace and power within her. She’s just come so far from humble beginnings.”
Originally from Louisville, Ky., Joanne and her sister were raised by her mother in a community named Swampton, one of the roughest and most segregated areas in town.
“We lived in a housing project called Sheppard Square,” said Joanne. “My mother was divorced from my father and so ambitious and motivated to provide a better life for her children.”
Joanne’s mother went on to purchase a house in a better part of town and would incessantly bring home books for Joanne and her sister to read.
“My mother and grandmother told us we would go on to do great things,” said Joanne. “I see that in Elijah too.”
Joanne went to school in the inner city and was often overlooked by her teachers or labeled as “slow” by them not recognizing that she was legally blind in one eye.
But the limitations her early school years put on her were no match for her insatiable desire to learn more about the world.
Joanne was the first in her family to attend college but it would be a long journey to get there. Things began to turn around when her aunt introduced her to a mentor Joanne fondly remembers as Mr. Dobson when she was in the 10th grade.
“My aunt worked as an elevator operator and she would talk to Mr. Dobson and told him, ‘My niece is really smart and we don’t know what to do with her,’” said Joanne.
“They brought me in for testing and I placed within two percent of the population. Mr. Dobson volunteered to mentor me and get me into college. He told me that I needed to go to a black school, and he was the one who helped me pick Central State University because he didn’t want me to get lost in the racism at other schools.”
Central State University, located in Wilberforce, Ohio, would serve as a launching pad for Joanne where she pursued her studies in the sciences, unencumbered by racism and otherness. It would be years later in graduate school where she would share a classroom with white people for the first time, often as the only black student.
“To be able to be taught by black PhDs and black chemists was an amazing experience,” said Joanne. “I will give my HBCU credit for giving me the confidence in knowing that there is not an academic feat that I can’t accomplish. I couldn’t be intimidated.”
Joanne went on to enroll as one of the last recruits for the Women's Army Corps in hopes of seeing the world.
“I decided to join the Army and my mom thought it was the worst thing that I could do,” said Joanne. “But I needed something to cure this wanderlust that I had been blessed with -- or cursed with.”
It was in basic training where she was called a leader for the first time and the title has stuck ever since. The military gave Joanne the training she needed to accomplish anything she set her mind to.
“I always liked adventures and I’ve always enjoyed traveling and I didn’t get a lot of that,” said Joanne. “Even going to school in Ohio, it felt like it was a lifetime away, so here I was in this place where they saw more in me than I saw in myself. I learned that there’s a game always being played. The question is, ‘What do you bring to that game?’”
It was at her next station in Arizona where she would meet her future husband and eventually have her daughter Leah.
She and Leah would go on to leave Arizona where she was stationed and teaching college courses, to further pursue her life's purpose. Joanne enrolled in a master's program at East Tennessee State University where 20 years later, she would return and serve as department chair for the School of Public Health.
In the time between her leaving Arizona and her tenure as department chair, she joined the U.S. Navy, ascended the ranks to ultimately retire as a Commander, earned two master's degrees, was a tenured college professor, a certified master gardener, and earned a PhD from the University of Texas, all while being a single mother and moving throughout the country.
“Well, I never planned to have any children actually, but I have found being a mother and grandmother the most rewarding,” said Joanne. “I see children as a replication or a nice mixture but also I experience thoughts and practices that my daughter and grandchildren actually do, so that gives me a hint of what the next generation is going to be like.”
She is grandmommy to three grandchildren: 21-year-old Elijah, 11-year-old Claudia, and two-year-old Antonia.
“I was blessed that Elijah was spending summers with me,” said Joanne. “He would come down and it would make my day and my month. He was incredibly smart, and to me, that was like ‘Let me stand back and see what he does.’”
Joanne also said that when her daughter Leah was pregnant with Elijah, a woman told her that he was going to be a boy and he was going to be a great man of God.
“I have always seen him as smart but also spiritually leaning,” said Joanne.
With all of her grandchildren, Joanne said that she likes to see how God has pulled things together to make her daughter and grandchildren such unique people. She believes it's something that is going to be eternal and she always asks God to keep them safe and on a narrow path.
It was, in fact, her calling into ministry that would set her on a new narrow path in her career and life journey.
But Joanne’s calling didn’t start as she would have expected. During her time as department chair, she was called into ministry and began work on her third master’s degree in Divinity. She jumped into the calling headfirst, and became an ordained minister, knowing that the journey ahead might take her in a much different direction than the one she had been on in the military and in academia.
“My mother told me before she died that when I was little, I came home and my grandparents could see the spirit of God all over me,” she said.
She said that her grandfather would often call her over and have her read scripture, and her grandmother always told her when she was little that she was going to be a missionary.
“After my mother died, I was struggling with her death and little by little I could feel something happening inside of me, so I went to my pastor and he said, ‘Well, just don’t fight it,’” said Joanne.
She decided to enroll in seminary, a decision that would change the direction of her path yet again as she had to retire from her role as a Commander in the U.S. Navy.
“I began to ask myself if my life would be fulfilled if I ignored this calling and I knew that it would not,” said Joanne.
Since answering her calling and ministering at her church in Harrison Ark., Joanne has also made a number of missionary trips to Kenya, Haiti, China and Cuba.
Whether on a mission trip to Haiti and seeing children who needed glasses like she once did, or preaching verses from Acts Chapter 16 to local women at a church in Nairobi, Kenya, Joanne has a way of connecting with people from all walks of life.
“I think the most inspirational thing about her is her ability to interact with people,” said Elijah. “I’ve seen how she talks to her congregants in church and I never see that she’s shy.”
Elijah has plans to go into the education field where he will have to interact with students and colleagues alike. He hopes to carry his grandmother’s ability to touch others with him on that journey.
“My grandmother’s ability to truly impact change on the world around her inspires me deeply,” said Elijah. “She is magnetic and beautiful and has a wealth of sage wisdom. The degrees and titles are intimidating for some, but she’s also hilarious so her incredibly dry wit neutralizes most situations and draws people even closer. She’s an inspiration not only to me and our family, but also to those she touches with words, actions and kindness.”
Even with the many life journeys and titles Joanne has earned over the years, she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
As the first Black woman to lead her congregation, she believes there’s still more work to do in her church, in her community, and around the world.
“It’s been almost a year of her being there at her church, and her dynamic personality and wealth of life experiences, insight, intellect, and expertise has healed the town and the church in a way that none of us could have anticipated,” said Elijah.
Next up, Joanne wants to make a return missionary trip to Nairobi, Kenya to visit the women in the village again. She is also in the process of meeting with a genealogist to trace her family’s roots on her mother’s side back to Mozambique and Angola by way of her newly-discovered cousin in Brazil.
“It’s important to learn about who you are, especially while the generation before you is still alive,” said Joanne. “I hope to be able to pass that knowledge down to my grandchildren someday. I’m relying on God more and more.”
As our 1st place winner, Joanne will receive $5,000 and three Carver frames for the family.
Learn more about our “Do It For the Gram” contest winners here.