Friday Firsts: Michelle Green-Ford’s Journey From Miss Dunbar to Becoming the First Woman to Lead the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce

A few years ago, Michelle Green-Ford was sitting on her porch enjoying the weather when a headhunter called her.

Devoyd Jennings had passed away. He was a legendary leader in Fort Worth, an icon in the community, and a titan of business. Green-Ford was heartbroken. She was thinking of those who knew him, of his impact on the city — the last thing on her mind was dusting off her resume.

But that was exactly what the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce wanted her to do. The chamber needed a new leader. It needed someone to step in for Jennings. 

Initially, Green-Ford politely declined. She liked her job at JPS and was comfortable.

However, the chamber persisted. Change was happening fast, and she would have the opportunity to shape the organization the way she wanted and take it where she wanted to. That prospect appealed to her.

She took the interview — and she left knowing it was meant to be. 

Green-Ford felt destined for the role because she was surrounded by people who had the same vision as her. 

“I am here to help leave a legacy, not only for the chamber, but for the community, of helping as many people as I can and influencing as many people as I can to restore dreams around economic development and workforce development and just enrichment of lifestyle for the community,” she said.

But she also knew it was meant to be because the community that raised her — the Dunbar community — helped her believe it.

A Community Raising Wildcats

Green-Ford was born and raised in the Stop Six community. She remembers her neighborhood as a place of love and support. Somewhere neighbors look out for each other. A place she felt like she had everything she needed in her corner of the world. Her entire education was in the Dunbar pyramid — which she insists is the best part of the district.

Dunbar has always stood for excellence — whether in its state-winning basketball program or how the students carry themselves in their day-to-day life — Green-Ford knew that expectation of excellence is part of why she’s successful today.

“But for me, what was critical in my development was support,” she said. “Support for understanding who I was as a person, and that that was a good thing. That being an African American female was a great thing.”

At the time, students often feel like teachers are harassing them, Green-Ford said. They’re constantly asking about their homework, making sure they follow the rules, pushing them to do better. Looking back, Green-Ford knows her teachers were committed to making sure they were successful and that her teachers were passionate about the success of their students.

One teacher in particular, Ms. Mark, taught Green-Ford incredibly valuable lessons in confidence. She was Green-Ford’s history teacher, a class she wasn’t too fond of, and she made sure that by the time Green-Ford left her class, she was a confident speaker.

Green-Ford was a varsity cheerleader. She would stand up in front of hundreds of people at pep rallies and lead chants. She would lead parades for miles with people lined up on both sides of the street in the neighborhood. 

But when she stood up to speak in class, she spoke timidly. She was shy. Ms. Mark was not going to stand for that, and she told Green-Ford something she’d never forget.

“You have something to say; you're gonna say it.”

Green-Ford recalls Ms. Mark demanded that she not be fearful when she had something to say. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and made her keep practicing until her presentations were perfect. 

“I want to thank her for the fact that she demanded excellence and she prepared us for college,” Green-Ford said. “Because she didn't want us to have a good time and goof off and fail in the process of college. But it was that excellence that helped me and I didn't know, of course, I was being trained later to be a professional speaker.”

A Wildcat’s Roar

Finding her voice was like walking a delicate minefield.

“People were not saying those words to me directly. They were not saying, ‘You shouldn't say anything.’ I didn't have anybody coming to me saying, ‘You need to be quiet. Don't say a word,’” Green-Ford said. “But it's the subtle things that taught young women, particularly young African American women, in many cases, that you should just be quiet.”

But mentors at Dunbar like Ms. Mark made it clear to Green-Ford that her voice mattered.

“She would say it out loud, ‘You should not be quiet. You are going to have something to say. You are valuable. And you certainly are going to say it, and I'm going to make sure you say it right,’” Green-Ford said. “And so the message society teaches sometimes, through just actions like not being asked what you think, sends those little subtle messages. Just be quiet and just sit here.”

She kept using her voice. It helped her go against the family expectation and attend UNT instead of TCU, and it helped her graduate college with a bachelor’s of Business Administration. Green-Ford’s resume is stacked. She’s worked for IBM, American Airlines, started her own businesses, and consulted.

All of those paths led her to becoming the first woman to lead the chamber as president and CEO — though she didn’t know it until she signed the dotted line.

Green-Ford said she’s glad she didn’t know she’d be the first woman president and CEO during the interview, because it might have changed her perception of the position. She’s glad she didn’t know, because it meant there wasn’t a tape playing in her head with doubts: “they don’t want women here. They want a man.”

Instead, she just accepted the position. She figured out the common goals between her and the board and how they’d accomplish them.

Green-Ford knew how to do the work, and in the end that was all that mattered. 

And she knew how to do that work because of her FWISD education.

“I'm very sensitive about the school district and sometimes when people have negative things to say, because I am a product of that school district and there are so many great things about our public schools,” Green-Ford said. “I just want to thank the people from Fort Worth ISD because I knew that what I received there absolutely gave me the foundation I have today.”

She didn’t need to attend a fancy private school, Green-Ford said. She got exactly the education she needed to get where she is today.  

“And I see that happening for so many of our students and we cannot lose track of that,” she said. “Because it's more than just the numbers on the paper. It's about what you get in the environment. And what you believe about yourself. So it's academics, it's character, it’s values. It's all of that. And I can truly say that Fort Worth ISD was that for me every step of the way.”