Todd Duckett remembers casually meeting Paula Cunningham about six years ago at various events in Lansing.
He remembers hearing other African Americans speaking with pride about how she was the first African-American bank president and CEO in Michigan, at Lansing’s Capitol National Bank, and was involved in a number of prominent business and civic organizations that few other African Americans in Lansing – especially women – had traditionally been part of.
Duckett, owner of the Lansing-based Duckett Enterprises, a former All-Big Ten running back for Michigan State University and NFL fullback better known by his initials, T.J, is no slouch himself. Still Duckett said he was always pleasantly surprised when he would see Cunningham in the community quietly working with young children of color and gently encouraging them to refine their social skills, develop business acumen and set their sights high.
“We really began to connect after I was invited to speak to the kids at the Learn Live Lead Entrepreneurial Academy on the south side of Lansing,” he said. “She helped found the school and was there teaching kids how to save money and run a business. And the thing about it is, here she is this bank president and CEO and yet you would never know it because she was quietly working with these kids and giving each individual person a special moment and attention like any other teacher.”
“I was very impressed by that. It takes a very special person to be as busy as she is and yet still invest that kind of time in the community,” Duckett said.
Willard Walker is a Senior Policy Consultant with Public Policy Associates and a longtime and well known Capitol District community leader. He said Cunningham doesn’t make fiery speeches, or carry herself in a flamboyant way, but her leadership is understood and widely admired by everyone; especially African Americans in the Lansing community because they understand the path she is blazing.
“It’s almost uncanny the depth of her knowledge about this community and all the people she can call who can help,” he said. “She does that with a lot of black folks. She’s never shied away from the fact she is a black female. But she doesn’t flaunt that either. By that I mean she’s just Paula. She doesn’t have to when you’ve got that personality because people love her.”
Teresa Bingman, president of the Lansing/East Lansing Chapter of Links, an organization of professional African-American women, said Cunningham’s ability to work with inner-city children one day and her organization the next is proof of her commitment to developing future leaders.
“Despite her busy schedule she always makes time to assist in the development of leaders as well as grassroots individuals,” Bingman said. “It just demonstrates her continued commitment to supporting people at all levels and from all walks of life. Those people skills are real.”
Trevor W. Coleman is a veteran metro Detroit journalist and winner of a 2014 Detroit SPJ First Place Award for News Reporting and 2012 and 2011 NABJ and Detroit SPJ First Place Awards for Feature Writing and Editorial writing, respectively.