Beverly Watts Davis's Story

    • August 31, 2004

Early Lessons

When Beverly Watts Davis was a little girl living on San Antonio's East side, she spent a lot of time at her grandmother's house on Commerce Street, across the street from the Barbara Jordan Community Center, where the headquarters of San Antonio Fighting Back is now.

She and her sister were driven to achieve. "My mother would not tolerate anything less than an A," she says. It perhaps goes without saying that they were expected to behave.

The good grades and behavior sometimes put the two girls at odds with the neighborhood kids. Once, some local bullies threatened to beat up Davis' sister. "They said they'd let her go if I shoplifted a piece of candy for them from the corner store," she recalls. "They wanted one of those big Sweetarts. So I went into the store, and I stood there staring at that Sweetart." The storeowner was watching the little girl with the anguished expression. "He said to me, 'If you sweep up in my store, I'll give you that Sweetart.' I learned then: You always have options."

Davis learned another life lesson years later when she attended San Antonio's Trinity University, where she was one of the relatively few black students at the time. Traditionally, the university recognized outstanding students at graduation. In her final year at Trinity, Davis was to be recognized. "Evidently, the committee didn't know I was black, or it never would have happened," she says." Once the news broke that a black student was being recognized, she began receiving threats. The FBI was called in to investigate the threats. School officials were pressuring her not to attend graduation.

Davis went to graduation and accepted her degree in person. "That was my first lesson in standing up for myself."

The executive director of San Antonio Fighting Back has been applying the lessons of her youth throughout her adult life. Like her mother, Davis accepts nothing less than excellence. She looks for options, and she stands up for herself, and for the causes she holds dear.

Making Connections

Beverly Watts Davis wanted to defend people. "I wanted to be Perry Mason. I thought that someday I would take Thurgood Marshall's place on the Supreme Court when he retired."

That plan didn't work out. While attending law school at the University of Texas in Austin, she met and married her husband. "He wanted something else, and it was not a lawyer for a wife," says Davis. So she stayed home and tended the house. "Well, you can only wash the dishes so many times, so I was looking for something to do."

One day, Davis was dropping some of her husband's papers off at the local typing shop, just off campus, when she discovered the business was up for sale. Her husband agreed that owning a typing business so close to campus could prove to be a lucrative opportunity. So she bought the shop, modernized it with the aid of a Small Business Administration Loan, and soon presided over a thriving concern. The SBA loan opened her eyes to the many possibilities of government intervention. "I started thinking about the connection between government and money."

Her small business success also led to the first of many honors. "In my second year, the Small Business Administration selected me as outstanding small business person." The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce also selected her as Outstanding Minority Business Owner.

At about the same time, she says, "I started making noises about minority women in business." She began lobbying locally for the Minority- and Women-Owned Business Procurement Ordinance, and served on the first Minority- and Women-Owned Business Commission when the ordinance passed.

This activism, in turn, brought her to the attention of then Gov. William P. Clements, a Republican, who tapped her to co-chair the Minority and Women-owned Business Subcommittee of the state Small Business Economic Advisory Council. Before she knew it, Davis was moving through Texas government, with a string of appointments to state boards and committees. Her personal Rolodex began filling up with the names and numbers of the state's power elite: "I worked with people all over the state of Texas."

State appointments led to federal appointments. In time, Davis's life was a tumultuous affair, with countless board appointments and responsibilities.

Then, 10 years ago, Aaronetta Pierce, a well-known and highly regarded community leader in San Antonio, approached Davis with a deal that she first attempted to refuse because she had so many other interests and commitments: the job of executive director of San Antonio Fighting Back, a new local anti-drug initiative already teetering on the brink of collapse.

In the end, she said "yes."

Getting Off The Ground

In 1990, San Antonio Fighting Back was struggling. The United Way of San Antonio and Bexar (pronounced locally as "bear") County, together with a coalition of San Antonio's civic leaders, municipal agencies and local grassroots organizations, had received grant money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to run the program. However, the effort lacked buy-in from the residents of the target area, a 25-mile area on the East and Southeast sections of San Antonio plagued by crime and drug sales, and weighed down by poverty, illiteracy and a crumbling infrastructure.

Aaronetta Pierce, a board member of the United Way, approached Austinite Beverly Watts Davis, who had done some training for the nascent Fighting Back team, to stop whatever she was doing and take over the leadership of SAFB.

At first, Davis only agreed to a temporary assignment. Within a short time, she realized that she was fully committed.

Within six months, Davis, the board and volunteers of San Antonio Fighting Back began to turn things around, initiating and providing funding to home-grown "quality of life" initiatives to combat crime and urban blight. But it wasn't easy.

First, Davis had to convince the Foundation'sFighting Back national program office.

"I said to (the Fighting Back program office), I'll work with you, but you have to send the money to us and leave us alone for six months. Then she had to persuade the United Way to trust her team with the money. No one to that point had trusted us to use the money in our own way and as we (SAFB) saw fit without micromanaging us to death."

Very much to its credit, Davis says, the funders agreed.

Next, she needed to persuade her board to share in her vision.

"When this board came on, they said, 'We're here to tackle substance abuse.' I told them that we couldn't define ourselves that narrowly," Davis recalls. "I said, 'What this is really about is creating a safe and healthy community. If we really want to reduce drugs, we can't pigeonhole ourselves.'" The board agreed.

But by far her toughest audience was the local community. "I called a town meeting on the East side. The reception was not good. People were suspicious of my motives. They called me an 'Oreo.'" Davis disarmed her critics by pointing out that in their animosity toward her they had proved a point. "I said to them, 'Now, at least, we know you can be united about something.'

"Then, I asked them, 'If you could have anything, what would you like to see happen that would make a difference in your lives?' They responded: Jobs, a safe place for our kids to play, get the kids to stop stealing. Well, a lot of those problems are related to drugs. I knew that at in time, people would get to that."

SAFB began providing funds to, and coordinating the efforts of, local programs. The program grew to include many more local programs, small and large, and coordinated their efforts into a seamless whole. The program also initiated its own anti-drug efforts: Operation Weed & Seed, Value-Based Violence Prevention Initiative, Ex-Offender Transition Services and Inner-City Games.

Whatever doubts Davis had in the beginning have long since been erased.

"I said to myself, I guess this is where God needs me to be," she says. "And since then, it's been a blessing in every way."

As Others See Her

Beverly Watts Davis, the whirlwind executive director of San Antonio Fighting Back, is an inveterate hugger and hand-squeezer. She addresses virtually everyone with the affectionate and disarming "dear heart." As in: "Dear heart, would you mind opening that door?"

Or, just as sweetly: "Dear heart, would you mind clearing out that ditch?"

Bexar County Judge Timothy Johnson, both witness to and survivor of such encounters, says with a knowing smile: "You might as well go ahead and do it."

But as warm and open as Davis truly is, she is also a player, the result of a lifetime of involvement in local, state and federal government and grassroots organizing, Texas-style.

Her high-powered connections are many:

Davis is a consultant to the U.S. Department of Human Services National Center for the Advancement of Prevention, and she serves on the advisory board of the National Funding Collaborative on Violence Prevention and the National Center for State Courts. She serves on countless boards, including the National Crime Prevention Council, National Organization of Weed and Seed Crime Prevention Coalitions and the National Association for Drug Court Professionals. She was a member of the Texas Task Force on State and Local Drug Control, the Texas Economic Advisory Council and was chair of the Multi-Cultural Affairs Committee of the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

Her commendations are just as numerous, including the 1998 Volunteer of the Year Award, for which she was selected by the President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno. She was the first Texan to be so honored.

"Let me put it this way," confides Capt. Larry Birney, commander of the San Antonio Police Department's Community Services Section and an ardent SAFB supporter. "If George W. Bush doesn't know who she is, I would be shocked."

Johnson adds: "Beverly can go on any level and talk to anybody. She has probably met every CEO in this town. She can get doors open when anyone else might be turned away."

Her connections have opened many doors for SAFB.

For example, Johnson points out, "She's had some success in bringing together disparate agencies. She got some prosecutorial agencies within the U.S. Justice Department to work with our state prosecutors. She persuaded the military to help with demolition of crack houses. She's the ultimate coalition builder."

In contrast with other community leaders, some say, Davis seems to possess an innate sense of government, and how to work within it. The Rev. John Sanders, a longtime community organizer and city council member, says, "She knows what needs to be done, but she also knows process." Davis's passion and drive can be a bit overwhelming, Johnson and others admit. Even her chairman of the board, Willie Mitchell, concedes that "she rattles a lot of people." In any other person all that zeal might be alienating. But Davis seems to balance her passion with heartfelt compassion .

John Sparks, hospital administrator of the Bexar County Jail and a member of the SAFB board, agrees with Mitchell's assessment of Davis's tendency to rattle folks, but, he adds, "she also soothes."