Dr. Lezlee Matthews is an accomplished, brilliant ray of sunshine with an extensive education. In addition, her research and dedication to her community shines through in our interview.
Dr. Matthews was born in the midwest in Dayton, Ohio, but was raised in Southern California, in LA. She is the oldest of three, having a younger brother and sister. At the age of eight, Matthews was separated from her siblings as they began living in different households. Thankfully they have all been able to get in touch and maintain a close relationship. Faith, community, and education were major pillars in her family dynamic.
“I think it really shaped my understanding and my approach to building community, and, you know, my thought about being a community developer, community organizer, and an urban planner.”Dr. Lezlee Matthews
Born to young parents, the stresses of life like money issues and a variety of other struggles that come with raising young children at a younger age drove the two to a divorce. After the age of 8 years old was when she and her siblings began living in separate family dynamics. Feelings of betrayal and hurt were only natural. However, Dr. Matthews does not dwell on the past.
“I think I would say that early resentments… that happen when… family dissolution occurs have been replaced with some measure of compassion… I have had a chance to reflect on it and think about it differently now that I’m grown.”Dr. Lezlee Matthews
Matthews opened up about an unfair incident that happened to her in junior high school. After getting caught in typical Los Angeles traffic while riding the bus in her school busing program, she and many other students ended up being late for their first period class. The teacher of that class made a particularly vocal and public reaction in the form of a statement toward Matthews and the other students of color who were also tardy. Although Matthews did not disclose the exact statement, it lit a fire inside of her. She now wanted to prove herself and also stand up for the other kids who had a tougher time getting to school. After a long educational battle in a very difficult science class, Matthew was one of the only two students in that class to receive an ‘A.’
Dr. Matthews has an impressive education from UCLA with advanced degrees in subjects like sociology, religion, and urban planning. In her pursuit of a PhD in urban planning, she had to write a dissertation on a topic of her choosing. She based her research around various questions to guide how she wanted to write her dissertation:
“So, the dissertation research itself explored housing and community development with a focus on African American, Black communities, and I was especially concerned… with questions of how… underserved and marginalized communities succeed and how they use community-based assets despite institutional and social barriers…”Dr. Lezlee Mattews
She conducted a comparative study looking at the organizations situated between faith and secular communities. After finishing her research, she actually saw that both communities shared similar ties to each other in business models and motivations tied to their faith.
In addition, Matthews described her time pursuing her doctorate to be a very “liberating” time. With encouragement from her advisors, she pushed past her master’s degree to pursue her doctorate. The current events of the time in the 90’s, like police brutality and injustices within the justice system, further fueled her passion. (Although Matthews did not name the case, I suspect it was the case of Rodney King and the riots that resulted from it).
“I had a special Aunt, and she would always say that… ‘well you stay in school, you have options.’ And I really found that to be the case.”Dr. Lezlee Matthews
With her doctorate obtained, the world was her oyster for finding a job. She found that she now had access to research and teaching opportunities at some of the top institutions in Los Angeles, the country, and even internationally. Now, she is an independent consultant with her own firm. She describes it having aspects like independence and having the freedom to lead and be assertive in her profession, which are some of the best parts of her job. Choosing her own hours, balancing life with work and family, and being able to work remotely are also perks. Because of her firm, she is able to work as a consultant on project management, strategic planning, and evaluation for a variety of different companies and community organizations.
I brought up the severe wage gap between women of color in the work force and asked her if she had also experienced any obstacles. She replied:
“I thought, “hey, you know when I was a kid and I- I did something great I got a blue ribbon and everybody applauded!”… a little bit different… as an adult, you know, completing a higher education… but I would say one obstacle that’s persisted… regardless of my education level, has been barriers to leadership.”Dr. Lezlee Matthews
She spoke about how, before she became the president of her own firm, she had to try to look for external paths to leadership but was still met with opposition. Being a woman of color, and an extremely accomplished one, probably resulted in a lot of power struggles between the higher-ups and Matthews. Luckily, she gets to be the captain of her own ship now.
While work has been slightly affected by Covid-19 and the pandemic, being able to work remotely has not jeopardized her firm. If anything, Covid has only changed the methods through which she can interact with her community. Making sure everything follows protocols and everyone is safe is a top priority for Matthews and her firm. Some added challenges include Zoom fatigue and trying to find new ways for the community to be engaging for young people and adults alike. However, working without ‘the human touch’ has been the largest obstacle she’s faced.
Matthews cites the women of her family to be her biggest sources of inspiration. Originally born in Alabama, the woman who raised Matthews then internally migrated to Southern California in the early 60’s. She was a trailblazer of the time, as most Black women would have moved to the Midwest. She faced many forms of discrimination and ugliness, the details of which Matthews did not disclose. However, Dr. Matthews did say that any discrimination she herself may have felt must have “paled in comparison.”
In addition, famous social activists like Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, and and movements like #blm and #SayHerName have heavily influenced her work and her life. When dedicating her time to teaching African American studies, Matthews integrated the ideas of hooks and Crenshaw, along with the social justice and feminist movements, in order to broaden her own understanding along with her students’.
“I would say my consciousness about disparities in Black women’s treatment and the justice system are much more heightened.”Dr. Lezlee Matthews
Intersectionality and writings by Bell Hooks became centerpieces of her African American studies courses, which Matthews said that she learned to appreciate from various perspectives. Dr. Matthews also participates as a panelist in Dr. Crenshaw’s Under the Blacklight series on Youtube and engages in “lots of good dialogue.”
It was impossible to not be in awe while speaking with Matthews. Her eloquence and willingness to answer questions made for an intellectually stimulating experience. It became clear as the interview went on that her life and work had shifted from feeling the need to prove herself to anyone/everyone who doubted her to a “kind of Toni Morrison way of self-understanding.” I felt really inspired by that transformation because I feel that I would like to get to that point too. For so long, I felt that I needed to prove myself in academics and society so that I could evade the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype. While that is a very shallow and incomparable expectation to all of the societal burdens that come with being a woman of color, I still felt that spark of awe.
“I am who I am and I bring these attributes to the table and… I hope that we can work together to achieve… some greater goal.”Dr. Lezlee Matthews
Also as someone who is starting to grow into being comfortable with presenting her own identity, I cannot help but look to the above quote for inspiration and strength.
Parting Thoughts and Conclusion
Dr. Lezlee Matthews is an extremely impressive individual who works hard to help benefit her community in any way that she can. Her extensive knowledge and research is evident both in her written works and just being in conversation with her. When I asked about what she would like to do when the pandemic finally ends, she replied that she wants to see her family, meet some of her colleagues that have joined in the past year, and reengage with her community.
College, Lafayette. “Kimberlé Crenshaw Discusses ‘Intersectional Feminism’.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 Oct. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROwquxC_Gxc.
“Get the Facts about the Pay Gap for Latina Equal Pay Day.” Lean In, leanin.org/data-about-the-gender-pay-gap-for-latinas.
“SAY HER NAME.” AAPF, www.aapf.org/sayhername.
“UNDER THE BLACKLIGHT.” AAPF, www.aapf.org/aapfcovid.