Teri Helenese, a St. Croix native now living in Virginia, was sworn in Sept. 19 along with 15 other community leaders from Virginia, as members of Gov. Ralph Northam’s newly created African American Advisory Board.
The new entity is charged with advising the governor on ways to strengthen the relationship between state government and the African American community through intelligent and strategic policymaking, with full input from communities. By rule, the 18-member committee must include 15 African Americans.
Northam, a Democrat, has been at pains to listen more closely to the African American community since a controversy earlier this year involving his wearing blackface in 1984. The governor apologized for the 35-year old offensive action and polls indicated African Americans in Virginia largely accepted the apology while white Republicans were more likely to call for him to step down.
According to a statement from the Virginia governor’s office, Helenese aims to leverage her position as president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Belmont Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County, as well as her strong background in IT, human resources, strategic communications, and organizational change, to improve diversity and inclusion in Virginia’s schools in Loudoun County and statewide.
A recent study commissioned by the superintendents of the Loudoun County Public Schools found high levels of systemic racism in the county’s schools. The governor said that as a parent and community leader, Helenese is well-positioned to tackle that problem head-on.
According to the news release announcing her appointment to the panel, Helenese said she plans to start by addressing the need to educate students in African American history, which is conspicuously absent from many schools’ curricula. That includes the history of the U.S. territories.
Helenese was born and raised on St. Croix, and she continues to serve the islands in her position as the U.S. Virgin Islands’ director of state-federal relations and Washington representative, reporting to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.
St. Croix has long been known for its production of rum, even among the U.S. founding fathers including George Washington, the first president.
Hundreds of years later on St. Croix, Helenese served as the director of human resources at Diageo’s Captain Morgan distillery, the producer of the world’s second best-selling rum.
That was 10 years ago.
Ebony magazine included Helenese on its list of the Top 25 Accomplished Women in 1997, Cosmopolitan magazine called her a leader to watch and a year later designated her as a “Leader to Watch,” and Ebony magazine’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities Campus Queens in 1994.
A former information technology consultant, Helenese spent 20 years counseling Fortune 500 clients, along with government agencies, non-profits, and NGOs, just as they were going through large-scale organizational transformation.
During her tenure at Deloitte Consulting, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, she worked on a project to bolster the security of U.S. ports: a new government credential called the Transportation Worker Identification Credential or TWIC. Helenese worked on the TWIC Policy team and was tapped as the TWIC Ambassador. She traveled to 37 states to brief employers, unions, Coast Guard officials, and other stakeholders on the new credentialing process. Helenese changed resistors and detractors to supporters and champions of the TWIC mandate. As of May 2014, 2.9 million people were enrolled in the program.
Also at Deloitte, Helenese reportedly played a leading role in integrating the information infrastructure of 22 agencies at the birth of the Department of Homeland Security, created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In 2008, Helenese relocated to St. Croix and worked for Diageo, one of the world’s largest producers of alcoholic beverages.
Early in her career, reporting to Gov. Roy L. Schneider, Helenese served as the director of the Office of the Governor in Washington, D.C., and she also worked as the director of public affairs in the 25th Legislature.
Helenese is a member of the Loudoun branch of the NAACP, an organization that has called out the need to deal with race and racism in the county’s schools.
“And that is exactly what I aim to do,” Helenese said in the statement from the Virginia governor’s office.
Helenese holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration from Florida Memorial College and an master’s degree in statistics and communications from the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.