debi-harris_web.jpgMIAMI — While some are thrilled about her role as the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade’s first African-American leader, Debi M. Harris is borrowing the philosophy of the country’s commander-in-chief as she assumes the leadership of an organization committed to improving the quality of life of women and girls in Miami-Dade County.

“I kind of feel like [President] Barack Obama on this one. I am African-American absolutely… I am proud of that, but I don’t know if that will have as much impact on the role,” said Harris, whose most recent position was director of business development and community relations for Patelco Credit Union in San Francisco, a nationally recognized nonprofit financial cooperative.

Since its inception, WFMD has supported more than 250 projects throughout the county that serve low-income women and at-risk girls. The program anticipates doling out at least $500,000 to various projects this year.

The organization receives it’s funding from individuals, corporations and foundations, special events and through an endowment campaign.  It funds a variety of projects aimed at assisting women and girls, like the Girls Advocacy Project, which provides a variety of services and support to girls in the local juvenile detention system; and IT Women, a program in Little Haiti that increases young women’s exposure to – and knowledge of – information technology.

Some of what Harris was able to accomplish in her previous post, she hopes to replicate for women in Miami-Dade.   At Patelco, Harris was able to help expand corporate participation in the credit union’s strategic partnerships, and to increase the delivery of financial literacy programs, an effort she has already begun to nurture in her new position.

“I’m very interested in building coalitions between the financial institutions here,” said Harris, who is single and has no children.
Harris is especially concerned about providing “financial literacy for women,” and was already “talking with a bank representative about the potential for that,” she told the South Florida Times.

“I am excited to have Debi join the Women’s Fund in this leadership role,” said Betty Weinkle, WFMD’s board chair. “In addition to fundraising, she has a broad base of experience in business development and a solid track record of organizational leadership, financial management and marketing.”

Harris’ experience appears tailor-made for her new position. Prior to her work with Patelco, Harris served as vice President of Development for the Women’s Funding Network – a nonprofit membership organization based in San Francisco and comprising more than 100 women’s and girls’ organizations. WFMD is a part of that coalition.

Founded in 1993, the organization has been under the leadership of Claudia Kitchens for most of its existence, save for a brief interim leader.   Kitchens retired last month and was honored at a going-away party by the organization’s staff, board members and several prominent community leaders.

Harris, 53, said she hopes to build on Kitchens’ stellar work with the organization – hoping to marry her own national experience with what WFMD has already been able to accomplish to take the fund to the next level.  Her vision for the organization includes “reaching out to many more donors that can be a part of women helping women,” Harris said.

The 1975 Howard University graduate (B.S.; Psychology) began her first day with the fund on Feb. 23. In her short tenure, she is already connecting with some of the town’s legendary leaders.

She met Thelma Gibson, retired nurse, widow of civil rights activist Father Theodore Gibson and Harris’ sorority sister (Delta Sigma Theta) at Kitchens’ retirement party; and lived with Angela Bellamy during her first two weeks in town.

WFMD’s major fundraiser of the year will be the first over which  Harris presides. She enthusiastically informed the South Florida Times that
“The Power of the Purse Part III,” the organization’s endowment initiative, takes place on April 24 at the Hilton.

“It’s an event not to miss. A big networking opportunity for women in Miami-Dade, A lot of people come to this every year, we’ve had as much as 1500 people there,” Harris said of the event that features a silent auction of couture and designer purses.

Speaking on her vision for her new role, Harris said, “I’m really looking forward to working with so many community leaders here in Miami-Dade to talk about women’s issues.”

Hinting that her work for women may exceed merely a job, Harris added, “I plan to be a passionate advocate, someone that you can depend on. I plan to be that voice. I’m looking forward to getting going.”

Photo: Debi M. Harris


WHAT: Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade’s Power of the Purse, Part III

WHEN: Friday, April 24, 2009 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

WHERE: Hilton Downtown Miami, 1601 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami

COST: Individual tickets are $125 (Available online). Sponsorship opportunities and tables are also available.

CONTACT: Beth Degi at 305-441-0506 or visit