At 12 years old, Sheryl Lovelady began piano lessons. Six months later, she was offered up as a suitable replacement for her church’s ill pianist. With guts only a child can muster and little training, she found herself on the piano bench at her Southern Baptist church playing hymns for Sunday service.
“Each week I would learn a new set of songs and that’s what we would sing in church on Sunday,” she says, amazed herself at the pressure of the task.
Lovelady, a veteran campaign manager, public opinion strategist and former communications director for the City of Tulsa, has made a career of calculating and surmounting odds. She’s an adrenaline junkie drawn to a good challenge to get her fix and wants to create new addicts.
“We need more women to step up and impact the policies that affect them,” Lovelady says.
She ticks off alarming statistics. Oklahoma is the third worst state for women to live in based on politics, economics, education and health. The state ranks 49th in the nation for the proportion of women serving in the state legislature. And women are incarcerated at a higher rate in Oklahoma than anywhere else in the industrialized world.
A forecast Lovelady saw while working at a political consulting and strategy firm projected the women-to-men ratio in the state legislature would not reach parity at the current rate until the year 3013.
“We have to pick up the pace. I’m not that patient,” says Lovelady, who now offices in the same building where Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher attended the University of Oklahoma Law school after fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to gain admission as both the first black and first female student at the college.
As director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at OU, Lovelady works to show women that policy can be impacted significantly without fighting to the nation’s highest court.
“The starting point for policy is boards and commissions. Serving at the local level can really impact change because you are closest to the people,” she says.
She challenges women to talk to their mayor and get involved. Opportunities exist at all levels and public service does not always mean partisan politics.
The Women’s Leadership Initiative coordinates the strongest National Education for Women’s (NEW) Leadership program in the country. Lovelady engages women in public services, such as Mary Fallin, Jari Askins and Rita Aragon to work directly with 300 of the top undergraduate women from the state during a five-day, in-residence program.
Other programs like The Appointment Project (TAP) and Pipeline to Politics Project inform women about affecting policy and demystify common perceptions women hold about politics.
“Women win office as frequently as men. They just don’t run as much,” Lovelady says.
The political landscape, she says, looks negative and uneven to women. Because of this, women don’t get involved.
“When women are at the table, the dialogue changes,” she says.
While passionate about her causes, Lovelady is grounded. She brings fun to everything she does and takes time to stop and genuinely relish the small things, an example learned from her son with autism.
“We brag on each other all day. In real life we don’t do that enough,” she says.
She never misses the opportunity to learn from anyone or anything. After two decades of successful campaign management, she is back at graduate school – she says to learn how to do communications correctly.