Meet Your SIETAR USA Board Member: Willette Neal, MOD Director

air traffic controller board of directors deia diversity life-long learner march 2022 membership organizational leadership outreach willette neal Mar 15, 2022

Getting to Know Your Board Members

Introducing Willette Neal, Membership Outreach and Diversity Director

Willette Neal found SIETAR USA by searching for like-minded people. Her husband, a philosophy professor, suggested that she should find people who want to make others more culturally aware, read what they write, and get to know them. She discovered that the SIETAR USA conference would be held in her hometown of Atlanta, GA, so she registered. Not knowing anyone she wasn’t sure about this but ran into Sherri Tapp the first day and found a kindred spirit. She also discovered that there is a name for what she had been doing: intercultural relations. 

Willette was born in rural Mississippi, one of 7 children. Following her undergraduate degree in Organizational Leadership at Ashford University, and with her strong religious background she went on a mission trip to teach a Christian class in Debeso, Ghana. That trip (she referred it as a disaster) was the impetus for her graduate degrees in Global Training and Development. She immediately recognized the deep cultural differences and knew she was unprepared for them. An incident that brought this realization home was when she was teaching a class of women about Hannah, a multiple wife of a Biblical man. Many of the women were second wives and they started asking her if they should leave their husbands. She felt out of her depth (wouldn’t you?) but it also sparked her curiosity and she wanted to learn more about how to manage working and communicating in other cultures. Another mission she has been involved with brings groups of people mostly from Asia and Africa to the United States for a program that offered a wide array of learning activities in the arts, sports, politics etc. That experience informed her PhD dissertation on home stay as part of Cultural Exchange.

Her career took an interesting twist when in the 1980s President Regan fired all the air traffic controllers. It was noticed that there were hardly any women or people of color in aviation, so a program was instituted to correct that. The government recruited air traffic controllers at Southern colleges and universities including Mississippi State University and Willette decided to apply because it was a good job with good pay. She was hired in 1989 and 34 years later is still with the FAA. Many of those years she was in air traffic control but moved into training and then into DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access) work. She said that the vetting in those days took 3 years to become an air traffic controller. 

She continued her interest in other cultures taking the opportunity to develop and teach aviation to young students at an aviation training camp in Ghana. She recognized what a difference it made to introduce aviation as a career to young people many of whom had only seen planes fly way overhead (she had to have a wooden model of a plane made to help describe and explain its parts). She petitioned to spread the program further and after 2 camps in Ghana, she taught the 3rd aviation camp in Dakar, Senegal. The program thrived and expanded, they partnered with the United Nations, and with the US embassies in the countries that supported the aviation camps. 

On these trips she was struck by the similarities in rural Africa with her youth in rural Mississippi. The growing and transferring of crops were their main business. They valued the wisdom and advice of village elders. The close connections between children and their parents was evident. The need to be introduced to people in the community and to receive the blessing of the “village mom” that gave her permission to enter. The circular communication patterns. The place in the community of the elders and children plus many other observations reminded her of growing up in Mississippi. When you meet Willette, you might want to ask about some of the differences she observed as well: about eggs in 100-degree heat, “you’re really fat,” wrapping her dreadlocks, and smells in the market—all things that were part of her active learning.

Back home in the United States, Willette realized that the FAA was not doing a very good job recruiting and hiring minorities and women, so she turned her attention to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access and she brings that lens to SIETAR USA. As the Board member responsible for increasing the membership Willette plans to survey the membership to understand better who our members are and what they want. She wants to explore how we bring in new people. What attracts them? To what end do we want more young people to be part of SIETAR USA? She knows that companies want their employees and especially new hires, to be culturally aware. Therefore, she feels that there could be links between corporations and students to help support active membership in SIETAR USA.

Willette said that she learns from conversations with all kinds of people. She is aware of the impact of what we say and do and how important it is to learn how to do it better. She is a valued member of the SIETAR USA Board of Directors.