You might say civic duty is in Thelma Daley’s genes. Her parents were involved in civic organizations and served on national boards, and her grandmother was a PTA president for more than 25 years.
“I guess it’s a part of my DNA,” said the Baltimore resident, who holds leadership roles in organizations including the NAACP and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., and worked actively on several political campaigns, helping to elevate African Americans into political office. She also blazed trails in counseling as the first African American president of The American Counseling Association, the largest counseling association in the world.
Smart, witty and a master networker, those who know her say Ms. Daley has a knack for bringing different groups together and getting people to listen to her.
And while her upbringing may have influenced her activism, Ms. Daley also has a personal desire to make a difference and impact change.
“I find it very fulfilling to work for the protection of the rights of human beings,” Ms. Daley said. “And to boost human beings to become the best and to know there are possibilities and that doors can be opened.”
This same kind of desire led her to work in school counseling, a career Ms. Daley loved so much she turned down opportunities to become a vice principal. It was while working for Baltimore County Public Schools in the ’70s that she first met Nancy Grasmick, who would go on to become Maryland’s first female state superintendent of schools.
Ms. Grasmick considered Ms. Daley a mentor at the time. “I thought it was a treasure to get her opinion on circumstances and follow her lead,” said Ms. Grasmick, who remembered Ms. Daley as someone who didn’t “work in a box” and saw the success of a child linked to more than academics.
When controversy erupted over whether to allow a young student with AIDS to attend classes, it was Ms. Daley who eloquently advised the school system on what to do, recalled Ms. Grasmick, who was area superintendent over the district where the school was located. She talked to health professionals and took into account how students, parents and the student with the virus, who was allowed to attend school, would feel.
“It was really her wonderful counseling work that I think had a profound impact on making that situation so that it was not a continuing crisis,” Ms. Grasmick said.
Bruce Steward met Ms. Daley at Perry Hall High School in the ’70s when she was director of school counselors like himself. He brought to her the idea for a peer counseling program and soon found himself traveling the country with Ms. Daley to promote the program to her wide network of associates she knew from counseling associations.
“She is a voice to the people who are unvoiced,” he said.
Ms. Daley’s work didn’t stop in the classroom. Her “free time” was filled with civic and political activities, which took her around the world to fight for social causes. She went to Cuba with the NAACP and Durban, South Africa, with the National Council on Negro Women for the World Conference Against Racism — the same year President George Bush declined to attend.
“Most of my organizations are women’s rights, but when we are fighting for the woman we are fighting for the family,” she said. “You are also elevating the man and certainly paving a way for the children.”
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who had met Ms. Daley when he was running for Baltimore City Council, years later put her in charge of Women In NAACP when he was head of the storied civil rights organization. He said she turned it from a social organization to one that empowered women. Under her leadership, women were encouraged to run local chapters, join committees and speak out on issues. They began acting as a “block of power and prestige” within the organization, Mr. Mfume said.
“She literally revived the organization nationwide and connected it with similar groups around the country,” he said.
When Mr. Mfume decided to run to replace the late Rep. Elijah Cummings in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, Ms. Daley was one of his early supporters. But she said her most memorable campaign was that of former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke when he ran and won the seat as Baltimore’s first African American State’s Attorney — a milestone moment.
“The vote is so important,” she said. “You have to get good people in office if you want good transportation, better roads and good schools.”
Even a pandemic hasn’t slowed Ms. Daley down. She recently mentored some young women with Delta sorority via Zoom. She was the sorority’s 16th national president and has held many other leadership roles. Younger women look up to her and she gets joy out of helping the next generation. A self-described shy person, Ms. Daley prefers to put other people in the spotlight rather than herself.
“My whole thing is to find the best in others and to help people find their possibilities and to help them facilitate their possibilities,” she said. “Everybody has a gift, but there are some people who don’t know they have their gift.”
Current residence: Baltimore
Education: Bowie State University, New York University, George Washington University
Career highlights: National Board Certified Counselor; American Counseling Association Fellow; Baltimore County Board of Education, director of counseling; Loyola University, Baltimore, assistant professor of counselor education and full-time coordinator of clinical services
Civic and charitable activities: Past president of the American School Counselor Association, The American Counseling Association and Women in Community Services; 16th national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.; member American Counseling Test (ACT) advisory board; board of trustees with the Educational Testing Services; College Board trustee; member National Advisory Council on Career Education; national board The National Council on Negro Women; National Program Chair, The Links, Inc.; National Director of Women in NAACP