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A Conversation with Dr. Cynthia Capers, PhD, RN, A Notable Leader in ATHENA Akron

Monday, August 31, 2020  
Posted by: Judith S. Prince
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ATHENA Akron is connecting women leaders though a series of online events featuring notable women leaders who are sharing their stories with other women leaders. After reviewing biographical information accompanying registration for Q&A with a Notable Leader, I registered for the session at which Dr. Cynthia Capers would be speaking.

From Cynthia’s bio, I saw a leader who has had many life experiences, who has faced numerous leadership challenges, and, as a Black woman, perhaps someone who had had faced obstacles. Because of the sweeping life she has lived, I felt that Dr. Capers was a woman from whom we could learn, And, I was right! At 75, Dr. Capers radiates wisdom. As she puts it, “age gives me permission to be more authentic than what I was!” In this article, I have tried to capture Cynthia’s wisdom on some of the topics we discussed.

About Dr. Capers

Dr. Capers received the ATHENA Leadership Award from ATHENA Akron in 2006.  She is Dean Emerita and Professor of the School of Nursing at the University of Akron. Prior to her retirement, her professional experiences included special assistant to the provost, college dean, professor, founder and coordinator of academic leadership programs, researcher, consultant, coordinator, director, family therapist and professional nurse. She held leadership and administrative responsibilities at private, religious, and public universities, hospitals, and community organizations.

Her community service is so extensive that just a few will be listed. She served on Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education; Akron Community Foundation; Akron City and St. Thomas Hospitals of Summa Health Systems; Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park; The University of Akron Foundation; United Way of Summit County; and Summit County Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion. After retirement she served as senior advisor for the Austen BioInnovation Institute of Akron; facilitator for Community Leadership Institutes of Leadership Akron; and coach coordinator for the Diversity on Board program sponsored by Leadership Akron and United Way of Summit County.

On Receiving the ATHENA Leadership Award

Cynthia says, “I have given considerable thought about what the ATHENA Leadership Award means to me. When I first learned about ATHENA, I immediately identified with several of the ATHENA Leadership Principles that are at the core to the award.”  She continues, “The impact has been profound in that the ATHENA Leadership Principles are relevant to varied aspects of my professional career.  For example, when I was networking, sharing views and values with others, discussing health care and nursing education challenges, mentoring and encouraging fellow colleagues and students, and making decisions about my professional career—the core principles were there, in some form, as a foundation for my thoughts and actions The ATHENA Leadership Principles reinforce and broaden that which I believe. Being a recipient of the ATHENA Leadership Award is an honor. I find the ATHENA Leadership core principles to be so right!”


Two ATHENA Leadership Principles which most resonate with Cynthia are “Being Authentic” and “Collaboration.”  She says, “My style is to speak what I believe to be the truth as I know it. Nursing is about ‘truth telling” in which you learn how to give core information that is accurate and enables people to go down a path that will be helpful and do so authentically. I firmly believe in ‘Collaboration.’ Working with others is necessary for progress. Collaborating, by being a good listener and team player, is essential.”

When asked whether the ATHENA Leadership Principles have different meanings for black women and for white women, Cynthia says, “These are not black and white constructs, but it is the lens through which you are looking that may bring different connotations. For example, I look at the ATHENA Leadership Principles as a nurse, and I speak about them from a nursing and higher education position, not from a business model.  However, my personal experiences influence my perspectives. I see the ATHENA Leadership Principles through my eyes as others see them through theirs. How they are perceived depends on the lens through which one is looking.”

On Taking Risks

After Cynthia’s husband passed away in 1990, she says, “I had the courage to step out and away from that experience of being a wife and his partner, so I could re-identify with being myself. It took a lot of energy to step out on my own. I was determined to move forward and relocate from where I had been for 30 years to start anew. I also wanted to be head of a nursing program. I made application to a number of universities, and in 1997, I moved to Akron, Ohio to became Dean of the College of Nursing (now School) at the University of Akron. I knew only one person there! I expected to be in that role for five years, but I retired from the University of Akron 15 years after my arrival and have lived in Akron for 24 years.”  

On “Giving Back”

One way in which Dr. Capers “Gives Back” is as the founding leader of Cameos of Caring for Northeast Ohio which celebrates nurses. An awards program of the University of Akron’s School of Nursing initiated in 2002, Cameos of Caring continues today. Each year, local nurses are honored for their unique contributions to health care and as role models within their facility and beyond. In 2010, Dr. Capers was surprised with a Cameos of Caring award herself as the recipient of the 100th award. Dr. Capers says, “Cameos of Caring celebrates nursing excellence, helps keep the nation's critical need for nurses at the forefront of public consciousness, and helps build bridges within the regional health care community.”


The hallmark of the Cameos of Caring program, the annual gala, is recognized as one of the region's premier health care events. Beginning with the first gala, this event has raised more than $800,000 to support an endowed nursing scholarship at the University of Akron. This scholarship provides for the education of the next generation of nurses.


On Responding to Racism

Cynthia shared a positive story about how being Black opened a door for her to serve on the Board of Nursing in Pennsylvania. She and colleagues were working on a list to present to the state for new members on the nursing board, but there were concerns that there was no diversity among the names. She was asked to put her name on the list. She gave them permission, saying, “I am not going to be only a Black person if on the board, I am going to be all of who I am.” She was selected for the board and went on to become vice chair and chair for the Board of Nursing in Pennsylvania.

Dr. Capers has experienced discrimination but limited her comments to what she refers to as micro-signs of bias, comments such as “You certainly speak well,” and “We didn’t expect you to be who it is that you are.” She says, “Bias has not always been presented in a prominent way, but, nonetheless, I felt disregarded on occasion. In spite of it all, I moved on. Could I have gone further? You bet! Sure, I could have. Circumstances didn’t allow it.”

On her Love of Meetings

When Cynthia said she loved meetings, I said, “You didn’t just say that you love meetings?” Cynthia explained that meetings are “wonderful opportunities to hear different perspectives that you may not have thought of, to engage in planning, to find ways to collaborate with others, and to determine how goals can be accomplished together.” She has been able to move the nursing program at the University of Akron to higher levels of recognition and excellence through meetings on campus, in Washington, D.C., and other sectors of the country.


On Challenges Facing Women in Leadership today

Cynthia says, “Challenges are spaces where lessons are learned.” She continues, “In so many settings, women have been seen only as the second-place person not the first-place person. There is still co-opting of and encroachment on women’s ideas. It is going to take ‘persistence and courage’ for women to confront these challenges. ATHENA International is important so that women can network, take time to talk about these challenges, and build the courage to address them. And, yes, it takes courage to recognize that there are times when women must move on to a different place and position to make a difference.”


Dr. Capers has a very powerful presence tempered by compassion and caring. She is very willing to speak her mind. She has an aura of calm and serenity about her which is engaging. She believes in the ATHENA Leadership Principles . Dr. Cynthia Capers is a role model for all ATHENA Women!

Judith S. Prince, Member

Board of Directors

ATHENA International

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