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'I am my ancestors' wildest dreams': Accounting Aid Society's first Black CEO, Priscilla Perkins

Late author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison once said, “Black women are the touchstone by which all that is human can be measured.”

As a Black woman on the leadership team at Michigan Nonprofit Association, I was so honored to interview a trailblazer in Southeast Michigan: Priscilla Perkins, president, and CEO at Accounting Aid Society and current MNA member. When she popped on the Zoom screen for our interview, I was immediately captivated by her bright smile which lit up the entire screen. There was also an infectious energy that I could feel even in a virtual format. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Black History Month is in full swing, so let’s celebrate another Black role model here in Michigan —-Priscilla Perkins. She is the first Black president and CEO at Accounting Aid Society located in Detroit. She describes herself as a “transplant to the Midwest from the deep south.” She grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana and kicked off her career in Baton Rouge before following her husband up north where he has had a long career in broadcast journalism in Detroit. Before joining Accounting Aid Society, Perkins served as senior director of development at Beaumont Health Foundation. She holds both an MBA and BA from Louisiana State University and replaced Kathleen Hatke Aro who retired this year after 18-years at the helm of Accounting Aid Society- a nonprofit MNA member helping Michiganders navigate their tax returns for nearly 50 years.

The underrepresentation of Black women in executive leadership

Perkins initially didn’t set out to be an executive leader—she told me she actually wanted to follow in the footsteps of her beloved aunt and become a nun. Perkins looked up to her aunt who told her she could be anything she wanted to be.  A 2015 report about women in the workplace finds the workplace  experience is worse for Black women. We are severely underrepresented in leadership roles and we're often the only one in our organization or department. MNA just completed a study that shows that there is a racial leadership gap among nonprofit leaders in the city of Detroit. We’ve currently expanded that study to nonprofits statewide and we are encouraging all nonprofit leaders to take part in the statewide study by clicking here.

The power of Black Female Mentorship

Having a mentor or being a mentor can be the key for Black women in advancing their careers. Perkins lovingly describes her aunt--the nun--and the mentorship she received from her. Her aunt Rita, is Sis. Richard Francis who at one point in her career ran a $20M operation at Sisters of the Holy Family (high school, nursing home, nursery, mother house and various other properties.) "I know when I watch her, I could have been her-- I could have done that," Perkins said.  Often times, so many Black people-- women especially- report being the only. The only person of color in their unit or at industry events.

Perkins shared with me that she has experienced the emotional tax that Black professionals face in the workplace of being the only Black in the room and she had this important advice for Blacks who might be experiencing feelings of isolation that can make it difficult to thrive at work: “Yes, it’s often sometimes uncomfortable, certainly not friendly sometimes, being in spaces where you’re the only one. But I think the most important thing is to be yourself and prove that you belong there. Get the work done. Do what needs to be done. Don’t expect pats on the back. Don’t expect that your excellence will be acknowledged. You know in your heart and your mind that you are doing good work and you find a way to get your kudos elsewhere. And sometimes you’re so good, they can’t ignore you.” (laughs).    

Her ancestors’ wildest dreams

Perkins grew up at the height of the civil rights movement and as a child she understood what was happening in the world around her. “I was aware at a very early age that my space in this country was something that my parents and their parents have to fight for.”  When I asked her about what inspires her, her reply surprised and inspired me.  She said, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”  I pondered on that quote for an entire day because it really caused me to take a pause and reflect on how far Black Americans have come: from slavery to CEOs, we are presidents and vice presidents. We attend integrated schools  and we vote. Somewhere out there, there is a Black child with big dreams and ambitions who is their ancestors’ wildest dreams.    

Putting cash back into the hands of families

Perkins and her organization are working to spread the message to Michiganders about tax credits that will put cash directly into families’ hands including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the federal Child Tax Credit.  “Between the child tax and the Earned Income Tax Credit, a family could qualify for as much as $17,000 in tax credits between the EITC program and the CTC program, that's nearly doubles their annual income,” Perkins explained. “If you're a grandparent on Social Security, and you're raising a grandchild in your household, you could qualify for child tax credits for as much as $3,600. So just getting cash back in the hands of families is one thing that we do.” 

Building generational wealth

Blacks generally start with less family wealth  according to a McKinsey and Company report. And Perkins is working to change that. “We want to start expanding our ideas about tax preparation and tax credits and getting more money back in the hands of our community members, and then translating that into future financial planning. That's the space we need to get people in-- preserving homeownership, understanding credit, understanding how you don't have to try and find all the college money all at once. The 529 plan – if you start with your one-year-old, and you start putting money into that plan a little bit every month for 18 years, you’re going to have a nice nest egg.” While there is still work to be done across the board when it comes to addressing the racial wealth gap, Perkins is making a difference in her little corner of the world—by helping  historically underserved communities in Detroit.  “When you can receive as much as $7000 or $8000 or $3600 in tax credits, those thousands of dollars in our low-income communities is the difference between getting evicted or not.”

Creative approach to problem-solving

The Accounting Aid Society prides itself on using taxes to build relationships. “When you're talking about diving into people's personal financial matters, building trust is critical,” said Perkins. “But once we get them to see that they are in a safe space, they realize that their information is protected, and they get money back to help meet the immediate needs of their families. That goes a long way into building relationships.” She elaborated, “And then the second part of that is understanding how to have that money work for you in the best way possible through different programs or plans where you get it (money) to grow and to help your family and help maintain stability and a more comfortable lifestyle.”

The Accounting Aid Society has multiple programs available to help low-income families including a pro-bono Low-Income Tax Clinic which helps people settle disputes with the IRS. “We consider ourselves problem solvers,” Perkins stated.  “If you get a letter from the IRS, you don't understand. Don’t throw it away. The IRS communicates only through letters, they do not call you, they do not email you, they do not text you. If you get a letter from the IRS, hold onto it, and call us. We can help you with that.”   

Make an appointment-free tax help is available

  • Accounting Aid Society offers free tax preparation for veterans and low-income individuals and families.
  • To get help filing taxes and claiming tax credits: make an appointment at Accounting Aid Society: 313-556-1920 or go online: accountingaidsociety.org

Accounting Aid Society Tax Programs:

  • Low-Income Tax Clinic: When a low-income individual has trouble with the IRS, finding appropriate representation in court can be a significant burden. But legal assistance is available to those who qualify for the program. If you’re having trouble with an audit, collection appeal, levies, liens and more, contact Accounting Aid Society. The Low-Income tax Clinic is open year-round.
  • Accounting Aid Academy: Accounting Aid Academy educates, empowers, and helps small business owners to excel in sound financial management practices. The Academy and its analysts ensure every small business is on firm financial footing, and that participants learn to apply financial operations functions such as record keeping, interpreting, and creating financial statements and how to make decisions around growing and sustaining their business.

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