At six feet tall in flats, Diane Scott cuts an imposing figure.
“I may be the first president in the history of the Pasadena Junior League to be that tall,” she said recently as she strolled through the league’s Victorian home on South Madison Avenue.
It’s Scott’s way of joking about the obvious. She’s also the first African-American president in the 65-year history of the Pasadena chapter. Nationwide, fewer than 10 African-Americans have been chapter presidents in the 90-year-old international women’s volunteer group, league officials said.
Scott, 43, who took over the presidency of Pasadena’s 1,200-member Junior League on June 1, wants to change the predominantly white organization into a multicultural group reflecting the communities it serves. The league keeps no count of its racial makeup, but officials said most members are white.
Making the league multicultural means not only adding minority members, but also moving the organization away from solely European cultural values.
“I think that’s the fun of it,” Scott said. “If I couldn’t share my culture, then what purpose would I serve?”
Scott’s goals mirror those of the Junior League, which has 188,000 members worldwide. Ann Miller, a Baton Rouge, La., league member who serves on a national committee to change the league, said the multicultural goal was adopted last year at the group’s annual convention.
“We’re not there yet, but I don’t know of any national organizations that are truly there,” she said.
Scott, an eight-year member, has already made changes in the Pasadena chapter. Last Christmas, she placed seven black, red and green candles and several ears of corn--items signifying Kwanzaa, the African harvest celebration--beside the league’s traditional Christmas tree.
Her gifts to other members of books by African-American authors, such as J. California Cooper and Richard Wright, have prompted discussions on racism and slavery among some league members. Scott has also taken members to African-American festivals and bookstores in Los Angeles.
Still, the Pasadena league has only about five blacks, three Latinas and three Asians among its 500 active members, said Katherine Shenk, the league’s marketing vice president. Members are active until age 50, at which time they become sustaining members.
To encourage more minorities to join, the chapter this year eliminated sponsorships. In that system, women needed two active members to sponsor them, plus three other members to endorse them, Scott said. Now, any woman who wants to can join.
The Pasadena league also holds workshops to inform minority women about the league. Plus, its service projects address more minority concerns and involve the league in coalitions with minority groups, Scott said.
Such projects include Safe House, a proposed shelter for drug-addicted women and their children, and the Parent Resource Center at Jefferson Elementary School in one of Pasadena’s predominantly Latino and Armenian neighborhoods.
The league’s purpose is “not just to have brunch and talk about issues and go home,” said Lydia Fernandez-Palmer, director of El Centro de Accion Social, a Pasadena Latino service center. “They’re out there doing work.”
The league has helped start many of Pasadena’s major social service and arts agencies, such as the Senior Center on Holly Street, YWCA Hestia House shelter, KidSpace Museum and Foothill Family Service. It also has provided thousands of volunteers and contributed $1.8 million since 1926 to various social service agencies.
But its image for many is still that of an elitist group of moneyed, white housewives with time on their hands and no particular eagerness to include minorities.
That image is fostered by some of its more traditional activities, such as docent tours of the Huntington Art Gallery and the annual formal fund-raising dance, Center Stage.
When Scott joined the league in 1983, she said, she was unfamiliar with that image. The Junior League didn’t exist in the Pacoima neighborhood in which she grew up, the daughter of a Douglas Aircraft worker.
After marrying a doctor, she moved to Pasadena, left behind a nursing career to raise her three children and met other league members at the private school her children attended.
To Scott, the league seemed just another service group for women, such as Links or Jack and Jill, service organizations for African-American women to which she also belongs.
Though African-American friends cautioned her the group might be hostile, Scott said she found herself welcomed within the chapter.
She did, however, encounter racial stereotypes at national meetings. Scott recalled one league member who asked, when the subject of admitting minority women came up, “Why would we want these poor, uneducated people that we serve in our organization?”
Responses from the community to her membership have also been varied, Scott said. Three years ago, she had the job of finding a place for the league’s annual dance. A hotel employee gave her a quick tour of shabby, small ballrooms, Scott said. “She thought I was representing a black group and we couldn’t afford anything other than what she showed me.”
Although the Pasadena league is still a conservative group, Scott said she is pleased to be part of its evolution.
“When you talk about racism or diversity, people feel so vulnerable,” she said. “They need someone to guide them through.”