The Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau is excited to partner with Paducah Life Magazine to feature articles from their Storied Lives series.
“Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” - Stephen Hawking
“There is the power of life and death in the words by which we frame our lives,” says Dorothea Manley-Davis with unshakable resolve. Her eyes convey strength mixed with empathy. Her radiant smile, which is nearly constant, is infectious. “It is proven that when we use positive words and expressions,” she continues, “we are met with happy thoughts and attract positive people and experiences. I have personally been profoundly affected by both a negative and a positive mindset. And I prefer the effects of smiling, cheering others on, and encouraging people to go a little further when they feel like completely giving up.”
Dorothea spreads positivity wherever she goes. And she looks for opportunities to do that on the community level through Project Speak Life, an organization that seeks to foster communication and understanding through conversation, often using art as a catalyst for finding common ground. Her mission is desperately needed. And it is borne of her struggles and hardships—a life that has taught her empathy for others.
Dorothea was born in Paducah, and, as a little girl, moved to Chicago with her mother and siblings. While there, her world was turned upside down. “I’ve been on my own since I was 14 years old,” she says. “My mom died from colon cancer. I stayed in Chicago for a very short period before I was brought back to Paducah.” Once back here, Dorothea was homeless and without support. The winter after her mother’s passing, she returned to her abandoned house with a wood stove on South 5th Street and set up house. She got back into school, but no one knew the severity of her situation. Dorthea’s siblings also moved back to Paducah, but they’d separated, finding different solutions to their homelessness. Once the abandoned house became untenable, Dorothea bounced around from home to home, staying with friends, sleeping on couches.
This was the last photo Dorothea had made with her mom, Ida Mae Manley. She’s holding her
niece, Chakeia Johnson alongside her cousin, Demetrius. “I was 13 in that photo,” she says. “I
miss my mother more than words can say.”
“One thing about this community is that there is a buoyancy for everyone,” she says. “You won’t utterly drown. People didn’t know what was going on, but they saw points where I needed help and were so supportive. I didn’t know to tell anyone or to ask for help. I was kind of clueless about my situation. But there were a lot of people I looked to for inspiration, and they were a huge part of the engine that kept me going.” Dorothea did well despite her situation, being the first student to volunteer with the board of education. She was also class president.
“All I knew to do was to follow what my mom taught me,” says Dorothea. “She gave me life. And before she died, we walked all over the city. She would tell me things and teach me and help me understand that it was going to be ok and that I would make it. She was giving and empathetic and taught the value of that to me. Now, it’s important to me for others to know that kind of love and hope. I don’t want anyone giving up.”
As a junior in high school, Dorothea was living wherever she could between relatives and
friends. Despite her struggles, this determined young woman graduated from the University of Louisville.
She is now a Project Support Associate at Four Rivers Nuclear Partnership.
After high school, Dorothea went to the University of Louisville before moving to Indiana and then to Chicago. But she never lost her affinity for Paducah. In 2017, she decided to return home and give back to the community that fostered life for her in her most vulnerable moments. Here, she formed Project Speak Life.
“I gained a lot of strength from what I’d been through,” she says. “And I want to share that with others. I want to create opportunities for people to understand who they are and their purpose and how that can affect the world. Part of what Project Speak Life does is creative and cultural events that bring the city together. We began with something called Conversations, which is a conduit to spark dialog between neighborhoods, between cities, between politicians and constituents—between people. Doing whatever needs to happen to get people talking to one another in an environment of truth, opening up opportunities for love and happiness to come forward.”
When Dorothea didn’t see a lot of dialog regarding local elections in 2020, she put Conversations to work and helped organize the first mayoral debate. “It was part of our mission to open up conversation and communication with the community. That creates transparency. And our local elections were the perfect place for that kind of dialog.”
That led to the creation of the Paducah Diversity Advocacy Board. “I was talking to Mayor Bray before he was mayor,” she says. “He was at a meeting with African American business people, and in talking about diversity, he was very forthcoming and said he didn’t know how to approach multiculturalism here in the city. He said he’d love to have an advisory board to help others understand it. I told him that if he got elected, I would hold him to it. We met as soon as he was in office. We’re not part of the city and not only for the mayor. We are focused on diversity, equity, and inclusivity for everyone.”
But more than just talking, Dorothea is mindful of the medium of conversation. Project Speak Life has partnered with the Yeiser Art Center to host events, the first of which was titled S.H.E. (Speak. Heal. Exhale.) “I had written a series of monologues between God and woman. The woman is speaking to God about her life situations. While we were doing the monologue, there was a dancer, dancing out all the emotions and feelings. At the end, we had music. The culmination was healing. It was an awesome event. Through that, we hoped others would see themselves and find healing.”
“Art, in all its forms, speaks to my heart,” says Dorothea. At a Yeiser event centered on
conversations, Dorothea used a variety of art forms to get people talking.
Dorothea sees art as a conduit of communication. She credits her Tilghman choir director, Loretta Whittaker, as one of the first people to inspire her through the art of music. “She was very present in our lives,” says Dorothea. “And she nurtured us and our talents. And she exposed us to many different opportunities.” And while in Indiana, Dorothea worked with painter Mason Archie and his wife, learning more about visual arts. “He was incredibly inspirational,” she says. Add in a love for dance, and Dorothea sees platforms by which we can connect.
“Art, in all its forms, speaks to my heart,” she says. “It speaks to my soul. It’s a vital part of who we are. It’s a vehicle that drives opportunity to connect. Music, for example, has always drawn people together. It can create a shared moment of joy, peace, and love. Everyone wants that. It levels the playing field. Art doesn’t care if you are black or white or rich or poor. It’s an organic point of engagement, and it can bring us together in a way that nothing else can.”
Dorothea now sees her life coming full circle. The lessons bestowed upon her have become gifts for our community. “Project Speak Life simply wants to open up possibilities for everyone,” says Dorothea. “And we want that for all people. We want all aspects of our community’s life to be reflective of who we are—in all aspects. Hopefully, we can open doors to come together in a way we haven’t before. It’s all about encouragement. I want, through talking to people, to inspire and let people know how amazing they are. Every single person can achieve greatness. You were created to be great. Where you take it and how far you take it is up to you. I want people to see that.”