By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells Pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise...
– Maya Angelou
It is a conspicuous trait, a contagious spirit of fortitude, determination and perseverance. For leaders of change, it is the requisite character that enables them not merely to survive but thrive in the pressure cooker atmosphere of overwhelming resistance.
Moxie is the defining mark of Komako Goolsby’s diligent ascent up the career ladder to a senior position that white men have always dominated.
A member of the Toledo Fire Department since 2006, Goolsby overcame racial and sexist hurdles to become the first Black female Fire Captain in the Department’s history.
We spoke with Goolsby, a wife, and mother of two adult daughters, about her experiences on this historic barrier-breaking journey.
Perryman: Please provide our readers with a little bit of your background.
Goolsby: I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, near Station 4 on Richards Rd. I graduated from Macomber High School, where I was in the electrical shop. But, since I could walk and talk, I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter. The older I got and listened to my dad and saw his schedule, the more I knew that I could do both electrical and firefighting.
Perryman: Talk about your electrical experience.
Goolsby: I worked for IBEW Local 8. I worked with Whitehouse Electric and a little bit with Romanoff. Still, I spent a year and a half as an electrical apprentice. I loved it. It’s cool. It’s physical, and you’re talking about another male-dominated career. So, whenever I walked onto a construction site, I turned heads. Those guys wanted to know where that young lady came from. And I was only 18. Firefighting is my first and only love, so I never needed to pursue electrical any further.
Perryman: How long have you been with the Toledo Fire Department?
Goolsby: I’ve been with TFD since 2006, so 16 years.
Perryman: You talked about your dad. How did he influence you to become a firefighter?
Goolsby: I’m the only girl of five children. So, automatically being raised with four brothers, I had to have a certain kind of toughness, whether I liked it or not. My brothers are my heartbeats now. We are very close; however, I was the only one that wanted to be a firefighter.
But when my dad talked about the fire department and even lifting weights, he’d be like, ‘yeah, it’s a gym in every station,’ and he was getting strong. I liked that. I felt like I needed to get strong, too. So, I would watch him lift weights. I would drive to the station after school if my dad worked that day, spend the whole day with him, and go on runs with him.
My dad was also a chef, so the guys loved for him to cook, and I have that same talent. The whole fire department wants me to have my own restaurant, to be on all these cooking shows. But anyway, my dad made being a firefighter fun. He made it glorious. He always said people love firefighters. On your worst day, firefighters can make it better, can make it good, can make it your best day.
He also said, ‘This is a brotherhood. No matter where you go, you are family. All you have to do is introduce yourself, tell them you’re a firefighter and where you’re from.’ He was right and hasn’t been wrong yet.
Perryman: So, you came in at entry level in 2006, and you rise up the ranks.
Goolsby: It has not been easy. There’s no ‘rising up the ranks in the Toledo Fire Department or any fire department if you are a) a female and double if you are b) a Black female. But, through hard work and not without much heartache and headache. That’s how I have gotten to where I am.
Perryman: Let’s talk about the struggle at the intersection of race and gender on your career path as a firefighter.
Goolsby: I came in behind a lady named Lolita Cooper, who used to babysit my brothers and me. Lolita was hired in ’99 as the sole Black female in her recruit class, and they didn’t hire another Black female again until 2006, when they hired me. They didn’t hire another Black female after that for 13 more years.
They finally, in 2019, hired the largest number of Black females at one time that they’ve ever done. They fired one, of course. So that was tough, being the only Black female out here fighting fires, going to these stations every day that you work and just interacting with the guys. I was an anomaly, and so was Lolita. It was only the two of us out of 560 employees for a long time.
Perryman: Are you required to give up your identity as a female and prove that you’re one of the guys?
Goolsby: No. I don’t know if it’s the confidence my dad instilled in me or just the experiences I’ve gained along the way that made me confident. But I do not have anything to prove.
However, psychologically, if you could get into their brains, they probably think I do, and “they” means men, “they” representing the firefighters in this profession. So, they might look at me and feel like, ‘Well, she has to prove that she can lift a ladder or swing an axe.’ But in my mind, I already know I can do it, and I’ve already shown I can do it because we’re getting the same paychecks, so I have nothing to prove.
Perryman: What about the aesthetics and amenities? How do the facilities differ from what the “fellas” might prefer? I’m sure the men’s tastes dominate the overall environment.
Goolsby: Absolutely. Nearly all of the fire stations were built before the consent decree in 1984, without females in mind. So most female facilities are like closets. They are nowhere near the enormous locker rooms the guys have, with six showers and ten toilets.
I am so blessed at my station to have two of the young ladies hired in 2019. So, it’s three Black females of us there, all on one shift for 24 hours at a time. We have one toilet, one sink, and five lockers. So, figure it out in this tiny compact space, and this is 2022!
Perryman: Have you had any hazing or harassment experiences?
Goolsby: Regarding hazing, I’ll answer that many people wonder if it’s just a thing for jobs or professions like these.
No, I didn’t, but I think they didn’t haze because of who my father was, and this entire fire department highly respects my father. Not only that, he was a professional bodybuilder. That ain’t what they wanted, so no hazing. However, upon his retirement, I experienced blatant unprotected, unprovoked and unwarranted harassment, for which I’ve also sought legal counsel.
Perryman: Can you please elaborate?
Goolsby: I’ve had to obtain legal counsel to stop the many horrible harassment experiences since 2012, even down to today. I will tell you that none of them want to see the first Black female captain in this department, and you know who “them” is. None of them. They have stopped at nothing to make my experience in the past two and a half months nothing but hell, so when you talk about a rise, I will say still, I rise.
Perryman: Any physical challenges on the job?
Goolsby: There are physical challenges inherently as a full-time, hard-working career firefighter. The older you get, the more they take a toll. Those are the risks we take and experience every time we walk into work. But I don’t think that’s a female thing. The guys get old too and can’t do the same things we used to do. You can’t climb the ladder like you used to do, you can’t swing the axe like you used to do, you can’t even get dressed as fast as you used to.
Perryman: Please describe the struggle to obtain equal recognition or to change hiring practices.
Goolsby: Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz has done a better job than any other mayor concerning diversifying public safety. So, I give him credit. He said he was going to do it, and he has done it, but there’s still more work to do.
Perryman: What are your duties as Captain?
Goolsby: Going from lieutenant to captain, you’re already an officer. You’re already the supervisor. But, you now have added administrative responsibilities. There is one captain at each of our 18 stations. So, that person is in charge of the whole station.
They’re in charge of inventory, ensuring the rigs are in good working order, and getting those repaired if they’re not. They’re in charge of personnel issues that the lieutenant level couldn’t handle. So now it kicks up one more level to captain, and you try to settle the problems amongst the three shifts.
My degree in business administration has prepared me for my role as a captain with those kinds of duties. We still fight fire the same. I’m still going to show up at a fire and take command just like I would if I was a lieutenant, but I want others to promote. Then, once we get more people at the lieutenant and captain level representing our community, I want to move to the next step. Since there’s never been a Black female chief, that’s my goal, so that’s the natural progression. I always want to move up and be even more of an asset to the department.
Perryman: There are unique challenges associated with Black female leadership, particularly in addressing personnel issues. How will you deal with those challenges, particularly from those who may resist taking orders from a Black female?
Goolsby: I see the writing on the wall, and I’m prepared. I plan to stick closely to the policies and procedures. The more I do that, the less there is room for rebellion or harassment. But, you can’t get away from the mission or the policies and procedures outlined by the fire department. So, I will always have that as my number one thing.
Then, those who don’t want to listen to a woman or especially don’t want to listen to a Black woman can sort that out with themselves, a counselor, or whomever else. But for me, it will end with the policies and procedures. So that’s just how I’m going to lead and proceed.
Perryman: What suggestions would you have for the next Black female officer who wants to advance on her career path?
Goolsby: I would suggest that any Black female pursuing the rank of an officer on the Toledo Fire Department or any fire department across the country be able to exhibit a certain level of confidence. While confidence can sometimes be mistaken for arrogance, in this profession, you need a certain level of confidence to be respected. If you don’t seem like you know what you’re doing, where that ladder goes, where that fire is, and how to put it out, you’re not going to get respect.
So, you must follow all the policies and procedures to get you to that point. But maintain your confidence, let no one shake you, let no one knock you off your block. You know what you know, and that’s important.
No matter what’s thrown at you, what someone says to you, or how someone treats you, be confident that you’re in the position you’re in for a reason and move forward from there.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD at firstname.lastname@example.org