(Photo by Glynns Thomas)

Women in Leadership: Dawnté Early

Our annual salute to women at the top of their field

Back Article Mar 6, 2024 By Krista Minard

This story is part of our March 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Dawnté Early

President and CEO, United Way California Capital Region and West Sacramento City Council member

“I did not get here by myself,” says Dr. Dawnté Early about her journey to her two primary leadership positions in the Sacramento area: West Sacramento City Council member and president and CEO of United Way California Capital Region. “It’s full circle,” says Early, 42, of her work at United Way, which recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary. “I’m now able to ensure other families — people just like me — have access to services that helped me get here.”

One such service, United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, helped Early tap into necessary funds via tax credits when she was a young mother attending UC Davis, where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. “It wasn’t just one thing,” Early says. She also credits the McNair Scholars Program, WIC (Women, Infants and Children’s nutrition program), Child Action and safe low-income housing with enabling her to focus on her major ladder out of poverty: her education.

“I’m now able to ensure other families — people just like me — have access to services that helped me get here.”

Educational and financial support form the foundation of the local United Way’s mission to end poverty in the Capital Region. United Way of California’s most recent Real Cost Measure states that one in six Sacramento-area children live in poverty. In 2023, the local chapter, which serves Sacramento, Placer, Yolo, El Dorado and Amador counties, received 15,000 applications for 80 slots in its Guaranteed Income program. Those clients are receiving approximately $500 per month for one year. For the next cohort, payments began this January, thanks to funding from Sacramento County and a donation from Sierra Health Foundation. This is one example of what Early calls “all hands coming together.”

All hands; together; collaborate. These words populate Early’s lexicon and define her approach to leadership. She joined United Way in the fall of 2021, bringing her experience as a public health researcher and leader in previous positions with the state of California (including as chief of research and evaluation with the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission). At United Way, she works with a growing staff of more than 50 people. Her leadership style, she says, comes from her background as a “military kiddo” and basketball player in high school (team captain at Folsom High) and college. She is collaborative and compassionate, and she encourages diversity of thought and perspective on her staff. “It’s very, very important that people have a safe space to speak up and challenge ideas,” she says.

Early brings a similar philosophy to her position as a West Sacramento City Council member. She is the first Black woman elected to West Sac’s council; all five are women of color. “I feel honored to be part of this council,” she says, “with our commitment and different perspectives, leading with our values.”

She was motivated to run for office after the 2020 murder of George Floyd harshly spotlighted lack of safety for people of color. As a mother, wife and daughter of Black men, she felt called to influence positive change and social justice someplace she could: in her own beloved community. She recalls running into Mayor Pro Tem Quirina Orozco while thrifting at Goodwill and asking, “Do you really think I’m qualified?” Orozco replied, “Mama, you got this.” With the support of her husband, Norman West, and her children — son Peyton, now 22, and daughter Quinn, now 10 — Dawnté Early put her face on a sign and campaigned. She did so in her colorful collection of SIA Collective and Jordan sneakers. “I love sneakers, the colors, the combinations, and the way they can represent your personality. I’m also someone who likes to shake up the norm.”

“Too often, women don’t have enough faith in themselves!” says Early, who also is a Girl Scout leader and has coached basketball for West Sacramento Parks and Recreation. “But your life, your experience as a woman, is enough. If you have passion and commitment, you don’t need a fancy title. Our experiences are what is needed when we are coming together to represent our neighbors, our friends in our communities. You just need to raise your hand.” 

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