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The Changing Face of Leadership

Academic Festival 2013 Session

When David Johns (M.A. ’06) was serving on the committee planning President Obama’s second-term inauguration, he ran up against a colleague who wanted to seat the surviving Tuskegee Airmen – the first African American military pilots, who served in World War II -- in the balcony at a presidential gala.

The hell she’s going to put them in the balcony, Johns remembers thinking -- but he also was careful not to blow up. “It was important to acknowledge she wasn’t thinking maliciously,” he recalls. Instead, he invited his colleague for a walk and a coffee, and engaged her in friendly discussion of the Tuskegee Airmen and their significance in national and African American history. Outcome: seating decision rescinded. 


“We always have resources,” Johns, now Executive Director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans, said during a Milbank Chapel panel discussion on “leading for inclusion” in today’s diverse workplaces and society. “We have to find ways to be strategic connecting the dots, listen to what people articulate as concerns, find people who can carry water you can’t carry.”

Changing faces panel


Other speakers shared similar moments of vexation. Danielle Moss-Lee (Ed.D. ’06), CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York, recounted how a funder informed her that “14 year-old African American girls don’t know how to keep their legs closed.” “I need to tell and repeat that story,” Moss-Lee said. “We tend to be self-congratulatory and say we have overcome, but we haven’t overcome. At some point you have to say, ‘Flag on the play!’”

All the panelists agreed that the cultivation of allies is a critical practice in building an inclusive community is in the cultivation of allies. “Straight allies have been absolutely critical for the LGBT movement,” said Kevin Jennings (M.A. ’94), executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a former Obama administration official and founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. “The real role models we need are what non-sexist men look like, or non-racist white people, and so on.”

Panel zoom


Current M.A. candidate Joianne Pyram said that building inclusive communities requires “challenging people in power to recognize privilege.” That extends to new leaders who are themselves minorities. “It’s essential to be accountable to give back and help others along the way,” she said. “Those of us who come from marginalized groups, sometimes we forget to give that hand back. We too have a social responsibility.”

Finally, there was general agreement that while it’s important to be able to draw a line in the sand, leaders also need to take the long view. “As Linda Darling-Hammond taught me here, change is a process, not an event,” Jennings said, referring to the former TC professor who is now at Stanford. “We haven’t been working on this since the 1960s, we’ve been working on it since the 17th century. Each decade, our circle has broadened. Let’s take joy in it. Our job is to do our piece.”

Published Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013


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