Equity & Diversity Opinion

Through the Eyes of an Emerging Black Leader

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 04, 2013 4 min read
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Every now and then it is good to remember that, however informed and intelligent one might be, one has a limited view of the world. It is why we argue for diversity on leadership teams. We wrote previously about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict. But, in keeping with our commitment to see leadership from 360 degrees, we invited an emerging black leader to share his reaction to the verdict with us.

He was willing to do so but only anonymously. Perhaps that says it all. We wanted honesty from him and so we agreed. His perception is that there would be career repercussions if he spoke as a black man, rather than as an educator. In truth, he is both. We will lead schools and districts more ably only if we invite him, and every other person who feels the need to hold back truth from us, to speak from his being, into our conversations and decision making. We hope his fear is unfounded but we cannot dismiss it. One day, if we lead from a place of humanity that values our differences, he will know the world has changed. Until then, we will not impose our view of the world on him. We honor him and thank him for trusting us. His words follow in italics.

I have been an educator for eleven years and have spent most of my career working with students from a diverse community, a community that embraces and respects the diversity of the students within its district. As a black man and an uncle to a black male, I was beyond upset to hear the results of the Trayvon Martin case. This could have happened to me, my nephew or any one of my male family members or friends. As an educator, I thought that this could have happened to one my students and worried about how they felt upon hearing the verdict. I also worried about how other students within my district would feel and wondered what my district planned to do in order to address the matter.

Two days after the verdict, I sat in a room full of other aspiring leaders and was shocked by the lack of empathy and interest in the discussion of this case. These educators will serve in some leadership capacity in a variety of school districts, yet most felt that the verdict would not affect “their” students. One person even indicated his district had a small percentage of black students, and that this trial would have no impact at all.

We wonder what will be taught to those students in primarily white districts. Don’t we have an obligation to prepare them to live and work in a world that is less and less white?

In many leadership classes, we have been taught that one underachieving student is one too many. Prior to our discussion of the case, I believed the educators in the room felt the same way I did- that each student mattered. I am no longer disillusioned to believe this is true. I hope that professionalism and dedication to educating and caring for students of all races and ethnicities will supersede personal opinions about the wrong or right of both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

As I sat in that room full of my colleagues, I wondered what would have been said or argued had I not been in the room. I was the only person of color. While I respect my colleagues’ right to their opinions, I wonder how they will help students cope with the myriad of issues facing them. I don’t expect anyone to understand what it is like to be a black male living in America; however I do expect educators to be able to show compassion for and sympathize with the experiences faced by students who look different and live different experiences.

I realized that my disappointment was not solely with my peers. I also was disappointed in myself for not speaking up. In the small world of education, you meet the same people in different places over and over again. Thus, it is not inconceivable that one of my fellow classmates may be sitting on an interview committee for a job where I am a candidate one day. The last thing I want to be remembered as, is the angry black man. I should have taken the opportunity to explain my point of view, but thought about my career before my conscience. I guess that I too am guilty of seeing the matter from my own perspective and not thinking first and foremost about the students.

This young man ends with an insight about himself. He teaches us two lessons. First, let us who are leaders, privileged and mostly white, remember we haven’t walked in the shoes of others. Doing so for a mile or two may change our lives and our perceptions. Until then, let’s make sure everyone is heard in the conversation and those with much to lose are not overlooked if they are silent. Secondly, let us learn from the maturity of his last understanding. There are many among us who put “thought of career above conscience” in our daily decision making. We silence those inner voices that make us uncomfortable with our choices. In so doing, we fall prey to our lesser selves. Eventually, we forget those inner voices which tried to guide us to higher ground and we become chameleonic leaders that neither serve nor lead. There are examples of these in all fields. This young man reminds us how early the first choices are made and how small the first situations are that pave a path for a lifetime. He was courageous enough to write to us. We have admiration and hope for him and for the future into which his voice will be raised.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.