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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Mary Futrell, thank you for agreeing to spend this time with us.
FUTRELL: It’s my pleasure to be here.
BOND: We want to begin with some examination of your background and education. Who are the people in your background who helped to shape you as you were coming along as a youngster?
FUTRELL: As I reflect on my background I would think the first person would be my mother. She was not an educated woman but she believed very strongly in education and insisted that my sister, Anne, and myself, that we study hard that we do what we needed to do. She believed that we had the potential to do the schoolwork and so she insisted that we concentrate and focus very strongly on education. She was a no-nonsense kind of parent so the report card had to be turned in. She wanted to see the homework. She would visit the school anytime. Even though we didn't have a car she changed buses two or three times just to come to the school to see how we were doing and to and to write with the teachers. I would have to say, secondly, the teachers that I had – and a particular teacher that I had named Miss Jordan, who was again a no-nonsense teacher, but a very caring person.
And Miss Jordan used to always tell us, "Don’t ever put yourself down," that "You can do it, just take your time and put forth the best effort." My teachers also taught me that education was absolutely crucial to anything that I or my classmates wanted to do in life, and so when I look back, I look back at the teachers I had at Robert S. Payne Elementary School; I look back at the teachers I had at Dunbar High School and how they set very high standards for us, but they helped us to achieve those standards, and they worked very closely with the parents, with my mother. They understood that she had to work but they worked with her.
I also think the community had a tremendous influence on my education. I grew up in the ghetto, but the neighbors didn’t say, "Look at these -- they’re poor, they’re from a single parent home," etc. They were like extended family, and like parents as well, and unlike today, if we were outside playing and they felt we had not done our homework, we were told, "Go in the house and do your homework." And you did not say no and you did not talk back. You went in the house and you did whatever you had to do. They also would talk about our grades that we were in, activities in school, they would come to see us, they would encourage us, and so it was that extended family, it was my mother, and it was the teachers in the schools who just insisted that we meet the highest possible educational standards.
BOND: Now the kind of encouragement you got from Miss Jordan, was that standard, you think, among black teachers in segregated schools at this time? Was that what other children were getting, too?
FUTRELL: Yes. And you again have to remember, I was not one of the affluent, quote unquote, black kids in this city. I was a very poor child from a – what they now call – a dysfunctional family, but I didn’t realize I was from a dysfunctional family. But the teachers all insisted, that, "Yes, you can learn, yes, you will learn, and you are going to learn." And they were there to help us. They were there to encourage us. They were there to teach us. And so I think the teachers made a tremendous difference in the lives of the children in those schools. Our schools didn’t have the supplies, we didn’t have equipment. We didn’t have the nice furniture and things that the other schools had. But they didn’t let that stop them. They said, "Regardless as to what we do or do not have, you still are able to think. You have a mind, you have a brain, and we’re going to help you develop that, we’re going to help you learn." And that’s what they did.
BOND: This kind of community support you described a moment ago, people in the neighborhood --
BOND: -- watching out for you, telling you -- telling your mother when you didn’t go to school.
BOND: Those kinds of things -- how important was that feeling that everybody in this area wanted you to do well?
FUTRELL: Well, Julian, when I look back on my life it was very important, because my mother worked all the time. My father died when I was very young and she decided not to go on welfare, she decided she was going to work. So she had a steady job, but she also worked all these piece-meal jobs, cleaning churches and serving as a short-order cook, whatever. So we were alone, a lot. And if it had not been for caring neighbors, who looked after us not only to make sure we were well fed and that we were safe, but to also say, "You have chores to do, you have homework to do. If you don’t have homework, you have books you can read," and to make sure the report card -- they looked at our report cards just like my mother looked at our report cards, and if we did something wrong, they corrected us. They also would make sure my mother knew what we were or were not doing. And it wasn’t like a tell-tale situation. It was trying to help us and trying to help the family. And I’ve often looked back and I’ve thought about the fact that if I had not had that kind of extended family from the community, where would I be today? I don’t know where I would be today.
BOND: Well, at the time, did you think it was unusual or did you think it normal that your next-door neighbor and the people up the block looked out for you?
FUTRELL: Well, I thought they were being very nosy. I thought they were intruding. They had nothing to do with me; I was not their child. That was my -- sometimes my inner feeling, but I also had been taught you don’t talk back to your elders and when they tell you to do things, you’re supposed to do it. And when I look back now, I’m very grateful for the fact that they were the substitute family for me then, because my mother didn’t have a lot of relatives in Lynchburg. And so it was my mother, my sister, Anne, and myself and we -- and she raised two foster children – and we were it. And so the neighbors became that surrogate family. The neighbors became the ones who were there looking out for me, but at the time I resented it, and I didn’t want to do what they asked me to, but thank God I did.
BOND: Now, you’ve mentioned several times that your family was poor --
BOND: -- father died early, mother had to work, not only a regular job, but other jobs. What effect do you think this had on shaping you into the person you are today, the person you became?
FUTRELL: Well, my mother believed in hard work and she taught us to believe in hard work. Let me share a little story with you. When I became the president of the NEA, my husband and I moved into a new house and my mother came up to visit me and to help me -- to help us get settled. And I thought that was an opportune time to tell her what I thought about the way she had raised us. And I told her and I said, "I thought you were too hard on me. I thought you were too demanding of me." I said, "I didn’t get a lot of new clothes and my friends and others had new clothes," and I said, "Matter of fact, my older sister got more new clothes than I did. And clothes oftentimes they didn’t fit and they were homely looking,” and I just felt that was a time just to tell her what I thought. And she didn’t say anything, you know, and I said, "Well, I finally got it off my chest," and I was feeling pretty good about it. Well, Julian, the next morning, I don’t know about your mother, but my mother had a way of saying, let’s sit down and talk. And when I sat down, and she cupped my chin in her face, I knew I was in trouble. And what she said to me was, "I knew that you had potential, but I knew that if I didn’t hold onto you, that you would go astray." And she said, "I didn’t know what was going to happen to me." She said, “I didn’t know whether I was going to live to see you become an adult or whether I was going to die. I didn’t know whether I was doing my job, what was going to happen." So she said, “I had to make sure that you and Anne, and Marianne" -- my other foster sister -- "that you were prepared. And,” she said, "I felt that you had potential."
"A mother," she said to me, "knows her child. I knew you had potential and I had to make sure that that potential was developed. So," she said, "I had to teach you the value of work. Of hard work. Teach you the value of sacrifice. Teach you the value of believing in yourself and that you could achieve if you wanted to achieve and not let your circumstances control you." And she said, "I had to teach you to use your mind, and to develop it to the best of your ability. I had to teach you to be able to work with different people and to think for yourself, though, at the same time, not to be overly persuaded by other people." By the time she finished, obviously, I was in tears. Because I had never thought about it from that point of view. She basically was saying to me, "I had to teach you how to survive 'cause I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. But I wanted to make sure that whatever happened, you could stand on your own."
And when I look back, I am a very hard worker, and I laugh and tell her all the time, "I took that after you, I’m a workaholic." I love to study, I love to read, and I think that I took that after her as well. I’m the kind of person, I will help someone else, and I will do for others. That I think I got from her. So much of who I am today, I am because of the way she raised me. And she also said to us, "Your circumstances do not have to control you, you can be anything you want. But if you want to stay in a certain place, you can do that, too. But I want you to move forward." So she believed in me and taught me to believe in myself. And so when I look at where I am, and the things I’ve accomplished in my life, I have to give a lot of the credit to her.
BOND: Do you have any idea why your mother thought, and every parent thinks their child can do anything, but here your mother is living in this segregated system, limited by her own lack of education --
BOND: What made her believe that you, not you her child, but you a black child, could rise out of this, out of this segregated system? What made her think that you could surpass the circumstances of Lynchburg? This racial caste system?
FUTRELL: Well, I think you would have to look at her background. And her mother and her father both died before she was ten. And we talk about that often. She’s been more open about her family in the latter years than she was in the early years. And she talked about the fact that they had a nice home. And the family was together, the mother was a housewife, the father was the one that went out to work. And all of a sudden, everything changed. And all of a sudden they were orphans. You know, here were five kids with no mother and no father. And they had to go back to their relatives to stay, and their entire lives changed, you know, they didn’t have the nurturing, they didn’t have the middle class, they didn’t have the things they had had before. And how she did not let that stop her from believing that she could have a better life.
She deeply regretted the fact that she was not able to get a high school education because she had to go work. But she said, “I realized that by working and that by believing in myself and that by believing in others, and trying, that I could make my life better if I had a dream, if I had a goal, if I was just determined.” So I think a lot of what she did for us, and especially for me – and she worked in white people’s homes as a maid and she made very little money, and I remember a lot of times, Julian, the food that I ate was the food that she brought home from where she worked. And -- but that was the way we survived. You know, otherwise we wouldn’t have had any food. But she taught us, "You don’t hate white people. Don’t hate them. But you can do better than what you’ve done, you can do better than what I’ve done. What I’ve done, I think is good, but you can do even better." She just knew her children. And she felt very deeply that I could do a lot better than I was doing, and she was determined to make me succeed. And that kind of determination worked. And how she knew it, I don’t know. I guess it was a mother’s instinct. Mother’s intuition.
BOND: Now, what did she, and what did your teachers, tell you about limitations or lack of limitations placed on you because of your race and because of your gender? Women -- expectations for women were very different then than they are now. What, what do you remember about any limitation or lack of limitation because of your gender?
FUTRELL: Well, I think that when I look at race and gender -- I attended segregated schools all the way up through undergraduate in college, and I remember, when I was in high school I signed up for the academic program and I attended an all-black school. And when I went back to school the next year, I was not in the academic program. I had been taken out and put into the vocational program. And I remember asking the counselor and the administrator why and – because I was a kid who always asked why – and they said that they were trying to put me in a program to help me get a job, because I probably would never go to college because my family was too poor. And I remember how devastated I was because again, my mother is encouraging me, "You can be anything you want to be, don’t let your circumstances hold you back." And so, I went ahead. My mother didn’t know that she could go to the school and insist that I be put in the academic program, so I ended up in the vocational program, but again, trying to make the best out of what I had there. But it was interesting because in the schools in those days, up until about the tenth grade, most of the kids were in the same classes as related to English, math, science, history, etc. So it was that core curriculum that was there. And I did very well in those courses, as well as in the vocational courses.
And I remember when I was, I think it was, a junior in high school, they gave a test, and I came out number five in the class. And the teachers and everyone, they were shocked. And so then they switched me over to the academic track. But by then, see, I didn’t have the background. But I also remember those teachers going out and getting me money to go to school. I did not plan to go to college. My mother simply did not have the money. And they went out and they collected the money in the neighborhood to send me to school. And I remember the night I graduated. They didn’t tell me, they told my mother, but they didn’t tell me – I assume they didn’t tell me because they didn’t know how much they were going to collect. And so the night that I graduated, they walked up on the stage and they gave me $1,500 to go to school. And I was flabbergasted. And I remember one of the teachers that said to me, "Apply anyway." And I was going like, "Why apply? I’m not going. I don’t have any money. So why should I apply?" And she insisted, "Apply anyway." And so here were the administrators and other people telling me I couldn’t. But here were my teachers telling me I could. And not only saying, "You can," but all along insisting that I do the best that I could with my studies and then saying "Here’s the money to go. Now it’s up to you."
BOND: Do you think this is because – this difference in what administrators, teachers, are telling you – was it because the teachers knew you better than the administrators did?
FUTRELL: I think so.
BOND: And the administrators are thinking they’re doing you a favor.
BOND: They’re helping you. You can’t go to college, so we’re going to make it possible for you to get a job. It’s amazing to me, anyway, looking at this, that you didn’t say, "Well, they’re right, I’m not going to college so I’m, you know, just -- I’m surprised you even applied.
FUTRELL: But Julian, but you've got to remember, for a long time I didn’t think I was going to go. I did not plan to go. I did not apply to go until my teachers came to me and said, "You apply." And I said, "Well, I’m not going, why?" I just assumed I was going to graduate, get a job probably as a secretary or receptionist or something and that was going to be it. I assumed my life was going to be Lynchburg, Virginia, and the teachers came and they said, "No. You apply." But they didn’t tell me what they had planned for me. And some of my teachers are still alive today, by the way. When I go back to my reunions I see Mrs. Watson, and I see Miss Jordan – not Miss Jordan, I see Miss Irving – and some of the other teachers who worked with me, who taught me. And they sometimes are surprised at how appreciative I am. But I say, "You have to remember that if you had not intervened, where would I be today?"
But I think the answer to your question is, yes. I was in their classrooms everyday. They had a chance to get to know me. They had a chance to get to see what I could do. They knew what kind of person I was. The administrators saw me periodically. And they maybe knew me because I was a cheerleader, because I was, you know, in the FBLA, the student council, but they didn’t know Mary. The counselor – we had one counselor for the whole school – counselor saw me what, my junior year? Maybe when I moved from eighth grade to ninth grade she saw me, and then maybe again in my junior year? I didn’t go to the counselor, I didn’t have a lot of problems or anything like that. I just sort of counseled myself and whatever I had to take, I did it. So the teachers were the ones who worked with me and who knew me. Some of them were in my church. A few of them were in surrounding neighborhoods, so you know, then they knew my mother and everything, so I think it was because they were the ones who knew.
BOND: Now in some of the research we prepared for this, I saw that you described yourself as an introvert. How does an introvert become a basketball player and a cheerleader? That seems to me like the opposite of introversion.
FUTRELL: Well, when I was growing up, Julian, and don’t fall off your chair laughing at this, but, my name was Bony Morony, my nickname was Skinny Minnie, my nickname was Seemo – "Seemo holes than you do clothes" – and so my friends made fun of me, you know, and even today sometimes they see me -- so, I tended to be shy from the perspective of the material kinds of things that I did not have and my friends did have. And so I would not come forth. But once I got in the group, I was okay. And, for example, when I was -- when I tried out for the cheering squad, I didn’t make it. The first time, I didn’t make it. But you know what I did? I stayed every day and when they practiced, I practiced. And finally throughout the year I had observed that kids would drop off. And so I was put on because I stayed there and I practiced, I made the team.
Being a cheerleader and being part of the basketball team and being part of the Future Business Leaders of America, and the student council, those opportunities gave me a chance to grow and to open up and to have more confidence in myself than I’d had before. Because, when you’re black, you know, you know what poverty is, even if it’s among the blacks. You know, there were blacks who had more than I had -- nicer homes, nicer cars, and they had money, and you could tell by the way they dressed and the way they acted that this was another class, and here I was over here. So even then, there was discomfort. But those kinds of activities helped me to discover who I was, and helped me to have confidence in who I was and who I could be. And again, teachers encouraging me, "Get out there and run -- doesn't matter if you’re skinny. Doesn't" – because they used to tell me that I had bird legs – "Doesn’t matter. You get out there and you play. You do the best you can. Doesn’t matter. You get out there and you be active in the Future Business Leaders. 'Cause you’re a good student, you can do this work." And so that was how I began to develop as a person and to become more outgoing.
BOND: Now is it fair to guess that it is teachers who served as models for you choosing to become a teacher?
BOND: At both high school and college?
FUTRELL: Yes. When I went to school, I was, as I said, absolutely shocked that I got to go. I didn’t believe it. I don’t think I even believed it until I got there. And my mother got somebody to take – we didn’t have a car so she got someone to take me down. And again, you got to remember, I’m getting there -- and I’m going to be honest, I thought, "I’m going to go here but I’m probably not going to finish. I don’t have any money. My family can’t afford it, so I probably won’t finish," but this was my strategy -- "You go and stay as long as you can," and I majored in business education for a reason. "If you don’t make it, at least you will have some different skills and some new skills that should help you get a better job. And if you do make it, become a teacher." I wanted to be a teacher to give back to the profession that gave so much to me. And I felt, if those teachers can make that much of a difference in my life, then I could make a difference in the lives of other children. And so, that was my strategy.
BOND: Now, you know there is a sociologist named Aldon Morris who has this theory that black communities in this period were a community which upheld and reinforced not only Mom and Dad, but church, school, every institution, upheld and reinforced the need to struggle against a segregation system. Not necessarily by marching and picketing and so on, but surpassing the circumstances. Was Lynchburg like that? Did Lynchburg, black Lynchburg, sort of push you?
BOND: Not just you, but other young people as well?
FUTRELL: Yes. Lynchburg was the kind of community – it was a very close-knit community, the black community was -- and when I was growing up, you have to remember I grew up in a time when there was one black dentist for the whole city. There was one doctor. I think we had a lawyer. And so the prominent people in the community were the teachers.
FUTRELL: And the religious people. And so when I went to Diamond Hill Baptist Church, I was going to church with the people who taught me in my school. And they were very supportive, very involved, and they didn’t let the segregation stop them. I remember one time when I was at Dunbar High School, we had asked for some improvements to the school and the city told us they couldn’t give them to us, that they couldn’t afford it. And yet, the next year, I remember very distinctly they brought this brand new wing to E.C. Glass High School. And at that time it was considered to have the state-of-the-art gym, and all these different things and classrooms, but they had told us there was no money. We didn’t have the up-to-date class books, textbooks. We didn’t have the up-to-date equipment, and that was in simple Lynchburg. When I moved to Alexandria and started teaching, Julian, I was surprised that in Alexandria, the black kids would get the textbooks that were being used by the white kids, and then after they finished, we would get them. We would get the hand-me-down equipment. I remember one year, we asked for workbooks so that our kids could have practical experiences, and we were told they couldn’t afford them. But when we went to a meeting at the white school, there they were.
And so what the community said, despite these inequities, despite this discrimination -- and we know it all exists. I remember the busses being segregated. I remember going to work with my mother to help out, and we had to go through the back door. And I remember saying, "Well, why should we go through the back door when the bus stop is closer to the front door? So now, why do I have to walk all the way around here?" And my mother would simply say, "Just go through the back door." And whenever I got a chance I’d sneak through the front door, you know and once in a while you’d get caught. But we were aware of all these things, but the parents and the community would say to us, "Don’t let those kinds of things hold you back. Life is going to change. Things are different. You can be, and you will be -- " And so they pushed us. And so that’s the way it happened.
BOND: Now, I don’t want to go right away to this, but obviously you had to be learning things then – both high school and college – that affected the leadership position you much later come to. What was it then, student government -- ? What was then, you think, that helped you become the leader you’re later going to become?
FUTRELL: Well, I think one was building confidence. Another one was the ability to work with people, learning how to work with all kinds of people, learning how to listen, learning how to appreciate different ideas and not look at the source of the idea but the quality of the idea. I think it was, how do I phrase it, being able to motivate people, because see, I became the captain of the cheering squad. And so being able to motivate, being able to lead, being able to get people to do things -- I think a major part of leadership is being able to persuade people to do things, having the will and the ability and the desire to do things. And so, when you were out there, and your team is losing and you've still got to cheer, or you've still got to play, or you’re competing for these FBLA awards, or student government, or what, and even though you don’t win, as long as you’ve done your best. So a lot of those things helped.
Also church. You know in church that was the first time that I stood up and spoke out, you know. It was little things like you maybe would say the Twenty-third Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer or something like that. But just having the courage to get up there and speak out. Being in a school play. Those kinds of activities give you confidence and give you the ability to get up and do things that later you know, you take for granted. And I tell people all the time, "What I have learned and what I have done as a leader started back in Lynchburg. Started back in Virginia State College where I was given the opportunity or opportunities to be out front and to do things." I had to grow like anyone else. I was not -- I don’t think I was a natural leader. I had to acquire skills and I had to grow and so I was also willing to learn, willing to study, willing to listen. And so those things helped me later.
BOND: How did you overcome defeats -- and I -- you know, you apply for a leadership position or you want to win a prize and you don’t get it? I mean it happens all the time to everybody, but how did you overcome those defeats?
FUTRELL: You know, when I was in high school, I was selected to be, I think it was either the vice president or something like that, for the student government and it was taken away from me. And the reason it was taken away was because I wasn’t there at the time of the election and I wasn’t there because I was off cheerleading. And they told me, "You weren’t present, so we gave it to someone else." Well, no one had told me that I had to be there to win. And I was upset, but I said, "Life goes on." So if you really believe that you can be a leader, you come back, and first of all you stick with the organization, but then you come back and you try again. Well, when I became -- first started getting involved in the association, a lot of people don’t know that I ran for the Virginia Educational Associations Board of Directors, and they refused to put my name forward. And I don’t know whether it was because I was black or because I was a woman, or what it was. But they refused to put my name forward. And then when I insisted that they put my name forward, they refused to put the vita information forward. So when the ballot went out with the accompanying documentation, all they had was my name, and where I taught, and the association to which I belonged. But they didn’t talk about anything I had done. But my opponent, you know, there was this long page. And they didn’t send it out until they sent out the ballots so I had no chance to correct it.
And I decided to challenge it. I feel sometimes like Gore feels – but people were very angry with me because I had the audacity to challenge this election and they told me that in all the history of the VEA no one had ever challenged the election. And I said, "Well, if I had been treated fairly and lost, I would not have challenged." I said, "But I was not treated fairly. First, they didn’t want to put my name on the ballot, I had to fight for that. Secondly, when they put my name on the ballot, they didn’t put any information about me." And so I fought it. I had to go before the entire General Assembly, Virginia; VEA, General Assembly. I was surprised when they ruled in my favor. I thought I wasn’t going to win. And I’m going to confess and say that after I made my speech, or during my speech, I was so scared I had to prop my knee against the podium to keep from falling down.
BOND: To keep from shaking?
FUTRELL: No! I was so scared, I was afraid I was going to fall down, that’s how scared I was. Then, when it was over, I went out in the back, and I got on the steps and I put my head down and covered it up because I was so sure there was going to be this huge resounding "No." And they came and got me, they said, "Mary, you won." And I said, "What?" And they said, "Yes, you won!" And I said, "No, you’re kidding me, I couldn’t have." ‘Cause this had never happened. And what they basically did, is they refused to honor the election. And they sent it back, and then they -- but then what they did is, they said that my opponent nor I could run for it. So they selected somebody else.
But you learn how to survive. You learn, Julian, that if you believe in something strongly enough, that you’re willing to go back and keep trying. You also have to believe in yourself, and if you’ve done things and you’ve done it fairly, you have to stand up and fight for yourself. And when you grew up in a segregated society like I did, you learn how to fight early. And so, when I look back on all the things I experienced in Lynchburg, and Virginia State, and other places – I had learned at Virginia State to be a fighter, to stand up. I had learned in Lynchburg, unknowingly, to stand up. And so, you don’t let defeat stop you. You come back and you keep trying. And if you believe in it -- the organization or the concept or whatever -- you have to stand up and fight for what you believe in, even if you’re not the person up front. You support who is up front. And so, that’s basically what happened.
BOND: Speaking of segregation, and the segregated society, do you remember the Brown decision, May ’54? Do you remember hearing about it at the time?
BOND: It just passed by?
FUTRELL: Now, I was in the eighth -- what you have to remember in the South in those days, a lot of that stuff, you know, you would not get a lot of coverage, and we didn’t have TV.
FUTRELL: And it wasn’t really on radio and I vaguely remember, I tell you what I remember -- I remember the schools being closed in Appomattox. A lot of concern in Appomattox. I remember the Brown decision when I went away to Virginia State College. And this is why I remember -- they asked all of us that when we went home to bring back the books that we had in high school to give to kids in the state who were not allowed to go to school because the schools had been shut down because of Brown. And I was astounded because Appomattox is right next door to Lynchburg. And so here you are saying that the schools are going to be closed, and let's give them our books, our old books. And, so then in college, that’s when I had really learned what had happened with the Brown decision. My schools did not desegregate until I was well out of high school, well out of Lynchburg. I think it was four or five years after I left college that my schools finally desegregated. My sister, Marianne, went to desegregated schools. I did not.
BOND: So you don’t remember any discussion among your teachers in 1954 about what this might mean?
FUTRELL: No. I’m not sure it was even discussed, but you have to understand at that time, also, if they discussed it, they may have discussed it among themselves, but I don’t remember it being discussed as part of a lesson. I don’t remember that.
BOND: Now, because you did not go to integrated schools, until you go to graduate school --
BOND: -- how has the Brown decision affected your life? It didn’t affect the education you received. What effect has it had on you?
FUTRELL: Well, first of all, I think it affected me as a teacher because the school where I first taught was segregated. And then they desegregated the school. I think it affected me as a student in graduate school because I was able to go to George Washington University, University of Maryland. I even took courses from U. Va. And if that had happened ten years ago, ten years earlier, I would not have been able to do so. It affected me by really focusing on equal educational opportunities and that you shouldn’t judge a person’s ability to learn by the color of their skin. And so, you know, when I finally taught in those integrated schools, I treated my children as equals. And I say "my children" because that’s who they were. That they can learn just like anyone else. And I tried to use the opportunity to help all sides learn more about one another, respect one another, appreciate one another, and understand that we can learn. Because you’ve got to remember too, that I came along at the time, when basically, the impression was, we couldn’t learn, that we didn’t have the intelligence to learn.
And I can remember sitting in classes and the white kids thinking that the black kids couldn’t learn and the black kids thinking that white kids were -- are arrogant and racist and all kinds of -- and so as a teacher, you’re trying to bring all that together. I appreciate Brown because I think that Brown did what should have been done at the beginning. All children deserve an equal opportunity to be educated, and to be educated at their maximum potential. Brown helped us achieve desegregation. I don’t think we’ve achieved integration. There’s still too much segregation in our schools. And I think we still have a long way to go, but Brown opened the door. A lot of people don’t know, for example, that Brown also helped desegregate schools for children with disabilities, special needs. And when we look at children like Ryan White, who had AIDS, one of the things he used to open up the door was the Brown decision. "As a sick person, I have the right to go to school." So I have deep appreciation, and deep respect for the Brown decision because I think it has changed the face of not only education but the face of America.
BOND: Now, you said a moment ago, we’ve desegregated but we haven’t integrated. What is it going to take to achieve an integrated education, or an integrated America?
FUTRELL: Whoa, that’s a tough one. If I knew the answer to that question I probably would be the richest person in the world. We still have a lot of work to do, I think, with changing attitudes and changing behavior. If you look in our schools and you look at our churches I still think that in many ways they are two of the most segregated institutions in this country. And I’m a religious person. I’m a Baptist, foot-stomping Southern Baptist, and I believe in God, but when I go to church, very few white people are in my church. And if I go across the street or down the road to a white church, it’s going to be just the opposite – very few black people. So, I keep asking myself, if God created all of us as equal and we’re all his children, why are we so segregated?
When I look at schools, schools are segregated by tracking. Look at the schools. If you look at the gifted and talented, primarily white, maybe Asians, maybe one or two African Americans or Hispanics. You look at the academic program, a little more integration. If you look at the general track, that’s primarily Hispanic. You look at the vocational track, that’s still primarily black, and special ed is black and brown males. And so it's one of the things that we talk about, for example, with the standards movement. And I keep asking people, "If we want children to meet the same standards, when are we going to change the schools?" Because as long as this structure is in place, you’re not going to meet the standards. And these children are going to look as though they can’t learn. It’s not that they can’t learn. They’re not being taught the basic math, the basic science, the basic English, the basic whatever. So a lot of it has to do with politics. A lot of it has to do with educational policies. A lot of it has to do with attitudes that we still have.
But what America has to understand is we’re becoming more diverse, not less. I read a study from ETS that shows that by the end of this decade we will have somewhere between fifty-five and fifty-six million children in our elementary and secondary schools alone. The vast majority of the increase will come from African-American and Hispanic-American backgrounds. Same thing at the college level. So the question becomes, can America expect to continue to be a leader and not educate those children as well as it's educating the whites and the Asians, etc. Can we? And the answer in my opinion is, no. I think we need to do a better job of desegregating and integrating our classes. We need to do a better job of integrating our teaching force. We need to look at the curriculum. And the focus should be on helping people develop their intellectual potential. Just as it was when we were in those black schools.
BOND: Now what has been lost? You know it was a great victory to do away with segregation but also loss is involved in this. Jobs lost, memory lost, history lost. What was lost in this transition from the segregated society to the desegregated society?
FUTRELL: You mean as far as education is concerned?
BOND: Yes, education, or generally, but education particularly.
FUTRELL: Well, I think that if you look at what’s happening in some communities now, a lot of the black parents are saying, "Well we want to go back to the neighborhood schools. We want to go back to these schools even though they’re segregated." Because they’re looking at how they were supported and encouraged and how they were -- it was insisted that you learn. And what a lot of the black parents and the Hispanic parents are saying is that we don’t see that same kind of push in the schools today. Now, there’s blame on both sides. There’s blame on the side of the schools and there is blame on the side of the parents. Because you go back to what I said -- my mother was a major force in making sure I did what I was supposed to do in schools, and the teachers were as well. But we look at what I see as being lost is the kids who were at the top academically. I don’t see them at the top academically. I see them at the top athletically. But not academically. And I would say to you, we can do both. And so, I think that one of the things that’s been lost is where are those black kids and those Hispanic kids and those poor kids who were role models when I was coming along? And why can’t we have that now? And how do we do a better job of training the teachers and preparing the teachers? How do we do a better job of nurturing the students so that we have that kind of integration? How do we do that?
I see in our society – and I have the opportunity to travel a lot internationally – America is more integrated than any other country in the world. Now more countries are becoming integrated. When I go to England and when I go to the Netherlands and France and all those places now, they’re far more integrated now than they were when I started going in the '80s. But no one is like us. We represent every country in the world. So people have a lot to learn from us, but we also have a lot to learn. And when I look at society in general, society, I think, has to accept the fact we’re not going to change. We’re going to become even more desegregated, even more integrated. And we’re going to be part of a world where we are the minority. And that world is a very culturally diverse world. And so if we’re going to be global leaders, we have to make sure that our children, our citizens, understand what it means to live in a multicultural, intercultural type of global society. And help us deal with that, those changes as we move forward.
BOND: Now, that’s a big challenge and it’s a challenge that calls upon leadership.
BOND: From time to time, I’ve heard you say that one aspect of your leadership is being open to different opinions and so on. Do you think you have a leadership philosophy, and if you do, what is your philosophy of leadership?
FUTRELL: Well, I think that my philosophy is basically, if you’re going to lead, you have to get out front and be willing to take risks. You have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to do whatever you need to do to achieve the goals that you’ve set. You have to be willing to work with all kinds of people. And you have to be, basically, determined. I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t have to be my idea all the time when there's one that's out there. If you’ve got a better idea, okay, let’s put it out there and let’s try to make it work. How do I motivate other people to work to make this idea work? And to me, that’s leadership. And I find so many times, people have a vision but they don’t know how to implement it. Or they’re able to mobilize people but they can’t articulate what the vision is. It doesn’t do you any good to have a vision if you can’t get people to believe in you and follow you. And so, when I think of leadership, I think of people who have a vision, they’re able to articulate it, and they’re able to get people to work and they’re willing to work and put forth whatever’s necessary to make it happen.
BOND: Now you have those attributes and you’ve talked earlier about how others, teachers, parents, community, helped to reinforce those attitudes in you. But why doesn’t everyone have these attributes? Why, why does Mary, little Mary, have these and not these others?
FUTRELL: Because I think -- I think we are different people. I think that a lot of times, people have these attributes and they don’t recognize them. A lot of times, maybe they haven’t been given the opportunity to come forward. I think that leaders come from many different perspectives. I don’t think that one person necessarily is going to do everything. If it’s only Mary, then it’s not going to work. The other people have to believe as well and persuade them to come along. I’ve also -- I'm also a firm believer that you’re going to get the job done if you include other people and if you listen to them and involve them rather than tell them what they have to do.
BOND: Now it’s obvious from the high school leadership positions you achieved, that you were a leader then. But did you ever begin to say to yourself, or maybe you don’t, "I am a leader"?
FUTRELL: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
BOND: But obviously others thought of you in that way or they wouldn’t have chosen you for these positions, so when did you ever begin to think of yourself as a leader?
FUTRELL: You know, a lot of things that happened to me, Julian. Chappie Brown used to say, "Don’t knock on the door of opportunity, then when it opens say, ‘Wait a minute, let me get my bag'." Because he would say, "When you bend down to get it, somebody else is going to walk through." I think a lot of what has happened to me has been I’ve been in the right place at the right time.
BOND: Surely, but you had to be in that right place.
FUTRELL: Well, you know, and this is kind of awkward for me, I have to say, because I view you as a leader. I knew about Julian Bond before I met Julian Bond.
BOND: That’s kind of you to say, but this is about you. This is about you.
FUTRELL: Oh, I know, I know. But I’m trying to make a point. The point that I’m trying to make is, when I saw people like you and Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King -- you have to remember that I’m looking at TV…and I’m listening to the radio and I’m hearing -- I go to Virginia State College and Martin Luther King comes to my campus to speak. Well, these are the kinds of experiences that gives me the courage and gives me the belief and says to me, "You can do that."
BOND: But somebody else sees Martin Luther King speak and they say, "Hey, I could never do that. I can’t talk like that."
BOND: "I can’t speak like that."
FUTRELL: Well, believe it or not, Julian, I couldn’t either. When I first --
BOND: But somehow or another, you saw him and you said, something in you said, "I can do that."
FUTRELL: Well, because I’m thinking, "Here’s somebody who’s, you know, from my neighborhood." You know, if you understand what I’m saying. And that person could do it and they’re standing up, maybe I could do it. And so you don’t really go and say, "I’m the leader." But I think what happens is as you work with the groups, as you work with people, you sort of emerge. Have there been opportunities when I wanted to be the leader and I wasn’t selected? Yeah. Have there been opportunities when I was selected to be the leader, and I wasn’t sure I could do the job? Yeah. But what you try to do is make sure that if you’re out there that you have people who can help you, especially address those weaknesses and things that you have. When I became the president of the VEA, I had not planned to be the president of the VEA. And a lot of the blacks came and they said, "We’ve been merged now for, I think it was like ten years or so," and we go back to this gender issue you asked me about. "We think it’s time for VEA to have a black president." And so my name was one of the ones they put forth and they also put forth a man’s name. What I was told was, "You should step aside. ‘Cause you have not paid your dues and you’re a woman and a black man should do it first." Well, I must confess and say, that that really irritated me. Because I remember asking the question, "How long do I have to be around to pay my dues?" Because dues didn’t mean paying your money.
BOND: I know.
FUTRELL: And I said, "Well, when did -- what does being a woman have to do with it?" And so I decided to run. And I was surprised when I got elected, they called me at my school and told me, and I thought they were playing a joke on me, so I hung up the telephone and went back to my class. And they called again and I refused to go to the telephone because I just was sure that I didn’t win. So they told my principal to come and get me to tell me that I had won.
When I ran for president of NEA, I hadn’t planned to be the president. Traditionally, it’s the vice-president who runs and for whatever reason the vice-president decided not to. It was the time of the Nation at Risk report. It was the time of all the -- the beginning of the national debate around education. And folks came and they said, "Look, we don’t have time to educate somebody to step in and to help the NEA deal with these issues. We need somebody who knows the organization and who can hit the ground running." And so they asked me to be the president and I said, "Okay, I’m not sure that, you know, that this is what I want to do or what I plan to do." And that’s the way it happened.
Being the dean of the school of education – I did not plan to be the dean of the school of education. When I stepped down as president of NEA, I went back to school to get my degree to figure out what are you going to do with the rest of your life? That was my strategy. And five years later, I’m the dean. But I hadn’t planned to do that. So, when you say, "Are you a leader?” sometimes you say yes, because of the experiences you’ve had, but other times, other people say yes, and then the question becomes, "Do you want to honor what those people are asking you to do and try to do it?"
BOND: You know, in some ways this is --
FUTRELL: Am I making any sense?
BOND: Yes, you're making perfect sense. In some ways this is kind of a chicken/egg situation. The head of the VEA is a leader because that person is head of the VEA. But you don’t get to be head of the VEA, unless you’re a leader.
FUTRELL: Right. Right. And you’ve got a whole lot of leaders there.
BOND: Yes, indeed. You do. Important leaders, people who’ve, you know, served in education for a long, long time.
BOND: I’m curious, when the two organizations merged, the black and white organization merged, my memory is that in Georgia, when this happened, they agreed that one year a black person would be the president, the next year a white person would be the president and carry this on. Why did this not happen in Virginia?
FUTRELL: Because, Virginia was the first to merge.
BOND: Oh --
FUTRELL: Okay? And when we merged – and again I go back – I was not part of that, I had not become a teacher. And so, they merged or they were in the process of merging before I became a teacher, and I came in as a teacher afterwards. But by the time they merged, I found out later they were the first. And David Johnson who stepped down as exec of the VEA, he’s talked to me about this. And I used to talk to Rupert Pike and others, and they talked about the mistakes that they made in the merger process. And one mistake was this rotation. And some people thought that was a mistake not to put that in, others felt that it was not. Because right now -- we’ve had three black presidents of VEA, elected through process. We also gave up the buildings. Yes! They sold the buildings, they sold everything. And I’ve heard VEA folks say that was the biggest mistakes that they made, they should have kept the building because that would have given them more space, more property, and strengthened the financial base for the organization.
FUTRELL: I don’t know, I think they gave all the documentation to Virginia State, but that’s basically what happened.
And as others merged, they looked at what had happened with VEA. And then the others decided to go every other year. And as I’ve talked to people in North Carolina and Tennessee and Georgia and other places, and I said, "Well, why did you come up with this system of alternating?" And they said, "Because when we looked at what Virginia did, and you went years without having a president." I was the first black president. They said, "We didn’t want to make that mistake." Now, they had blacks serving on the board. They had a strategy where -- so, the ones who were VTAs, served on the VEA board for a certain period of time, and then it was a natural rotation. And so ours has evolved more naturally as opposed to the other way. Now, there are pros and cons to that, because I’ve been in some states where when the black president is in office, only the blacks were involved. And then when the white president’s in office, only the whites are involved. And I remember saying to them, "Well, what kind of organization is this? This is your organization but yet you’re only involved when certain people are in office? That doesn’t make sense." It took us a long time to get a black president, I think it was 1973, but all the people were there.
FUTRELL: So, that’s, that’s what I -- we were first. You didn’t realize it?
BOND: No, I didn’t realize that, but I remember Horace Tate in Georgia as head of the Black Teacher’s -- BTA --
FUTRELL: But, I know Horace quite well.
BOND: And the merger, and I wonder whether or not -- I’m struck by something you said about the building. Because it strikes me that this property is so important, and so few black institutions and organizations have any property even though we have ancient organizations. I wonder if in other states, property was maintained or retained -- but you know, this is a subject for somebody to write a Ph.D. thesis on, the history of these organizations.
FUTRELL: Well, at some, you know what they did? They sold off both and they built a new building. And we, what we did, is we just, we sold off the VTA building.
BOND: Now, when you become active in the VEA, there’s a minority caucus.
FUTRELL: No, there was not. We formed it.
BOND: You formed a minority caucus. And the minority caucus must have been controversial.
BOND: I mean, there must have been people who said, "Don’t do it, you’re separating -- we just integrated and now you’re separating again."
BOND: How did you overcome that?
FUTRELL: The caucus really did not come into being until about ten years later. Because, you remember, when we first merged, we had built into the constitution, built into the governing documents that blacks would be on the board as well as whites over a certain period of time. And then what happened was as the blacks began to realize that their numbers were fading on the board and that they were not being replaced as they thought they were going to be replaced, that they felt there was a need for a minority caucus. But it wasn’t just the governance. It was the issue around at that time. We were very upset about the desegregation of the schools, and the fact that a lot of African-American teachers and principals were losing their jobs. Very concerned about so many of the school buildings either being closed or being converted to something else. Very concerned about the historical aspects of the education of blacks just not being included. And I remember being -- we met in a hotel room, and there must have been about fifteen or twenty of us, and at that time, see, here I am this little scared person trying to figure out, "Well, what’s going on?" And so we agreed that all of us would stand up on the floor of the VEA and we would make these speeches. And some of the people wouldn’t do it. They promised they would, but then, when we got there, they didn’t. And I remember that I stood up and I gave a speech and afterwards a lady came up to me and she said, "I don’t know how you read your speech." And I said, "Well, what do you mean?" She said, "Your hand was shaking so violently there was no way you could read it." And that’s how scared I was, but I felt that this was something that I had to stand up along with others. A guy named Reggie Smith was one of the leaders of that movement. Shelby Guss, Fitz Turner was one -- and they had been part of the VTA and active in their local, etc., and so they helped form this minority caucus. And it still exists, by the way.
BOND: Well, how did you deal with those people, whites and blacks, who said, "Hey, this is just a separatist thing. We’re trying to integrate, you’re trying to separate.” How did you deal with that?
FUTRELL: Well, one of the things that I tried to do was to sit down and talk with people, and I can be very emotional when I talk, but I had to force myself just to sit down and try to get them to understand your side of it and see what’s going on. And what we found was that there were a lot of people who were very sympathetic. Especially the teachers from the northern part of the state. They were very sympathetic and we were able to persuade some of them to also stand up and speak up. As a matter of fact, we were able to persuade two or three of them to work with us to put a motion forward to force the VEA to deal with the -- what we considered to be the unfair dismissal of African-American teachers and principals and the pushing out of black kids out of school. And we were able -- we won, but it was a narrow vote. But just sitting down and talking to people and trying to help them understand. A lot of them were not aware of what was going on. And so, when we began to share this information and Reggie and Shelby and Fitz Turner had collected data, and they were able to show that before desegregation, we had this many African-American teachers and this many African-American principals, we had this many kids, and now look at what we have -- well, they sympathized with us and they joined with us and put it forth. There were people who were livid. They threatened to pull out of the VEA, they threatened to boycott the convention, they threatened to do all kinds of things. But we stood our ground, and believe it or not, they didn’t walk away.
BOND: Well, you know, it’s a delicate line to walk in leadership, to head an organization with people who formerly were opposed, or at least they were separate, if they weren’t opposed, and to be able to draw from both these groups to get support, which obviously you’ve done. Now, how are you able to do this? To be, on the one hand, a member of the black caucus, the minority caucus, and on the other hand, to rise to a leadership position in this integrated, majority white organization. How do you balance these?
FUTRELL: Well, and I’ve faced that in every position I’ve held. I remember when I ran for the presidency of NEA -- first I ran for secretary or treasurer, and they didn’t want to elect me because they didn’t think that I could do the job. They didn’t think that I would be fair, I would only side with the minorities, and all kinds of things, and I said, "Well -- " And one of the things I decided to do is stick to the issues, because what they’re trying to do is divert you from the issues and make you come down and make you deal with these issues over here. And what I said is, "Those of you who know me, know that I will be fair and that I will work with all the people. Because this organization represents all the people and whoever is president, or whoever is secretary, represents all the people." And to show them that I was sincere, when I was elected president of the VEA and the NEA, I brought people together who were violently opposed to me, as well as people who were violently supportive of me. And I brought them together and we would sit and work on different projects, and I remember having people say, "I never thought I would be involved in the organization again. I just assumed that when you were elected, that you were only going to support the people who supported you, or you were only going to support, nominate black people." And I said, "No. In this organization, I want the views of all the members to be heard."
And so I would appoint them to the committees and task forces. When we would go on delegations, I would make sure that they were a part of those delegations. I would also take the time to sit down and talk. You know, sometimes we’d get so immature we refused to speak to people. You know, "I’m so angry because she didn’t support me when -- " Well, you have the right not to support me. You have the right to support whomever you want. You have the -- I may disagree with your beliefs, but that doesn’t stop me from being courteous and being professional with you. And I remember the second time I ran for president of NEA, a lot of people came up to me and said, "We’re going to support you, because you did include us, you did not exclude. You brought people together." And that was basically how I did it.
BOND: Let me ask you about different leadership strategies or styles you may employ depending on the group you’re dealing with. For example, you’re active in both the minority caucus of the VEA, and the VEA. Now, are you different when dealing with these two groups? Do you have a different style?
FUTRELL: I don’t think so. When I’m dealing with the minority caucus, or the black caucus in the NEA or the VEA or whatever, I tend to say to them, "These are the issues." Now, what I will do is give them maybe more detailed information and make sure they have all the information they need about the strategy and why we’re doing what we’re doing. And then, when I go on the floor, I’m going to provide that same information but probably not in as much detail, because I’m not going to have the opportunity to give it in as much detail. My advocacy for issues related to blacks or minorities hasn’t changed over the last thirty-some years. And people who know me know that that’s where I’m going to speak. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. I think that anyone who is a leader, there are opportunities where you sit down and you can talk to somebody and you can be more candid, more private. Do I do that? The answer is yes. The answer is absolutely, yes. And there are certain people within the black caucus at the VEA level, at the national level, with whom I sit down and have these conversations and make sure they have the detailed information, etc. But when I get on the floor, it might not be as detailed but it’s basically the same kind of information.
Now, why do I do that? Because, let’s face the reality. It doesn’t matter what size group you’re dealing with, that information is going to get out, and the last thing you need to do is to get up on the floor and be caught in a lie. Or be caught that you distorted or you’re not sharing the whole truth. And so you have to be very careful about that. But whoever the audience is with whom I’m dealing, they know that I’m going to deal with the issues related to equity, etc. So they know that that’s there.
BOND: What about style as opposed to substance?
BOND: If I’m speaking to an all-black audience, I’m going to speak in one way.
BOND: And if I’m speaking to an integrated audience, or an audience that’s overwhelmingly white, I’m going to speak it another way. And I don’t think it’s even conscious as much as I look out and see the faces and I react in a different way.
FUTRELL: Well, let me put it like this, and I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but when I’m speaking to a predominately black audience, I’m going to probably let my hair down and be more "Mary, the black person," you know --
BOND: Yes. Yes.
FUTRELL: And it’s the style I use or the tone, but the message is not different.
FUTRELL: Okay? And when I’m speaking over here, I’m maybe going to use a different style, etc. But in every instance it’s going to be very professional, very -- it’s going to be basically the same message. And again, I say that because the message gets out.
BOND: The substance is the same --
FUTRELL: Right. The style --
BOND: -- but the style and the presentation may be different?
FUTRELL: Right. Yeah.
BOND: Back to something we had talked about --
FUTRELL: And let me say this. And when I’m dealing with the caucus, all the strategy doesn’t take place in a formal meeting. See, a lot of the strategizing is going to take place when we’re in a very informal environment where we kick back, you know? We’ve got our shoes off and, you know, we’re eating or we’re whatever, and it sounds like a general conversation but it’s probably not a general conversation. It’s a conversation where we’re talking about the issues. And so I’m going to be much more laid back, much more candid, much more whatever than I would be able, to probably to be out there on the floor.
BOND: Now, you come into the VEA at a time when unionization and teacher militants – these are hot items all over the United States. And there surely had to be people in Virginia, as well as we know in the national government, the federal government, who are saying, "This is just awful. This is terrible. You’re ruining a profession. You ought not do this," and Virginia, of course, prohibits unionization of teachers.
FUTRELL: Well, you have to understand --
BOND: How’d you deal with all this?
FUTRELL: -- that prohibition came about when I was president.
FUTRELL: And Virginia is a non-collective bargaining state. And when I became president, just before that they had -- the state – and I think it was Governor Godwin – had looked at the area of the state where there were the strongest contracts for all public employees. Obviously that was the northern part of the state. And they picked Arlington. And while I was president, that’s when the court decision came down, nullifying all the agreements. And so it didn’t matter what we had negotiated, it was gone. We tried to ask them, "Could we not simply live out the remainder of the life of the contract?" And the answer was "No, as of this date, it’s over. You have no negotiated agreement."
And we basically said, that’s not going to stop the organization from organizing. That’s not going to stop people from coming together. That’s not going to stop people from standing up for their rights. And I used, as part of my argument, "Our coming together and bringing forth issues of relevance to education and to the profession, have helped strengthen education and strengthen the profession. And it’s not just the collective bargaining of ‘bread and butter’ issues we’re addressing, it’s the salaries and the working conditions -- those are important. But equally important to us as professionals, is do we, are we able to provide quality education for the children?" And so, the militancy -- a lot of times people usually will say, "If you belong to a union, you only care about your salary, your fringe benefits, your working conditions, that’s all you care." That’s not true. And what we tried to do was to say, "Part of the whole process is to give teachers a voice. And the decision making process as it relates to the profession – what’s taught, where it’s taught, the conditions under which we work, the teaching conditions – are the same as the learning conditions, and use it for that purpose. There are a lot of people that are still opposed to the unions. But if you look at the teachers, we’re the most organized people in the United States of America. The other work areas have dropped, precipitously. About 85 to 90 percent of the teachers in this country are still organized. And I think because we have balanced the "bread and butter" issues with the professional issues.
BOND: But there had to be some teachers then who said, "Listen, I’m a professional."
FUTRELL: Of course.
BOND: "It’s only working people, plumbers, carpenters, who belong to unions. Not me -- I’m a professional person, I’m a white-collar worker. We don’t have unions."
FUTRELL: Right. And if you’re in the South, generally you’ll hear the Teacher’s Association referred to as the Professional Association, and they abhor the word "union." You know, you don’t hear the word "union." But if you go to other parts of the country, you do hear the word "union." And so, then when we come together as a national body, here we all are together. And so, your statement is correct, there are people who have difficulty with the word "union." And they have particular difficulty with the teacher’s organization being affiliated with the AFL-CIO. And the NEA is independent. AFT is a part of the AFL-CIO. If the merger comes together, NEA will probably go into the AFL-CIO. But what I hope and pray is that they never lose their mission. And the mission is to improve the quality of education for the children of America. And I don’t think they will.
BOND: People talk about leaders in different ways. There’re some leaders who cause great events to happen. There’re some leaders who come out of great events. And there’re some leaders that, something happens, and bam! a leadership figure emerges. Do you fit into any of those categories?
FUTRELL: Well, I probably fit into several of them. I've -- for example, I think that my stature as a leader was elevated because of a negative event. And the negative event was when the Supreme -- when the State Supreme Court took away collective bargaining.
FUTRELL: It was the first time that teachers had been led in a mass demonstration from a statewide perspective. And a lot of people were looking at, "Well, what is Virginia going to do? If Virginia just -- are the teachers just going to roll over and accept this and not do anything?" Well, people were shocked when the teachers came together to protest what had happened, as well as to protest -- at that time there were enormous cuts being made in education. And that, as I said, the first time that had happened. So a negative event helped catapult me as a leader. There've also been situations where, you know, you’re just in the right place at the right time. And so I think there've been several instances where if we put it all together, there’s no one way to define "How did you get to be this person?"
BOND: But, you know, regardless of which way you emerged, leaders emerge in one of these following ways, and I guess it’s fair to say that each of these different ways touched on you in some way. But can you look back over your life to date – think about that march in Richmond, 7,000 teachers, think about the arguments you had as head of the NEA with William Bennett, another negative event – has there been any common theme running through these things? I’m not sure, even sure if I’m asking a coherent question.
FUTRELL: Well, I think a common theme for me and from what I’ve heard people say, is that a willingness to stand up and to fight not only for what you believe is right but for the, quote unquote, "the people." The people in this instance being the teachers, the members, and the children. Being willing to stand up and speak out for what you believe is right. And so, when I look at the common themes, and I look at, and I listen to people, and why they say they supported me, and why they say they remember the things that I did. Those are the kinds of comments that I get back.
BOND: Well, I look at you now and obviously you’re poised, self-confident, articulate, it’s hard for me to balance that with someone whose hands were shaking so badly that people wondered that you couldn’t make a speech. Now how’d you go from that, to this?
FUTRELL: Well, now let me give you an example. I spoke a moment ago about Reggie Smith, who was, by the way, grew up in Appomattox -- not Appomattox, in -- oh, where’s -- Longwood! Farmville. When they closed down the school.
FUTRELL: Reggie is dead now and I remember once I went to give a speech and I had my speech. I put it on the chair to go look at something. And while I was over looking at something, someone took my speech and as I realized the speech was gone, they called on me to get up and speak. And I was forced to get up and speak without the paper, and I remember distinctly that Reggie kept looking out the window. He would never look at me the whole time I was speaking. So, when I finished and I stepped down, I said, "Reggie," I said, "what happened to my speech?" He said, "I’m going to tell you the truth, I took it because it was about time you learned how to stand up and say what you had to say with out having a piece of paper."
And that’s the honest to goodness truth. And he said -- he said to me, "You don’t believe that you have the confidence to do these things." And he said, "I think you do." And so, I mean, that’s a small thing. But then, as you become more confident – "Well, I know the subject, I know the people, I know the organization" – and you build more confidence in yourself, then you stand up and you speak out. You have to understand, in education, and I know that you’re aware that there are hundreds of issues. You can’t be an expert on all of them. And so you’ve got to be able to say, "Now, where is my niche and what can I do?" Even in the teachers organization, "Where’s my niche and what can I do?" So I had to learn how to stand up and to give a speech, or even if I had one, you don’t have to go through it verbatim. You know, those were very frivolous things to happen, but that’s exactly what happened.
BOND: Can you imagine what would have happened on that occasion if you had stumbled and bumbled and said -- ?
FUTRELL: And I probably did.
BOND: Yeah, well --
FUTRELL: I probably did.
BOND: I bet you didn’t.
FUTRELL: And I remember the people, they were laughing at Reggie. We didn’t think he had the courage to do it.
BOND: Now, another attribute of leadership is the ability to persuade other people to do something that they may not have wanted to do otherwise. Now, can you remember early attempts at doing this? To get a group to change their mind or to adopt a position that you think they didn’t --
BOND: And how did you -- ? Okay.
FUTRELL: Well, I can remember two. One was NEA had had a position on the books for a long time opposing testing. And they used as the primary rationale for the opposition, the negative impact it has on blacks. I decided to oppose that, because my point was -- the message that's being sent, whether on purpose or not, said, "We can’t learn, we can’t pass tests." The motion ought to be, the policy ought to be, "What kinds of things did we think ought to be in place in order to make sure, you know, we can pass these tests? And how do we make sure the tests are fair and what roles should we play in developing these tests?" And I remember a lot of the blacks who were at the NEA convention were very upset with me because I was bringing this forward. I said, "I don’t want anyone to ever, ever be of the opinion that I, as a black person or black kids can’t learn. That we can’t pass tests. We ought to make sure the tests are fair, etc. And after talking with them, they agreed, and so the motion passed.
And we put together a task force to look at testing and how do we work with different companies, but also, how do we work with school districts to help minority kids pass tests? Another example was, you may have heard about the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which was put forth by the Carnegie Corporation. Well, when we went into the board – you don’t know this part. I was opposed vehemently for that board. Now, NEA had for years supported the states' standards boards, so I was a little puzzled as to why we were now opposing the national standards board if, for as long as I could remember, we were supporting states' standards boards. But we had members of our executive committee and members of the board who were absolutely, diametrically opposed to this concept. And I remember saying to them, "If we oppose the national board, no one will ever believe again that we are sincerely concerned about the quality of education in this country because the message we will have sent is, "Yes, we’re for standards, we’re for quality, but don’t try to put inequality on the teaching profession." When I went into the RA, the vote was probably 70/30, maybe 60/40 against the board. And I was determined that we were not going to fail. And so I made it a point of going around -- and by the way, I bypassed the executive committee, and I made my appeal to the board and I persuaded the board to support it. And again I used, "You can’t say you’re for change if you oppose it." And then I went to the urban caucus because they were opposed. I went to the black caucus, the women’s caucus. I went to the higher ed caucus. Believe it or not, the higher ed caucus was furious about the standards boards. And their fear was eventually they would have to go before national -- they would be required to become certified.
I’m going to tell you exactly what I did. I told them – and it was true at the time – there had been no discussion of higher education faculty having to go through national certification. And so they said, "If you will go on the floor and say that, and then say that NEA will not advocate for this, we will support you. And we will actively support you." So I said fine. So, when we got to that issue on the floor, from the audience, from the delegation, they put the question to me in front of 10,000 people. And I repeated what I said. And they asked me to say it again just to make sure I wasn’t trying to use tricky words. And I did. And I’d also talked to the urbans about the kinds of things we were going to do. And we turned the vote. And the vote turned to be 80 for, 20 against.
FUTRELL: 20 percent, yes.
BOND: That's remarkable, because I remember the fierce, fierce opposition black teachers had to, the National Teachers Exam --
BOND: -- the high failure rate of black teachers. But surely there must have been some people in that 80/20, in that 20 who just couldn’t reconcile themselves to this.
FUTRELL: [Yes.] And there still are.
BOND: Did you ever able to convince any of that 20 to come over and join the 80 even after the vote was taken?
FUTRELL: Well, on the national standards board?
FUTRELL: The answer is yes. And what we promised was, that the NEA would set aside resources to support teachers going through the national certification process. Now the NTE and the MBPTS are two separate doctrines.
FUTRELL: So what I said to them on the NTE was, "I oppose the NTE. I don't think it's a fair way to assess whether or not teachers can teach." So, you oppose the NTE but what do you support? You can’t always say what you oppose, what do you support? So what would NEA and its members support in the way of assessing whether or not teachers know and are able to teach to that which they are supposed to teach? And so that was the position that I took. And I said, "When we put together this task force, we’re going to make sure that there are representatives from all parts of the country, from all of the diverse groups in the NEA, different educational levels, so that we come together and we advocate for what we believe and not simply say we oppose something." And that was basically the way we did that. We began to work more closely with, for example, with the College Board, with the ETS. We worked very close with the Fair Testing Association because we agreed that the tests should be fair, not just for teachers but for children as well.
So, how do we use our resources to make sure the tests are as biased free as possible? And every test is biased. There are no unbiased tests – so, it’s not just a matter of saying you’re opposed, but what do you support? And that’s the way we got the teachers involved and got them to be supportive. I remember Joe Reed, a good friend of mine from Alabama, he came up to me and he had his hands in his pockets and he said to me, "Mary Futrell," he said, "I can’t believe that you are advocating this but I have confidence in you. And if you think that this is what we should do, and if you are willing to put this task force in and set aside the resources, I will talk to the Alabama delegation." And I knew he was upset when I saw him and when he told me that, I just gave him a hug.
BOND: Now, what you’re describing is a consultative process where the people who are against are talked to and even though they have different arguments, you manage to say, "Well, I’m going to meet this argument this way, I’m going to meet this argument this way." Is that a -- how did you develop this style? Does that go back to early leadership positions? High school? Student government? How did this come about?
FUTRELL: Well, I think it came about because as I worked with people, again -- I may disagree with you, but I can disagree with you without being disagreeable. I need to respect you, I need to listen to you, and even though we disagree on the issue, we maybe can agree on how to respond to the basic concepts contained there. The concept there was how do we make sure that there is accountability? And how do we make sure that whatever we’re doing is fair? The people weren’t opposed to that. And one of the things that I said to the teachers, Julian, "We give tests all the time." As a teacher I test maybe once every week. So how can I say I’m opposed to testing?
But what I want to make sure that I do is I’m testing that on which I have taught and which the kids know. So I tried to approach it from that perspective and not disrespect them because they don’t agree with me or because we, maybe at this point in time, have not decided how to move forward. But let’s sit down and try to work it out. Let’s sit down and try to figure out what it is we should do. The standards board is the perfect example. The minorities were very concerned, the blacks – and I say minorities because we have Hispanics and blacks and Asians – they were very concerned about what would be the impact of the national certification process on minority teachers. And what do we do about rural areas and the urban areas where we have high concentration? I said, "Well, first of all, we -- this is a good idea, we’ve supported it at the state level for twenty years. Now we’re simply saying let’s look at it and let’s deal with it at the national level. Let’s make sure the resources are there. So NEA must make a commitment to the states and to the locals to provide support, resources, training, information, whatever we need to do." And then what I said, "I think" – and we’re seeing this happen now – "teachers who pass ought to be able to earn some more money. They ought to be able to play a different role. They ought to be able to do some different kinds of things, but remain part of the classroom, part of the profession." And so those kinds of things were also persuasive.
BOND: Now there must have been, or was there ever an occasion where, in order to get something, you had to give something in any of these leadership roles?
FUTRELL: Yeah. I gave something on the national board when I promised the higher ed folks that they wouldn’t have to be assessed. And interestingly, now that issue has come up again and some of them are asking, "Why can’t we go through this process?" And they’re beginning to ask, "Well, we’re going to teach people how to become nationally certified, should we not demonstrate we can be nationally certified?" You know, you -- the whole process is give and take.
FUTRELL: The whole process is give and take. You can’t expect to win everything. The other thing that I learned in all of this – because you don’t win all the time – rise above. You know, don’t take it personally because somebody maybe didn’t want to do what you want to do. And if you put five items out there, most people are not going to win five. But if you win three, and which ones do you really want to win? So which ones are you willing to give up or to lose, and which ones are you willing -- are you going to fight to the death to win? And so, you go out there and as you deal with these people, you’re dealing with them from a point of view of, "Yeah, I may not have won that one, but we’re still going to work together and I’m going to try to get your support on this one over here and try to be persuasive." And I’m going to be very honest, I never went on the floor without having a strategy.
BOND: But don’t you have to learn this?
BOND: I mean, you don’t automatically approach things, or most people don’t automatically approach things by saying, "Well, I can’t win everything, I’m going to -- " How do you learn this?
FUTRELL: You learn through experience. You learn through trial and error. You learn through, I don’t want to say winning and losing, but that’s basically the way you win.
FUTRELL: The way it happens and, for example, even in the local association, or even in the state association, or even now when I’m working at the dean’s level -- as the dean, I don’t expect to win every battle, but what are the key things and have I done my best? To offer the best arguments as to why we should do a certain thing? And have I talked to the key people, and have I, do I know where the people are who are opposing, and why they oppose? Do I know where the people are who are supporting and why they’re supporting? Where are the resources to do all this? So it’s not just a matter of getting up and giving a magnanimous speech and saying these are things I want to do. What’s the strategy for winning?
Now, winning also might mean, "I’ve prepared this document, this is my proposal, am I willing to negotiate certain parts of it, am I willing to compromise on certain parts?" Yes, as long as the basic idea is still there. And where you lose a lot of times is, "I’m not going to change anything. If it’s not exactly as it is -- I’m not going to change it." And that’s where you lose. Or, "I’m not going to listen to you." That’s where you lose. Or you get up and you put someone down. You know, one of the things -- I used to work with a parliamentarian, Hugh Cannon. And Hugh would say, "Mary, whatever you do, be fair, listen, and don’t ever think that you’re so high above them that what they say is not worth listening to." And the first couple of times, because sometimes, you know, somebody says something, you kind of want to smirk.
FUTRELL: You know you want to. He said, "Because people are watching you." And he said, "As long as you’re fair, and they know you’re trying to get others involved and you’re trying to listen, they’ll usually go along with you. They may not be quite sure of what it is that’s being proposed, but they will trust you and trust whatever you’re trying to do." And I found that that worked. I have found that when people get up and if "It’s not my way," they get mad. Then, what happens is, for the next hour or two, you’re going to lose everything.
FUTRELL: But if people say, "Okay, she didn’t get all she wanted." Or, "Maybe she didn’t win on this one, but you know there’s some other things coming up." You know, and sometimes, out of sympathy, they’ll give you the other things. You know, you’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to understand you’re not the only player. And as Jim Harris, the other black president of NEA said one time, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. The delegates giveth, the delegates taketh away." You’re there by virtue of the fact that they put you there, and just because you’re there doesn’t mean that they have to buy everything that you say. Now I sound like "Preacher Mary."
BOND: No, that's okay.
BOND: Let me ask you if you think that what you’ve been describing to us is a particularly, what others have called a gendered style of leadership as opposed to a masculine style of leadership. Is that, do you think, what you’ve been describing and is that what your leadership has represented?
FUTRELL: I think that it’s probably a combination of the two because most of the leaders with whom I’ve worked have been males. And I’m not the first female president of the NEA nor am I -- was I the first female president of the VEA. Nor am I the first minority president of the NEA. There have been four. A lot of people don’t know that. But, some of it, I think, is gender-based in that I think women tend to be more willing to try to sit down and try to talk it through and work it out. I think women will be more concerned about a person’s feelings, and not just hammering somebody, or putting someone down. I think women are probably more willing to look at different approaches to things, and that doesn't -- I don’t think that’s a sign of weakness. Matter of fact, what I find when I read a lot of the reports now by business people, they talk about the ability to go in and to deal with the environment, to deal with the people there and to work with the different ideas as opposed to coming in and being very autocratic. So, I think it’s a combination of the two. I’ve learned a lot from -- obviously from watching the men, and how do you deal with these issues and stand up. But I’ve also learned from women and I’ve seen some very strong women as leaders.
BOND: Now among these people who were either your predecessors or other people with whom you worked, even before the VEA, are there particular mentors, or even models that you followed?
FUTRELL: Yeah. One of the things that -- well, one person who I really, really, influenced me a great deal was a woman named Lauri Wynn. She was from out in Milwaukee. And Lauri was the head of the black caucus in the NEA for a long time. And I want to confess and say, until I saw Lauri as a leader, I had never really seen a woman, or maybe paid attention to a woman in a national dynamic leadership role. But she was something else. I mean, Lauri challenged the whole NEA structure. "If you don’t involve more minorities, if you don’t do this, we’ll walk out." And they didn’t believe it and she led a march and I was a part of the group that walked out. She was an -- AFT, Al Shanker indicated he wanted to challenge and debate the leadership of the NEA on the floor of the representative assembly. And I found it interesting that when they decided who would debate him, they picked Lauri Wynn, an African-American woman who was on the executive committee, rather than the president or the vice-president. And she debated him. And her strategy was interesting: she talked about children. And when she finished, there was a standing ovation. Lauri also taught us things like --
BOND: What did Shanker talk about?
FUTRELL: Shanker talked more about education in general and about the organization. But I remember Lauri talking to us about leadership. NEA used to have all these minority leadership conferences and we used to go to those, and I remember going to those meetings and Laurie would say things like, she said, "You know, we have to be super good." And so I remember some of us sitting in the audience saying, "Well, what do you mean? If I’m equal, I’m equal." She said, "No." She said, "For us to achieve at the same level as others, we have to be super good. Whatever we do, we have to be doubly good. And if you’re going to be a leader, you have to be doubly good." And she also would say, and whether this is true or not, that "we often times come in as leaders when the organization’s in trouble." And so you’re coming in and you spend a lot of your time just trying to rescue the organization.
BOND: Now, she’s talking to you as minorities?
BOND: Or as minorities, many of whom are women? Because you know, you always hear that a woman, in order for a woman to succeed, she’s got to be twice as good as a man. And I --
FUTRELL: Right, no, but this is the whole group. This was men and the women, all of us there and she’s talking to us as a group. I was tremendously impressed with Leontyne Price, you know -- and one of the -- sometimes -- because let’s face it, I deal with a lot of racism. I deal with a lot of discrimination. And I was saying to somebody not long ago, you know, "Doesn’t matter how high you climb, you still deal with it." And one of the things that kept, has kept me going, and whenever I deal with it I think about Leontyne Price when they asked her -- I’m thinking, is that the right? Marian Anderson is the one, I’m sorry. Marian Anderson, after she was denied the right to sing at the DAR [Constitution Hall] and you know, she went to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, they were -- they said, "Some people say this is racism." And they said, "Do you think it’s racism?" And she said, "Yes." And they said, "Why?" And she said "Because," and she said -- they said, "What is racism?" She said, "It’s like a breeze that blows across your face. You can’t see it and you can’t touch it, but you know it’s there."
Now a lot of people, when they hear that, I don’t know what they hear, but I hear two things: it’s ever present, and it doesn’t matter how high you climb, it’s there. Now, you’ve got to understand Marian Anderson was a diva, recognized all over the world. And yet she was denied this right. And so, sometimes when I have to deal with racism and discrimination and gender whatever, I think about her and how she dealt with it. I think about Mary McLeod Bethune. And how, out of almost nothing, she started a college and what a tremendous impact she had on presidents of the United States. And here was a gentle woman, but a very powerful woman. I think about Coretta Scott King, and I had the chance to work with her when I was president of NEA, and how much I used to admire this woman who, through her own sheer determination, was determined that her husband’s legacy was going to live on. And I think about a lot of people, you know, that have influenced me and I listen very carefully to what they have experienced and what has happened to them. And what can I learn from them? I learned patience, I learned determination. I learned to speak up. I learned that I can express my emotions without being viewed as a woman who is overly emotional. I’ve learned to fight for what I believe in. I’ve leaned to work with people. I mean, when I look at them, I’ve learned all kinds of things.
BOND: Now, is there a different style that you might have adopted had you been head or member of a different kind of organization? After all, you’re talking about organizations whose constituency is overwhelmingly female. Suppose you had --
FUTRELL: But whose leadership was not.
BOND: -- but suppose you had been – and I’m just grasping here – a plumber. I mean, overwhelmingly male, do you think you might have developed something different?
FUTRELL: Knowing me, I probably would have been pushing for the top, pushing to make a difference, pushing --
BOND: But in a different style?
FUTRELL: Maybe in a different style, but I would be questioning, "Why can’t women do this?" And I think you’re right, the profession is 75 percent female. Even though most of the leaders are males. And again, that has to do with women feeling that men should be the head and we should step back. And I always ask the question, "Why? Why should I -- why do I have to be in back -- why can’t I walk beside Julian? Why do I have to walk behind him?" And in some of the male professions, you’ve got women who have come out and had to fight to open the door and to make a difference for other women.
What I always say is, "Yes, you fight to open the door, but then you don’t close it behind you. When you open the door, open the door and keep it open and help other women, other minorities, other leaders come through." And I think it’s wrong to open the door and then let yourself in and that’s it. But when I think about -- I look at other women, and I can’t remember names off the top of my head, but I can think about the communications workers, I can think about in the police force, I can think about in the construction industry, where women have made a difference and they’ve been willing to put themselves out there. And being a leader doesn’t mean you'll always have to be out front, doesn’t mean you’re always standing behind the podium. A leader is a person who’s willing to take the dare, take the chance and put on those construction pants and that helmet and get out there and say, "I can do this too."
BOND: Now, back to an earlier conversation. How much of this, or can you divide how much of this is gendered, how much is racial, how much is professional? In the styles you employ, how do you shift from one to the other where gender is more important, where race is more important, where profession is more important, or are they mixed?
FUTRELL: I think I tend to integrate them, because when I get up and I talk -- first I’m going to be very professional. It doesn’t matter what the audience is, I’m going to be very professional. Secondly, when I get up and talk, you see a person, you see an image, you know who is talking to you. And so, how you say what you say, is going to be interpreted different ways. It might be interpreted -- when I talk about children, people are probably going to say, "That’s more of a female." When I talk about civil rights, the struggles and women's rights, there goes more of the "militant Mary." There goes more of the "ethnic Mary." You know, the gender. So, I think it, sometimes it depends on what I’m talking about. And I can give, I can deliver a speech and you can see me in those different roles in that speech. But the roles are not necessarily the same all the way through. Am I making any sense?
BOND: Yes, you are making sense. So, you’re able in one speech to be a woman, a teacher --
BOND: -- an educational leader, a black person --
FUTRELL: A union leader.
BOND: A union leader, you can be all those things, but not all at the same time. But there must be sometimes when you’re all those people at the same time?
FUTRELL: No, when it comes together, this is Mary and she’s speaking. I’m always going to talk about children. Okay? That’s the teacher in me, and that’s probably a lot of the feminism in me. But I’m also going to talk about the equity issues, and the equity issues are going to be issues around women and minorities and about quality and opportunity and those kinds of things. I can also talk very much about the union issues and how those issues relate to, for example, the teaching. How they relate to the equity pieces. You know, I do a lot of international work. I’m head of the International Teacher’s Union. And so one of the things that I find myself constantly doing is trying to bring together these disparate groups with very, very different educational opportunities and backgrounds, very, very different opportunities to organize, very, very different cultures, etc. You’ve got to bring them all together. And so what you find yourself doing is -- "I’m an advocate for the women to get more women into leadership roles." That’s part of my speech. "I’m an advocate for equal opportunity educational opportunities for children." That’s part of my speech. "I’m an advocate for us to be more involved, more supportive and have stronger organizations, unions." That’s part of my speech. "I’m an advocate for us being more politically involved." That’s part of my speech. So all of those things come together and what you’re looking at is, when you’re looking at Mary, you’re looking at Mary with all these different pieces there. And I think they fit together.
BOND: Aren’t there times when people say, "Gee, she’s just a little too black for me”?
BOND: And other people say, "You know, I don’t think she’s black enough”?
BOND: So, what do you, what do you say to people who say either one of those things? Or, "Oh, you’re just, oh, union leader. We want a teacher."
FUTRELL: What I generally do is not say probably a whole lot of anything but try to use my actions to speak for me. And it hurts. I’m going to be very honest with you, it hurts when people either say directly to you or they intimate or whatever they do, that she’s not black enough, or she’s not union enough or she’s not professional. And it hurts, it’s like "Well, what else do I need to do? What else do I need to say?" Now, and trying to get people to understand that when you are the leader of a group like VEA or NEA or the Education International, or George Washington University School of Ed., you’re not representing any one group. And what you’ve got to do is bring all the groups together. How do you bring the groups together? You’ve got to do that because you’ve got to role model what you want to happen. And how do you get them to work to support certain issues? But does it happen? Yes. "You’re too union."
I’ll give you a classic example. The colleges and universities are now dealing with unionizing TAs, teaching assistants. I’m the only person in the room who has a union background. And so as they start talking, everybody’s kind of watching me. And I’m feeling very uncomfortable because everybody’s watching me, they don’t know what I’m going to say. So I finally devise a strategy as I’m not going to say anything. And if you ask me, however, I’m going to be very honest with you about I think they have the right to organize as a part of the freedom of speech. But you feel very uncomfortable, everybody’s sitting there looking at you and you feel guilty even though you’ve done nothing wrong. Or you’re sitting in the room and they start talking about ethnicity or race or things like that --
BOND: They look at you?
FUTRELL: They all look at me. You know.
BOND: You have to be the expert.
FUTRELL: Yeah, so what I do is, you know, "Don’t ask me a question unless you want the answer and if you want the answer, you’re going to get my answer."
BOND: But isn’t there an occasion where you say, "Don’t ask me that question because -- just because of the way I look or who I am. Ask Joe or Mary or Frank or Sue?"
FUTRELL: Right, well, I’ve done that. I’ve done that. I’ve said --
or it’s a moot issue or if -- I’m not the token black, or I’m not the token woman. Because up until this year, I was the token woman and the token minority. And so I’m going like, "Well, I’m not the only person who should answer this question. In reality, you ought to answer this question. I don’t have the problem. You got the problem. How're you going to deal with this issue?" But it makes you feel very uncomfortable that you’re being put on the spot.
BOND: And how do you dodge being put on the spot? On the one hand, you do represent black people. You do represent unionized professional workers. You do represent organized teachers, so I look to you to ask you questions about them. But how do you defer the question and say, "Listen, somebody else needs to answer that question?" Can you always say, "It’s your problem, not mine?"
FUTRELL: No, I don’t think you can.
BOND: You are the expert in some ways.
FUTRELL: And usually what I’ll say is, "I’ll give you my opinion, and my opinion does not necessarily mean that this is the opinion." And I’ll give you an example. I was in a meeting about a month or so ago and they started talking about discipline in the schools. And it very quickly shifted to teachers. And it shifted to the way teachers dressed. And then it very quickly shifted to the union. So someone looked directly at me -- "Well, what has the union done about the way teachers dress and how that relates to discipline?"
And I'm sitting there -- well, I was very uncomfortable. I haven’t been active in the union at the national level for ten years. So why are you asking me that question? Somebody reached over and very calmly said, "Mary, don’t get upset." Because they could see me getting upset. And so what I said was, "Well, you know, it’s really been quite a while and I can’t give you an up-to-date account about what the unions are saying about the way that teachers dress." And I said, "But if you’d like for me to get the information, I will." But if I had responded right away, it would have been a reaction to what they said and would probably have been very negative.
BOND: Now, you become the head of the National Organization to Push Passage of the ERA.
BOND: Of course, it never passes.
BOND: Are there ever people who say, "Gee, you know, that’s not a real teachers' issue, that’s a woman’s issue and we shouldn’t be in -- you shouldn’t be involved in that. You’re supposed to be looking out for the interests of teachers. Teachers are men and women. Why are you doing this?"
FUTRELL: Well, I would say because we believe very strongly in the equal rights. We believe very strongly that a person should not be judged on the basis of color or sex or whatever. I would also say that if you’ll look at the teaching profession, if you want to find a profession where there are inequalities, look at us. If you look at the pay, the pay is different, and for years it was different as it related to elementary versus secondary, males versus females. It’s only been in the last twenty to twenty-five years that we’ve basically equalized pay. I think when you look at the profession, you have to look at the way girls are treated in schools, and how we are often told that we cannot achieve because we are females. And so, when I look at the women’s movement, I look at it as a movement which encompasses the teaching profession and encompasses the female and the male students that we teach. I think we -- but primarily I looked at it from a point of view of, "If I can’t have equal rights as a woman, why do I think I can have equal rights as a minority?" Or anything -- or vice versa. "If I can't have equal rights as a black person, why do I think somebody's going to have equal rights as a woman?" And so, so I was often -- you asked a moment ago, looking at are you black or are you what -- I probably, Julian, was forced more often to deal with the minority and the female piece. You know, and I know that the community was divided. Do we stand up for the African American community and not deal with women, or do we stand up for women? And I remember I used to say to people, "Well, how do I separate myself? I'm both. I'm a woman and I am an African American, and so can I separate myself?"
BOND: Are there times when you feel divided, though?
FUTRELL: There are times when I felt like people wanted to divide me.
BOND: But never yourself?
FUTRELL: I don't think I felt divided. And you have to remember something about me. I was raised with a female head of the household. See, I wasn't raised in a household --
BOND: With sisters.
FUTRELL: Right, with sisters. I didn't have any brothers. My father died when I was four and a half years old. My mothers' brothers didn't live with us. I was raised predominantly in a female head of the household. So my perspective about women probably is very different from the perspective that other people may have about the role of women and black -- I mean, my mother was the head, my mother was the leader, my mother was -- she was the one that was out there making the difference.
BOND: Now, let me take you back to some earlier discussions – take you back to your tenure at the NEA. During this time, Bill Bennett is one of the education secretaries, and you give him, at the end of his tenure, I think, the worst grades of all the Reagan-era education secretaries, and he’s constantly battling with the NEA and with organized teachers. Was there ever a time when you thought, "Gee, we’re losing this public relations battle and we need to regroup?"
BOND: How did you take the temperature?
FUTRELL: The answer to your question is yes. And there was a lot of frustration, a sense of despair, a sense of, you know, it doesn’t matter what we say, the message isn’t getting out. And finally I said to the executive committee and the staff and originally to the board, "We have to stop talking about what we’re against." Because at that time everything came out, we were against it. And I remember reading the Nation at Risk Report and saying, "Why are we opposing this?" You know, "I might not agree with everything that’s here but there are a lot of good ideas here." Well, it wasn’t so much opposing the product, it was opposing who put the product forward. And I said, "Well, I don’t care who put it forward. Are there things here we can support? We need to start talking about things we support and we believe in and etc. and make sure, put the positive spin on it."
But there were times when you felt like you were just getting beaten down into the ground and there were days you would wake up and like, "What battle do I have to fight today? Why do I always have to fight a battle? Why can’t there be days when I’m not fighting a battle or when we’re just enjoying life and we're doing some good, creative things?" And it took a while to turn the situation around. I also had to learn to temper myself because I can be very hotheaded and very heated when I get into conversations – especially if I feel strongly about something. And I had to learn how not to overreact. I had to learn how to do things like not always be the first one to respond. Let somebody else respond first, see what they’re going to say. You don’t always have to jump out there. It took a while to do that but eventually, I would say, by the time I got to my second term that things had begun to turn and we were coming out with more positive statements and we were getting more positive press. And a lot of the focus was also on teachers and what they were doing in schools. Talk about the positive things that teachers are doing. And it began to turn. But it took a while. Some days it was just absolutely grueling.
BOND: Now is this because teachers were on the defensive?
BOND: How did teachers get put in the defensive and how did you put them on the offensive?
FUTRELL: Well, you have to remember that there was a sustained attack on public education and when you attack public education, you’re attacking teachers. And it’s interesting how it’s not the superintendent, it’s not the principal, it’s not all these other people. The people who get attacked are the teachers. And they probably have less to do with the decision-making process than anyone else. And so what I would do is talk about the positive things teachers were doing and I spent a lot of my time visiting schools and talking with teachers. And you build some of those into your speeches and you were able to give concrete examples of things that teachers were doing that were very positive -- the amount of time teachers spend working with children, the amount of time and money teachers invested in trying to compensate for what the schools are not providing, how teachers are trying to be more innovative and how teachers are involved in our communities, etc. So you start talking about it from a positive perspective. Talk about the fact that teachers want high standards. Teachers want students to achieve as opposed to "we are opposed" all the time. And began to approach it from that perspective and looking at it from a positive position.
BOND: Let me take you back to an earlier discussion and again, that’s about race. How has being a black person affected the leadership style you’ve employed over these years? Your present position? You talked a moment ago about being the black expert in the room, but how has race generally affected the leadership style you’ve employed?
FUTRELL: Well, a lot of people expect blacks to be -- lack knowledge of specifics. They also expect us to be very emotional, very hotheaded – we can’t have a civil conversation. A lot of people anticipate that we are going to be more physically involved in what we’re doing, etc. That we’re not going to do our homework. More concerned with the way we look and the glitter and the glamour than the substance. And so, you know -- and I found myself doing that, you know?
But I had some interesting, interesting mentors. I remember, I was serving on a committee once with Ernie Boyer and I was a teacher and it was a golden opportunity, I think there two or three teachers on the whole committee. But every time they got to something controversial about teachers, I would get really passionate and I would pound the table, and I would -- and somebody said to me one day, "Let’s go for a walk behind the barn." And this is the honest-to-God truth. And what they said to me, they said, "Mary, you’re very good, but you are destroying your message because you get too emotional. And you are too demonstrative. And people are focusing more on your emotions and your demonstrations then they are on what you’re saying. And so no one is hearing what you’re saying. And if you continue to do that, you’ll turn people off and they won’t listen to you." And so, their point was, you need to find a way to express yourself without doing it that way.
And that was -- and they said to me, "A lot of people expect blacks to respond that way. When you can’t express yourself, you get loud, you maybe use profanity, or you want to hit someone or you want to walk out the room or -- " And I was shocked when they said that to me. And then they said, "We’re not saying this to criticize you, we’re saying this as friends." And when I stopped and reflected on it, and I tell you, I went back to my room and I cried, and the next day I don’t think I said very much in the meeting. But when I reflected on it, they were telling the truth. And I had to learn how to calm myself down, not -- learn how [not] to be part of the stereotype, but, are there times when I think you show emotions? Are there times when I think you have to do certain things? The answer’s yes. And so I don’t disagree with some of the things that they observed, but at the same time I said, "There are times for this."
BOND: Now you are celebrated because the -- not the first black person, but the first black person to rise to these positions of prominence. And Ebony magazine chooses you as one of the top 100 black leaders in America. But would you describe yourself as a black leader, or a leader who’s black?
FUTRELL: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. What’s the difference between the two?
BOND: Tell me.
FUTRELL: A "black leader" or a "leader of blacks"? I think a "leader of blacks" means I’m trying to carry the message for the black community. I’m trying to express what I believe are the concerns of the black community. "Black leader" basically is more, I think, one of persona, who I am. And I guess the question I would ask is, can you separate the two?
BOND: Can you?
FUTRELL: I don’t think you can.
BOND: But can you be one sometime, and one the other?
FUTRELL: I guess what I was going to say was, "Can we stereotype black leaders? Can we assume that all black leaders act a certain way?" I am a black leader because of who I am. And I would like to think that I’m a leader of blacks because I advocate for issues that I know are of concern to the black community.
BOND: But then, are you also a leader who just happens to be black? When you stand up and -- stood up as head of the NEA and talked about teachers and more pay or higher standards or whatever, you’re not a black person there, are you? I mean you are, people look at you and tell, that’s a black person. But you’re --
FUTRELL: They look at me and say, "There’s Mary."
BOND: Yeah. And, you’re speaking for teachers and teachers are black, white, all -- brown, everything.
FUTRELL: Right. I think most people would probably say, "That’s Mary and she’s speaking for the profession," etc. I think there are a lot of blacks though who would say, and it’s also for women, a lot of blacks who would say, "She’s speaking for us. She represents us."
FUTRELL: And there are women who would say the same thing. "She’s speaking for us, she represents us." So, I think a lot of it depends on the audience and what the audience wants to see. And -- and most people, though, will probably say, "That’s Mary." And you answer, "How do you define Mary?"
FUTRELL: I’m not sure that they would say, "She’s Mary the Black Person or Mary the Woman." I think they would probably say, "Mary the Teacher, the Educator," etc.
BOND: Now -- I'm trying to wrap up a lot of things in a very, very few minutes. You’ve talked about yourself as the beneficiary of civil rights activists, and you’ve expressed concern that young people don’t seem to appreciate this legacy. How can we make them, or should we even make them? Some people say, "You know it’s great that young people don’t remember the segregation era. They shouldn’t, they didn’t live through it. They shouldn’t have to worry about these things, let them go forward in this different world."
FUTRELL: Well, let me give you two examples. About three years ago, George Washington University celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the march on Washington. And we had a number of the civil rights people come back and we invited students to come. And one of the things that really surprised me was, number one, a lot of the students didn’t come. But those who did said, in the end, "Why have you not done these kinds of things before? What you are telling us here -- this is the first we’ve heard of it. And if you don’t tell us about what it was like and what the struggle has been and what we have achieved, we just assume this is the way it’s been." And these were like high school and undergraduate students telling us these things. And so, part of the problem is ours. We have not been vigilant about making sure that future generations understand what it was like and what the struggle was and how much we’ve achieved.
BOND: But you know, I’ve also heard people of this younger generation, and not quite so young, say twenties and thirties say, "Look, I’m tired of this."
FUTRELL: Right. You’re absolutely right.
BOND: "I’m tired of this stuff."
FUTRELL: Right. And you hear them say that about, "this is the way it’s always been," "I don’t care about the struggle", etc., etc. And what I try to say to them, "If you don’t care, you’ll lose it. If you don’t continue the struggle, and the struggle isn’t over, then you can’t complain when all of a sudden what you thought you had isn’t there." You know, a good way to look at it is what’s happening with the election. If you don’t go out and vote, then when somebody takes the vote away from you, you’ve lost. You can’t go back now. If you look at jobs, you look at opportunities to live where you want to live. All of these things, did not just simply happen, somebody had to fight for them to happen, and if you don’t continue to fight, they won’t stay there. And it’s not just with minorities. I hear the same thing with women. "Well, I’m tired of people talking about the women’s movement." As if we have always been able to be in these different positions. But not lecture, but involve.
You know, my kids, when I go – and I still demonstrate – when I go, I take them with me. So they can see what it’s like. They can understand what it’s like. They can be there and they can be part of it. And that’s part of what I think we have to do. But the fight is not necessarily one that’s in the streets. It has to be in the school house, it has to be in the courthouse, it has to be in the political -- it has to be everywhere. Now, you know that better than I do.
BOND: How did you learn that it had to be everywhere? Because some people don’t learn. Some people think, you know, "If we can just file lawsuits, that’ll be okay. If we can just do this, that’ll be okay."
FUTRELL: I learned it from Virginia State College, which now is Virginia State University. Because, when I went to Virginia State, we had not had a lot of demonstrations in Lynchburg. I mean, it was -- it was almost unheard of for blacks to stand up and demonstrate in any kind of mass way. But at Virginia State, we did. At Virginia State we marched, and we sat in, and we paraded, and we had rallies on the campus, and we brought people in. And all of a sudden, here was this world that I didn’t know existed, and I was part of it. And so, you know, a lot of us in those days made commitments. And those commitments meant as long as there was a need, we would be there. And so that’s where we are.
BOND: Now, some people would say that we don’t have either the opportunity to develop leadership as the kind of opportunity you just described, or -- nor do we have people who aspire to leadership in the same sort of way. If that’s so, and I’m guessing it’s so, how can we create the opportunity to see that somebody comes up after us, somebody else develops the way you’ve developed, somebody -- circumstances are so different. Nobody’s growing up in a segregated world now, nurtured by teachers in the same way, I don’t think, as you were, and nurtured by a community in the same way you and I were. How do we, what do we replace that with? Or can we replace it with anything?
FUTRELL: I guess I would answer that by saying, "How do we pass on traditions to our children?"
FUTRELL: How do we make sure that they know and understand the legacy from which they come? How? And you do that through the way you teach them, the way you raise them, the things to which you expose them. You teach them by giving them opportunities, by taking them along and involving them and not leaving them at home looking at TV. I went to the rally that they had in Washington in August, and I’m going to tell you two things that pleased me. One, I was pleased with the turnout. There were a lot of people there, a lot of faces. I would have liked to have had the march because I think the freedom singing, and the freedom songs, and being part of that helps. You know, as opposed to just gathering you there. But I was also very impressed with the new leaders who were there. A lot of them I’d -- had not really followed but I was impressed with who was there and what they had to say, and the fact that there were new leaders and that the young people are trying to carry on. Was it as massive as it was thirty years ago? No. But at least it’s still alive. And so I think what you have to do is you have to nurture and bring along. If you don’t, it dies.
BOND: Well, is it being nurtured? Is it being kept alive? Is that happening?
FUTRELL: Not as broad spread as we have in the past because, I think a lot of people feel that we’ve arrived. We don't have to --
BOND: Now I don’t -- I don’t mean to interrupt.
FUTRELL: It’s okay.
BOND: But I don’t think that anybody said to Martin Luther King as he was coming up, "You know, we’re doing things that are going to make you into a great leader." And I’m not even sure that if people of his time and place, many thought about it -- I’m not sure if there was the same kind of concern as today about where leaders are coming from and so on. Why this concern now, when I don’t believe, we had it at the same level, say thirty, forty, fifty years ago?
FUTRELL: Well, and you probably know the answer to this better than I do, I think at forty, fifty years ago, we had issues so critical, that they in themselves were galvanizing.
BOND: And so, in your face?
FUTRELL: And in your face. You know, what was it like not to be able to go in the front door? What was it like to not be able to make more than a dollar and you worked all day long. What was it like not to be able to ride the bus even though you got on the bus and you were there? What was it like to go to desegregated schools? What was it like, you know, not to be able to go in certain areas? I mean, I remember all these things. What was it like? The kids today don’t have those same experiences. But I think it’s still there, but it’s more subtle. It’s still there. We see it, we see it a lot of times, for example, in the way kids are taught and the way things are happening in the schools. You still see it a lot in the job market. You see it a lot where people live. You know, look at all the gated communities we have now. And those gated communities to me, in many ways, say, "Hands off. This is closed." And not just to minorities but to certain socio-economic groups. You know, so I think that what we had then was more in your face, and we lived with it. We knew what it was to deal with it. And it was very overt, it was very up front. Now, it’s more difficult. But it’s there.
BOND: Now, we can’t go back.
BOND: We’re not going back to that "in your face."
FUTRELL: No, no.
BOND: But we need leaders just as badly.
BOND: What do we have to substitute, if anything, for that "in your face"? What experience does a youngster, college student, high school student, somebody out looking -- what experience do they have that duplicates or replicates this "in your face" experience that you and I had?
FUTRELL: Well, I think a lot of it now is class. Race is still there but I think class is very quickly moving to the front of the line. And what you’re seeing is a lot of poor kids not getting opportunities, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white or Hispanic or who they are, they’re being left behind. And the opportunities are not available for them, so instead of racism you’ve got classism that's smacking them in the face. They don’t have access to this, they don’t have access to that, they can’t get jobs, they can’t get in, you know. So I think that’s -- that’s the issue that’s really going to probably be more of a galvanizing force in the future.
BOND: Well, on that note, thank you very much.