Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Foundational Leadership Experiences

BOND: As you look back over your life, when did you begin to think of yourself as a leader?

CANADA: Well, interestingly enough, it started when I was about maybe twelve or thirteen which sounds so strange now, but I’ll tell you why. We used to travel around New York City on the trains by ourselves and I have grown kids, but my wife and I also have an eleven-year-old and when I think about how much freedom we used to have in New York City at eleven. I was able to go blocks. I could get on the train. I could travel anywhere I wanted to go. Well, my mother really showed us how to use public transportation and showed us how in New York City you could get anywhere once you got in the train system and so we used to just go exploring. We would just get on the train, get off at some stop, me and my brothers, and we would just wander around New York seeing sights and the other kids on the block just — they weren’t allowed to even leave the block much less get on trains and so we used to do tours for the kids. We’d take 'em to the Bronx Zoo which was to them like going to a different country. But we knew how to take the trains and it all so mysterious to them and I realized that I absolutely loved opening up New York City to other children so that they could get a chance to explore it with us, so this issue of leadership to me — these were younger kids so they were like two years younger than me — I think in my professional career my leadership grew out of the fact that people, and people are always asking me about this issue.

When I worked at the school, there would be things that would come up that needed to be done and they would ask, "Look, will anybody stay to help to do so and so," and usually people would say, "No, I’m not getting paid," and I always thought if you’re about the mission, then you — so, I learned how to do all of these different things and then one day the director of the school said, "Well, I’m leaving and, you know, we need somebody in the number two position who can do budgets." He said, "Geoff, we asked you to do those budgets a couple of times, how do you feel — " So, the next thing I know, I was the number two and then the number one guy left and then I — this was now — I had to be all of twenty-seven, twenty-eight and they said, "Well, you know, do you have any interest in running the school?" Now, the truth of the matter, I was thrilled to be number two and the idea of being number one and sort of being the principal of the school was something that I hadn’t wanted to do anything else, but there was no one else who really felt like they wanted to do it and I thought I could do a good job and then I became the leader and the thing that helped —

I had a wonderful professor from Harvard named John [M.] Shlien who mentored me for the next two or three years in that leadership role and helped me I think develop my own leadership style which then I think continued over the next few years, so there was this early time when I loved doing it but even in the later parts of my life, when I became a professional and I ran the school which was my first professional leadership role, I found that I absolutely loved being able to organize I think good people around a mission and try to help kids and that’s what I really like to do.

BOND: But in addition to this early experience in leading your friends in the neighborhood around the subway system of New York City, what about the organization Brothers Through Unity. You’re young then, too. What about that?

CANADA: Yes. Growth Through Unity, I was very young when these African American guys who were in from business so this had to be — I was in middle school so this had to be maybe ’67. They decided they were going to come back into the hood and help some guys because we were struggling and it was like these guys came from a different world. They’re wearing shirts and ties and their shirts were white white and their shoes were gleaming and they came in and they said, "Look, we want to help you guys." And my best friend, one of them was his uncle and he asked me to come and I kind of thought they were corny, well, these corny guys, they’re coming into the ghetto. Ah, yeah, this is really cute, but they said we could have a basketball team and I said, “Well, does it come with a uniform?” And they said, “Yeah, we’ll get you a uniform,” and then they had me. So, now I’m in it and they actually tried to teach us leadership skills and it was amazing because it was years, years later that I understood these guys were really doing a kind of work that I always hoped to be able to do. The difference I always wanted to I think have was they really sounded like they came from a different world and so when we saw them, we didn’t see ourselves in them, right? We saw them as coming from some place else into our community. We didn’t see them as people who came up through our community and therefore were role models for us and I thought that was one of the things that I always wanted to do.

I always let kids know, no, we were on welfare, we were poor, we had all the same stuff and that can’t stop you. There’s no sort of secret thing happening outside that prevents you from becoming something great yourself which I think is really an important message for young people.