Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Black Leadership Challenges

BOND: So in some respects both your brother and yourself feel this need that's got to be filled and choose yourselves to fill it. Now the need — those particular needs aren't anywhere near as great today as they were then. What needs and in fact what movements are throwing people up or drawing people in today? What challenges do people feel today that you didn't feel in your time and place?

CHAMBERS: Well, first I think I probably felt a lot of these needs, but I thought at the moment there were some that were just greater. Even today there is a need for more lawyers. I know a lot of people would differ with it. We do have a number of lawyers. But I am talking about lawyers in the mold of Charlie Houston who — and Thurgood Marshall — [who] look at an injustice and try to figure out how the law can be used to help to correct it. Law is there. There is a need for more African Americans in science. It's appalling – to see the role that science can play in improving opportunities for all people. To think that we are talking about the developments today with the human genomics. We can determine through the cells what problems are caused by x or y and how we can deal with it. And to think that we don't have that many black people involved. And to know that the research that is going on in those areas today largely ignore the particular problems that black people bring to the forefront. If we're going to be out determining how to address illnesses and we know that black people have different illnesses or bring different problems to the table, and then to know that we don't have anyone concentrating that much in that area. We desperately need to get more black scientists out and involved.

I don't want to digress on it, but I remember when we were talking about environmental equity, and we looked around the country – I was in with the Legal Defense Fund – to find a black scientist. We found one person, in California, who was inundated and couldn't address the problems that we had. We had — one area that we were concentrating on then was the exposure of black children to lead poisoning and the devastating effect that was having. And we knew that we had the dumping of hazardous waste in black areas. Not a black person could be found who would be able to provide that kind of expertise. And even today there is a real problem with it. So that is an area that I think is crying out for black people. We hear people talking about the digital divide. Well, there's a terrible problem. I think we graduated like three people with a Ph.D. in math. That's horrible. And that is a growing and crucial area in this country. So there is a need for getting more African Americans involved in science and math.

BOND: What's the challenge there? I don't mean the structural challenges, the scholarship money, the early training. Are there other challenges to getting young people to say, "Gee, I want to be a mathematician, I want to be a computer specialist, I want to be a scientist?" What's the challenge to getting people to make the choices as you made them as a youngster to become a lawyer?

CHAMBERS: I think the challenge is getting people to change their ways of thinking about their role. My parents taught me that I ought to be a teacher. So even studying history while talking about going to law school, they insisted that I take education. So I got a teaching degree. We haven't thought — most black people don't know that much about science, about math, or certainly about computers. And so they aren't teaching their children about them. That's changing some. But it's a cultural issue that we really have to work on to change. And there are some efforts underway to do just that. And we have to do more to ensure that we get more kids in.

BOND: Again, back to leadership. In your present position as a chancellor, you are trying to take your institution and to move it in certain directions towards science for an example. Now is this job made more difficult or easy because of the absence of or presence of a general feeling in North Carolina, let's say, or in the country generally, that there aren't enough black scientists? Or are you having to convince people of the need and then say "Here we are, we are going to fulfill it"? That is, are you coming out of a movement, a demand? Are you articulating the demand of a movement? Or are you setting a demand?

CHAMBERS: You know, I think there is some of both. I know when we developed a biomedical research facility, I was amazed with the kind of support we were able to get from industries in the Research Triangle area telling them that we needed to train more black scientists. We needed to focus more on medical research in areas that would affect black people and poor people. They all agreed. They responded with financial contributions, with advice on how we ought to proceed with doing this and doing that. We are now trying to develop a genomics or bioinformatic center. And we are telling people there is a need for doing or getting more blacks involved in training the area, and they agree. And they are providing assistance with that as well. So I think that we have to move to encourage people to provide this kind of support they know we need in order to get these programs started. But I see them responding, believing as we do that there are too few black scientists and they want to do what they can to help.

BOND: Would it be fair to say then that you are both leading and following, following a general societal recognition that there is a need and leading toward getting that need fulfilled?

CHAMBERS: I would think so. I would agree with that and think it's absolutely necessary. What's great is that the general population appreciates the need for fulfilling these gaps and the people are willing to provide their assistance to help them.