Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Role as a Leader: Changing Lives

BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of the movement, or are these the same thing?

DAVIS: Well, actually, increasingly I see whatever leadership capacity I have being expressed in the process of encouraging people to find their own way. And this means encouraging people, again, to ask the kinds of questions that will lead them in progressive and radical directions. I don’t like the idea of simply persuading someone who will get involved for a moment, until they burn out, and then they’ll go back to doing what they were doing in the first place, but I like the idea of life trajectories. You know, how do you change people’s lives? How do you encourage people to think about future possibilities that they never would have imagined themselves and how do you — how do you encourage people to do this work no matter where they are? And so I don’t demand that people join a particular organization or go to a particular place. I say that you can be, as Dr. King said, a drum major for justice wherever you are regardless of what path you choose.

BOND: But I wonder if you don’t think at the same time if you could convince a hundred people that the issues you care about are important and therefore they should dedicate time to them, knowing as you’ll know that a portion of them will do it only for a short time. Doesn’t that have its own worthwhile — isn’t that worthwhile in and of itself, even if it’s not the hoped-for engagement, doing it full-time?

DAVIS: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And I spend a lot of my time during this current era trying to encourage people to think seriously about prison abolition

BOND: Right.

DAVIS: And I’ve discovered, interestingly enough, that this moment, 2009, the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama has created a kind of receptivity to thinking about these issues that did not exist before so it’s very exciting, but I do know that there has to be a particular historical conjuncture, a particular historical confluence of events and in order to encourage masses of people to begin to think seriously about an issue such as the abolition of prisons.