Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Fostering a New Generation of Leaders

BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand? How [do] future problems demand different leadership styles or will they?

DAVIS: Well, yes, I think there will be different leadership styles. My response to the campaign that led to the election of Barack Obama that was largely an Internet campaign that involved email and Facebook and MySpace and I don’t know whether Twittering had really started then, but texting —

BOND: I don’t know.

DAVIS: And my response is this: if in the ’60s and ’70s, we had had those technologies of communication, we could’ve made a revolution, you know, because I think about how difficult it was to be in touch with people in other parts of the country and in the cities where we worked and organized, so I’m really excited about the possibilities of the future and I think that leadership is going to have to listen to youth, to the imagination and the creativity and the vision of young people who take for granted that which we had to struggle for and I know that oftentimes older people are very distressed by the fact that young people just — they just don’t know what it meant to struggle to get this far and in a sense, it’s good they don’t know, because it’s good that they take for granted — they can take for granted what we had to fight for, because that way their vision can be much more far reaching. They stand on our shoulders and they can reach much higher and I think leadership, no matter how crazy young people might sometimes sound, leadership — leadership has to learn to listen to the voices of the youth.

BOND: You mentioned what others have said, that younger people don’t know the history of the struggles that brought them to where they are. Do they have to know? Do they need to know and if they do, how can we make sure they know?

DAVIS: Well, I think there has to be a sense of history. We live in a country that encourages historical amnesia. There has to be a sense of that history, but young people cannot know it in the same way that we who experienced it know it. And oftentimes, we demand a relationship to that history on the part of young people that reflects our relationship as people who experienced it. And so my sense is that I am very happy oftentimes when I hear people not questioning what we had to struggle for, not — you know, perhaps they know that there was a time when it would not have been possible for a black person to be at an institution like this, but they can’t spend so much time reflecting on that that they forget about what they need to do now that they’re here. So this is where they are. This is where they begin. This is what we offer them from the past and they have to take us somewhere else.

BOND: How can we foster the most effective leaders for the future?

DAVIS: I think we can foster effective leaders by encouraging people to think independently, to think critically, to learn how to follow their own passions, to develop languages that allow us to talk about the continued need for justice, whether it be racial justice or gender justice or economic justice. I think — I think the question of developing new vocabularies is so important. We’re often stuck with old concepts, old categories, that reflect a particular historical moment and we see that we’re now at another historical conjuncture where that no longer works but then we throw the baby out with the bath water. I mean, I think this is one of the issues that we’re confronting with the failure to develop a conversation around race. This is why I think Eric Holder said that we’re a nation of cowards and, of course, Obama didn’t exactly like the fact that he said that. And I think effective leaders have to encourage that kind of bold, imaginative creative engagement with the present and the future.