Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Gender Consciousness

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."