Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Reaching Different Groups

BOND: Now, back to an earlier conversation. How much of this, or can you divide how much of this is gendered, how much is racial, how much is professional? In the styles you employ, how do you shift from one to the other where gender is more important, where race is more important, where profession is more important, or are they mixed?

FUTRELL: I think I tend to integrate them, because when I get up and I talk -- first I’m going to be very professional. It doesn’t matter what the audience is, I’m going to be very professional. Secondly, when I get up and talk, you see a person, you see an image, you know who is talking to you. And so, how you say what you say, is going to be interpreted different ways. It might be interpreted -- when I talk about children, people are probably going to say, "That’s more of a female." When I talk about civil rights, the struggles and women's rights, there goes more of the "militant Mary." There goes more of the "ethnic Mary." You know, the gender. So, I think it, sometimes it depends on what I’m talking about. And I can give, I can deliver a speech and you can see me in those different roles in that speech. But the roles are not necessarily the same all the way through. Am I making any sense?

BOND: Yes, you are making sense. So, you’re able in one speech to be a woman, a teacher --


BOND: -- an educational leader, a black person --

FUTRELL: A union leader.

BOND: A union leader, you can be all those things, but not all at the same time. But there must be sometimes when you’re all those people at the same time?

FUTRELL: No, when it comes together, this is Mary and she’s speaking. I’m always going to talk about children. Okay? That’s the teacher in me, and that’s probably a lot of the feminism in me. But I’m also going to talk about the equity issues, and the equity issues are going to be issues around women and minorities and about quality and opportunity and those kinds of things. I can also talk very much about the union issues and how those issues relate to, for example, the teaching. How they relate to the equity pieces. You know, I do a lot of international work. I’m head of the International Teacher’s Union. And so one of the things that I find myself constantly doing is trying to bring together these disparate groups with very, very different educational opportunities and backgrounds, very, very different opportunities to organize, very, very different cultures, etc. You’ve got to bring them all together. And so what you find yourself doing is -- "I’m an advocate for the women to get more women into leadership roles." That’s part of my speech. "I’m an advocate for equal opportunity educational opportunities for children." That’s part of my speech. "I’m an advocate for us to be more involved, more supportive and have stronger organizations, unions." That’s part of my speech. "I’m an advocate for us being more politically involved." That’s part of my speech. So all of those things come together and what you’re looking at is, when you’re looking at Mary, you’re looking at Mary with all these different pieces there. And I think they fit together.

BOND: Aren’t there times when people say, "Gee, she’s just a little too black for me”?


BOND: And other people say, "You know, I don’t think she’s black enough”?


BOND: So, what do you, what do you say to people who say either one of those things? Or, "Oh, you’re just, oh, union leader. We want a teacher."

FUTRELL: What I generally do is not say probably a whole lot of anything but try to use my actions to speak for me. And it hurts. I’m going to be very honest with you, it hurts when people either say directly to you or they intimate or whatever they do, that she’s not black enough, or she’s not union enough or she’s not professional. And it hurts, it’s like "Well, what else do I need to do? What else do I need to say?" Now, and trying to get people to understand that when you are the leader of a group like VEA or NEA or the Education International, or George Washington University School of Ed., you’re not representing any one group. And what you’ve got to do is bring all the groups together. How do you bring the groups together? You’ve got to do that because you’ve got to role model what you want to happen. And how do you get them to work to support certain issues? But does it happen? Yes. "You’re too union."

I’ll give you a classic example. The colleges and universities are now dealing with unionizing TAs, teaching assistants. I’m the only person in the room who has a union background. And so as they start talking, everybody’s kind of watching me. And I’m feeling very uncomfortable because everybody’s watching me, they don’t know what I’m going to say. So I finally devise a strategy as I’m not going to say anything. And if you ask me, however, I’m going to be very honest with you about I think they have the right to organize as a part of the freedom of speech. But you feel very uncomfortable, everybody’s sitting there looking at you and you feel guilty even though you’ve done nothing wrong. Or you’re sitting in the room and they start talking about ethnicity or race or things like that --

BOND: They look at you?

FUTRELL: They all look at me. You know.

BOND: You have to be the expert.

FUTRELL: Yeah, so what I do is, you know, "Don’t ask me a question unless you want the answer and if you want the answer, you’re going to get my answer."

BOND: But isn’t there an occasion where you say, "Don’t ask me that question because -- just because of the way I look or who I am. Ask Joe or Mary or Frank or Sue?"

FUTRELL: Right, well, I’ve done that. I’ve done that. I’ve said --
or it’s a moot issue or if -- I’m not the token black, or I’m not the token woman. Because up until this year, I was the token woman and the token minority. And so I’m going like, "Well, I’m not the only person who should answer this question. In reality, you ought to answer this question. I don’t have the problem. You got the problem. How're you going to deal with this issue?" But it makes you feel very uncomfortable that you’re being put on the spot.

BOND: And how do you dodge being put on the spot? On the one hand, you do represent black people. You do represent unionized professional workers. You do represent organized teachers, so I look to you to ask you questions about them. But how do you defer the question and say, "Listen, somebody else needs to answer that question?" Can you always say, "It’s your problem, not mine?"

FUTRELL: No, I don’t think you can.

BOND: You are the expert in some ways.

FUTRELL: And usually what I’ll say is, "I’ll give you my opinion, and my opinion does not necessarily mean that this is the opinion." And I’ll give you an example. I was in a meeting about a month or so ago and they started talking about discipline in the schools. And it very quickly shifted to teachers. And it shifted to the way teachers dressed. And then it very quickly shifted to the union. So someone looked directly at me -- "Well, what has the union done about the way teachers dress and how that relates to discipline?"

And I'm sitting there -- well, I was very uncomfortable. I haven’t been active in the union at the national level for ten years. So why are you asking me that question? Somebody reached over and very calmly said, "Mary, don’t get upset." Because they could see me getting upset. And so what I said was, "Well, you know, it’s really been quite a while and I can’t give you an up-to-date account about what the unions are saying about the way that teachers dress." And I said, "But if you’d like for me to get the information, I will." But if I had responded right away, it would have been a reaction to what they said and would probably have been very negative.

BOND: Now, you become the head of the National Organization to Push Passage of the ERA.


BOND: Of course, it never passes.


BOND: Are there ever people who say, "Gee, you know, that’s not a real teachers' issue, that’s a woman’s issue and we shouldn’t be in -- you shouldn’t be involved in that. You’re supposed to be looking out for the interests of teachers. Teachers are men and women. Why are you doing this?"

FUTRELL: Well, I would say because we believe very strongly in the equal rights. We believe very strongly that a person should not be judged on the basis of color or sex or whatever. I would also say that if you’ll look at the teaching profession, if you want to find a profession where there are inequalities, look at us. If you look at the pay, the pay is different, and for years it was different as it related to elementary versus secondary, males versus females. It’s only been in the last twenty to twenty-five years that we’ve basically equalized pay. I think when you look at the profession, you have to look at the way girls are treated in schools, and how we are often told that we cannot achieve because we are females. And so, when I look at the women’s movement, I look at it as a movement which encompasses the teaching profession and encompasses the female and the male students that we teach. I think we -- but primarily I looked at it from a point of view of, "If I can’t have equal rights as a woman, why do I think I can have equal rights as a minority?" Or anything -- or vice versa. "If I can't have equal rights as a black person, why do I think somebody's going to have equal rights as a woman?" And so, so I was often -- you asked a moment ago, looking at are you black or are you what -- I probably, Julian, was forced more often to deal with the minority and the female piece. You know, and I know that the community was divided. Do we stand up for the African American community and not deal with women, or do we stand up for women? And I remember I used to say to people, "Well, how do I separate myself? I'm both. I'm a woman and I am an African American, and so can I separate myself?"

BOND: Are there times when you feel divided, though?

FUTRELL: There are times when I felt like people wanted to divide me.

BOND: But never yourself?

FUTRELL: I don't think I felt divided. And you have to remember something about me. I was raised with a female head of the household. See, I wasn't raised in a household --

BOND: With sisters.

FUTRELL: Right, with sisters. I didn't have any brothers. My father died when I was four and a half years old. My mothers' brothers didn't live with us. I was raised predominantly in a female head of the household. So my perspective about women probably is very different from the perspective that other people may have about the role of women and black -- I mean, my mother was the head, my mother was the leader, my mother was -- she was the one that was out there making the difference.