Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Challenges

BOND: Now, let me take you back to some earlier discussions – take you back to your tenure at the NEA. During this time, Bill Bennett is one of the education secretaries, and you give him, at the end of his tenure, I think, the worst grades of all the Reagan-era education secretaries, and he’s constantly battling with the NEA and with organized teachers. Was there ever a time when you thought, "Gee, we’re losing this public relations battle and we need to regroup?"


BOND: How did you take the temperature?

FUTRELL: The answer to your question is yes. And there was a lot of frustration, a sense of despair, a sense of, you know, it doesn’t matter what we say, the message isn’t getting out. And finally I said to the executive committee and the staff and originally to the board, "We have to stop talking about what we’re against." Because at that time everything came out, we were against it. And I remember reading the Nation at Risk Report and saying, "Why are we opposing this?" You know, "I might not agree with everything that’s here but there are a lot of good ideas here." Well, it wasn’t so much opposing the product, it was opposing who put the product forward. And I said, "Well, I don’t care who put it forward. Are there things here we can support? We need to start talking about things we support and we believe in and etc. and make sure, put the positive spin on it."

But there were times when you felt like you were just getting beaten down into the ground and there were days you would wake up and like, "What battle do I have to fight today? Why do I always have to fight a battle? Why can’t there be days when I’m not fighting a battle or when we’re just enjoying life and we're doing some good, creative things?" And it took a while to turn the situation around. I also had to learn to temper myself because I can be very hotheaded and very heated when I get into conversations – especially if I feel strongly about something. And I had to learn how not to overreact. I had to learn how to do things like not always be the first one to respond. Let somebody else respond first, see what they’re going to say. You don’t always have to jump out there. It took a while to do that but eventually, I would say, by the time I got to my second term that things had begun to turn and we were coming out with more positive statements and we were getting more positive press. And a lot of the focus was also on teachers and what they were doing in schools. Talk about the positive things that teachers are doing. And it began to turn. But it took a while. Some days it was just absolutely grueling.

BOND: Now is this because teachers were on the defensive?


BOND: How did teachers get put in the defensive and how did you put them on the offensive?

FUTRELL: Well, you have to remember that there was a sustained attack on public education and when you attack public education, you’re attacking teachers. And it’s interesting how it’s not the superintendent, it’s not the principal, it’s not all these other people. The people who get attacked are the teachers. And they probably have less to do with the decision-making process than anyone else. And so what I would do is talk about the positive things teachers were doing and I spent a lot of my time visiting schools and talking with teachers. And you build some of those into your speeches and you were able to give concrete examples of things that teachers were doing that were very positive -- the amount of time teachers spend working with children, the amount of time and money teachers invested in trying to compensate for what the schools are not providing, how teachers are trying to be more innovative and how teachers are involved in our communities, etc. So you start talking about it from a positive perspective. Talk about the fact that teachers want high standards. Teachers want students to achieve as opposed to "we are opposed" all the time. And began to approach it from that perspective and looking at it from a positive position.