Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Black Leadership

BOND: Let me take you back to an earlier discussion and again, that’s about race. How has being a black person affected the leadership style you’ve employed over these years? Your present position? You talked a moment ago about being the black expert in the room, but how has race generally affected the leadership style you’ve employed?

FUTRELL: Well, a lot of people expect blacks to be -- lack knowledge of specifics. They also expect us to be very emotional, very hotheaded – we can’t have a civil conversation. A lot of people anticipate that we are going to be more physically involved in what we’re doing, etc. That we’re not going to do our homework. More concerned with the way we look and the glitter and the glamour than the substance. And so, you know -- and I found myself doing that, you know?

But I had some interesting, interesting mentors. I remember, I was serving on a committee once with Ernie Boyer and I was a teacher and it was a golden opportunity, I think there two or three teachers on the whole committee. But every time they got to something controversial about teachers, I would get really passionate and I would pound the table, and I would -- and somebody said to me one day, "Let’s go for a walk behind the barn." And this is the honest-to-God truth. And what they said to me, they said, "Mary, you’re very good, but you are destroying your message because you get too emotional. And you are too demonstrative. And people are focusing more on your emotions and your demonstrations then they are on what you’re saying. And so no one is hearing what you’re saying. And if you continue to do that, you’ll turn people off and they won’t listen to you." And so, their point was, you need to find a way to express yourself without doing it that way.

And that was -- and they said to me, "A lot of people expect blacks to respond that way. When you can’t express yourself, you get loud, you maybe use profanity, or you want to hit someone or you want to walk out the room or -- " And I was shocked when they said that to me. And then they said, "We’re not saying this to criticize you, we’re saying this as friends." And when I stopped and reflected on it, and I tell you, I went back to my room and I cried, and the next day I don’t think I said very much in the meeting. But when I reflected on it, they were telling the truth. And I had to learn how to calm myself down, not -- learn how [not] to be part of the stereotype, but, are there times when I think you show emotions? Are there times when I think you have to do certain things? The answer’s yes. And so I don’t disagree with some of the things that they observed, but at the same time I said, "There are times for this."

BOND: Now you are celebrated because the -- not the first black person, but the first black person to rise to these positions of prominence. And Ebony magazine chooses you as one of the top 100 black leaders in America. But would you describe yourself as a black leader, or a leader who’s black?

FUTRELL: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. What’s the difference between the two?

BOND: Tell me.

FUTRELL: A "black leader" or a "leader of blacks"? I think a "leader of blacks" means I’m trying to carry the message for the black community. I’m trying to express what I believe are the concerns of the black community. "Black leader" basically is more, I think, one of persona, who I am. And I guess the question I would ask is, can you separate the two?

BOND: Can you?

FUTRELL: I don’t think you can.

BOND: But can you be one sometime, and one the other?

FUTRELL: I guess what I was going to say was, "Can we stereotype black leaders? Can we assume that all black leaders act a certain way?" I am a black leader because of who I am. And I would like to think that I’m a leader of blacks because I advocate for issues that I know are of concern to the black community.

BOND: But then, are you also a leader who just happens to be black? When you stand up and -- stood up as head of the NEA and talked about teachers and more pay or higher standards or whatever, you’re not a black person there, are you? I mean you are, people look at you and tell, that’s a black person. But you’re --

FUTRELL: They look at me and say, "There’s Mary."

BOND: Yeah. And, you’re speaking for teachers and teachers are black, white, all -- brown, everything.

FUTRELL: Right. I think most people would probably say, "That’s Mary and she’s speaking for the profession," etc. I think there are a lot of blacks though who would say, and it’s also for women, a lot of blacks who would say, "She’s speaking for us. She represents us."

BOND: Right.

FUTRELL: And there are women who would say the same thing. "She’s speaking for us, she represents us." So, I think a lot of it depends on the audience and what the audience wants to see. And -- and most people, though, will probably say, "That’s Mary." And you answer, "How do you define Mary?"

BOND: Yes.

FUTRELL: I’m not sure that they would say, "She’s Mary the Black Person or Mary the Woman." I think they would probably say, "Mary the Teacher, the Educator," etc.