Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Development: Speaking Up

BOND: Now, is there a point in your life when you said to yourself — and I’m going to guess you’re going to say no — when you said I am a leader because you are a leader. I mean, come on, you are a leader. But is there a point in your life where you said, "I’m a leader" or "I’ve reached a position where other people looked to me for leadership, for advice, for counseling"?

PINN: Well, I guess yes and no. I’m not — I’m not sure about being a leader but I also think based on the experience of my lifetime have felt that somebody has to step up. And if there’s a need and if you sit back and wait for somebody else to do it, it might not get done. And I guess I just sort of learned that from my family experiences and also some of the experiences that I had where if I hadn’t stepped forward, I never would’ve gotten to where I wanted to be.

If I didn’t speak up, I wouldn’t — I might not have the opportunity, might not be able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. And seeing that not everybody feels comfortable doing that, I’ve probably stuck my neck out more times than probably I should have, speaking up maybe if not for myself, for others. That’s not always appreciated, but I guess that’s just how I was raised.

BOND: When did this habit of speaking out begin? Is this a phenomenon that began maybe in grade school? High school? College?

PINN: I — as long as I can remember, I guess. I often say that I’m a mixture of the personalities of my parents. My father was very outgoing, aggressive. My mother was very sweet and very shy. And I think I got a little bit of both, but actually now that I think about it, when I — there was a moment when I learned I really had to speak out and to really take charge of things. When I was nineteen, my mother — and I had just finished my sophomore year in college, and my mother had this terrible pain in her hip. And she was going to the doctor, and he told her that her problem was her posture and she was having back problems. And I remember going to the doctor with her and having him tell her, "Francina, your problems are related to your back and if you do those exercises I told you to do and get those Oxford shoes, you wouldn’t be having this pain." And, you know, my mother was very shy, very quiet, and I can remember him talking down to her and telling her that. And I remember we went to get the Oxford shoes and I can just remember she was in so much pain.

But I went to Indianapolis to spend the summer with my mother's sister and to take my physics course that summer, and the last day of my physics course I found a letter to me from my mother telling me that she was having surgery, that they’d found a tumor. So this doctor had missed her tumor. It was my father who found it after it had grown through the bone, and my father found it.

BOND: Found it in a massage.

PINN: He was massaging her to try to make her feel better, found this knot and it turns out all this time that she was being given gold shots and told to do exercises. They had never done the tests or never done anything to determine this cancer that she had, so I went back home the next day after my exam. It was the first time I’d ever flown on an airplane. I remember being on this little plane. My family drove me to Cincinnati and I caught a Piedmont airplane to go back to Lynchburg and to see my mother. And, again, here’s where I think Dr. Boulware and others came in saying maybe we need to try to get her to Sloan Kettering. So we went to New York.

You know, we didn’t have much insurance then, didn’t have a lot of money. That hospital was very expensive. So I stayed with my mother in New York while my father went back home to work and he would come up, drive up, from Lynchburg to New York to see my mother. It was in that environment in Memorial Hospital in New York City where I could no longer be shy because my mother was very ill. She was dying. And I saw, if you wanted to get care, you had to speak up. And I often do think back — I guess I’d sort of suppressed that — to that being the summer that I had to learn to move from being shy and reserved to speaking up and speaking out to get what my mother needed to take care of her there. And I — that did represent a transition in my life to being more aggressive and learning that I had to speak up. I couldn’t cower when important people came around. I had to speak up if I were going to take care of her and have her feel better. And that was a turning point in my life. I’d almost forgotten about that, it was so long ago, but for many years and even now reflecting back, that was the time that I realized that if you just stayed shy and didn’t speak up, you weren’t going to get what you needed. And that was in the context of making things better for my mother.

BOND: And that lesson has stayed with you through life?

PINN: It has. It has.