One of my dear friends and former students is about to transition from the only career that he has known for more than 20 years to a new adventure. He is one of the brightest and most thoughtful people I have met. He is not only a scholar but a person of tremendous integrity and in all respects a true leader. Not long ago, he applied for a job and the posting called for a transformational leader. In short someone who could enter an organization and create change guided by a vision and leading others to follow that vision. He needed to shake things up.
That phrase has stuck with me. “A transformational leader.” I began to wonder, “Can I transform the lives of a whole city of students? Can I change the trajectory of young men of color in New Orleans?”
So here I am at Summit 2 of the Camelback Fellowship. Fifty-three years old and a product of excellent schools, a wonderful family, and an eclectic collection of friends. I am Blessed to have been raised by an extraordinary woman and for the past 15 years I have enjoyed the love of one who is similarly spectacular. Life has been amazing and I am so thankful for all that I have received. I sit humbly in the midst of the other Fellows, each of whom has a story to tell and they continue to amaze and inspire me. I know that each one of us has come to Camelback with our own moment of trauma and pain. Mine is the recent loss of my mother; Delores Arthur Taylor, for whom I have named my first school after.
Camelback is the place where I came to build the capacity to lead a school. I came to sharpen the skills necessary to start and scale a business. I came to prepare to take my place as that leader who would transform the lives of the students who will pass through the doors of the school that we will open. This week, my thoughts began to shift. “Am I a transformational leader? And if not, can I become one?”
Well, Aaron Walker, you left out the part about Camelback bringing me face to face with my very own baggage and shortcomings as I assume leadership of an organization. Each evening during Summit 2, I would retreat to my room in the basement of the Camelback House in Brooklyn, huddled with my thoughts and armed with the tools of self-assessment and vulnerability. During those nights, I learned that, apparently, the transformation that needs to take place is with me. I learned a few things:
1. EMBRACE WHAT I DO NOT KNOW
Socrates was right: “The one thing that I know is that I do not know.” This is an incredibly important truth for the transformational leader to embrace. A few of my fellow Fellows — Tammy, Nicole, Yulkendy, and Damola — remind me of what I still need to learn. Not because they tell me with that intention but because I listen to them talk about their work. The content of their dreams, the technology they aim to use, their processes, have opened my eyes to all new worlds. I thank them for teaching me.
2. REMEMBER THE “WHO,” NOT JUST THE WHAT
Never lose sight of who you are fighting for. It is easy to say that I want to open a school because we want to “increase student achievement.” I realized that if that is the best answer that I can give, then I need to change my plan and do something else, because starting a school is no small feat. I had to come face to face with not just the why, but the who. It touched the depths of my soul when I realized who Brandon and Antoinette were truly fighting for. I am both saddened and inspired that Vanessa is fighting not only for scores of people she may never meet but for herself and those closest to her (at Summit, she wrote and shared how we can all help reunite immigrant families). How incredible these people are.
I reminded myself that I am doing this work for individuals like one of my favorite students, a foster child who the system was stacked against in every way and who this fall,will be attending University of Texas as a thoughtful, righteous young man. I am working on my school to create a future for all young men of color in my city. Only 53% of Black males in Louisiana graduate high school; their unemployment rate in New Orleans is 44%; and statewide, they are 50% more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts, in the most incarcerated state in the nation. The only free, public, non-religious all-boys school in New Orleans is located within the prison. So what does that say about the future we think is possible for them?
3. DISRUPTION ISN’T JUST FOR TECH STARTUPS
When you think that you have been disruptive enough, be disruptive some more. I am learning what it means to be disruptive in its truest sense. I have learned that there are some voices out there that are screaming loudly with each passing issue. I will argue that this is not being disruptive, it is simply being annoying. Socrates was disruptive. He did so by teaching and empowering those he taught to teach others. Martin Luther King, Jr. was disruptive. When I listened to my fellow school founders, Auset, Janine, and Myron, I see that level of disruptiveness. They are methodical, determined, and focused. Each time I am with them or talk to them, I gain insight into what they are doing and how relentless they are. Disrupting the system, one student at a time. I like it.
4. CHERISH AUTHENTICITY
Be authentic. What does the President/CEO of an all-male charter look like? How does he act and sound? I grappled with this for the past year and to be truthful, I had no answer. Then during Summit 2, I saw Sophie and Martha show up as who they were and did so without apology. I admire those two women very much and I thank them. Now, I know the answer. The President/CEO of an all-male charter school in New Orleans, looks, acts and sounds exactly like me, dammit!
As I left Summit 2, I could not help but ponder my purpose. My friend and Fellow Auset always speaks of showing up in the space. For me, this has been to show up in the space without apology and equivocation as a follower of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of the moment when he asks Simon Peter if he loves Him. Peter responds in the affirmative. Jesus then tells him to tend to his sheep. This happens three times. In the original Greek text, it is important to note that Jesus uses three versions of the word tend. The first means to supervise and direct his sheep. The second is to provide for them through feeding them and keeping them safe. The third and final time is a combination of both. I suspect that Peter felt challenged, a bit inadequate, but filled with so much love for Jesus that he would do what was asked. That is how I left Summit 2.
Perhaps one day, I will be that transformational leader that my venture needs. I have work to do because I am a work in progress. I am appreciative of the gift of courage to be vulnerable and self-reflective that in my estimation is critical to leadership — to know that in order to transform the lives of others, I must first allow myself the bravery to start to transform myself. I wish the same for others on this journey.