Navigating The Path To Great Student Leadership

“Leadership ain’t for the lame, don’t take it in vain

Time to rethink your position, understand why you came.”

These are two lines from a poem on leadership that I often recite when I speak around the world to student leaders. I share this line to underscore two points. The first point is that leadership is not for everyone. Though everyone can be a leader, leadership is a calling that few people answer and therefore, it should never be taken in vain. The second point is that leaders must always rethink why they chose to be a leader, and whether they still have the capacity or even the desire to lead. In today’s political climate, these two points are more important than ever for student leaders.

Whether one is a supporter or opponent of President Donald Trump, no one can argue that his presidency has not only shaken up our system of government, but has also had an impact in every aspect of our society, especially in schools. Some students feel that they have a leader in office who can speak for them in ways that President Obama did or could not. Others believe that President Trump’s rhetoric makes them less safe in school, evidence by instances of middle school students walking into their cafeteria to fellow students chanting “Build a wall” and others being told that they are going to be sent back to their country, even though they may have been born here. The bottom line is that there is a level of divisiveness taking place in our schools that require our student leaders to “rethink” their position in order to evaluate if they are built for the task of leadership today.

When I speak to student leaders, I challenge them to jump head first into whatever challenges their schools are facing. The example of America’s political climate is on the more extreme side of challenges students may face in school, but there are a multitude of other challenges that student leaders face in school. There are issues from cafeteria food and infrastructure to the curriculum and school climate. Regardless of the issues, there are four simple steps that I share with student leaders that can help them better navigate these issues. The four principles stem from my book G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness! 10 Steps To Living Your Best Life. The steps are Give, Release, Overcome, and Win.

GIVE

                  Student leaders must do a review of the quality and quantity of their giving. Dr. Wayne Dyer said that the more we give to the universe, the more it gives to us. Conversely, the more we take from the universe, the more it takes from us. Student leaders cannot be self-absorbed and only concerned with the title of leadership as a résumé builder for their college applications. Their elected position means that they must always remember that they represent their constituents, even those who did not vote for them. To that end, student leaders must be giving of their attention to students in their schools. They need to be able to do more listening than talking to really understand what is transpiring in their schools and they must be willing to be giving of the time requisite to lead their school towards effective change. I remind them as Les Brown said that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in proportion.

RELEASE

                  Student leaders must learn to let “it” go and let “them” go. By “it” I mean they need to let go of any hatred or even simple bias they may have towards certain groups. I study leadership across the globe from corporate CEOs to country presidents. I have seen situations where someone becomes a CEO and actively works to undermine particular departments they simply do not like. I have seen situations where someone becomes president of a country and exacts revenge on the ethnic group they viewed as their oppressors. I encourage student leaders to practice forgiveness and inclusivity, similar to former South African President Nelson Mandela who, upon his release from 27 years in prison, went to visit the home of his former prison guards to express forgiveness.

Once students forgive or let “it” go, they can work towards letting “them” go. Student leaders must let go of people around them who no longer represent where they want to go as a leader. I cite actor Will Smith when I tell leaders that they are a direct reflection of their five closest friends. If their friends are racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, islamophobic, sexist or anything else, chances are the leaders are as well. Student leaders must associate themselves with people who represent not where they are, but where they want to go. Furthermore, student leaders must understand that with the advent of social media, they need to be even more careful with their “friends” because they will be associated with posts from their friends and it could affect their academic and professional careers, most recently evidenced by the students who had their admission from Harvard revoked after their racist social media posts were discovered.

OVERCOME

                  Student leaders must overcome their fears. Leadership can be a daunting task, but it is a task worth pursuing if they are truly interested in serving their communities. I cite Zig Ziglar who said that fear simply means False Evidence Appearing Real. This means that most of the issues they worry about will not happen so they must work daily towards their goals. Student leaders must be guided by their goals and their vision and not by their fears. One cannot govern effectively if they are governed by fear. Fear keeps leaders from thinking clearly. It keeps them often from even attempting to start a program because they fear what people will think. As Dr. King said: “cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?” Student leaders must acknowledge the fear they may feel but focus more on what is right.

WIN

                  Student leaders must believe they will win if they do not give in. In this age of instant gratification, student leaders must practice patience. They must realize that some of the changes they seek in their school may not occur during their tenure as a student leader. They must think like some Native American communities who believe that they should think of how their actions will affect people seven generations from now. Depending on the schools they are in, at one point their school may have allowed no women or people of color but people fought for the right to attend those schools even though those fighters for equality never did. Students must believe that they will eventually win. Change does not happen overnight and student leaders must not be seduced by the sitcom nature of society where they see problems resolved in a thirty minute show with commercial breaks.

GROW!

                  At the end of the day, if students look at how they give, release, overcome, and win, they can become effective leaders for their school community. If they use these four steps to “rethink” their position, they will better understand the serious job they have undertaken as leaders in their school. As advisers, you can be the ones that can help them along with this process. Your experiences as educators and leaders in your own environments can greatly aid students in their development. Whether it is the National Honor Society or Student Council or any other form of leadership, we need to make sure that students understand the great responsibility of the leadership roles they have undertaken. I fully believe that with your guidance, our student leaders of today can continue on their path to the greatness that we know is inside of them. I wish you the best as you walk this path with them!

Donald Trump Is Losing, But We’re Not Winning…Yet

This article appears in The Huffington Post, where I am a contributor: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-is-losing-but-were-not-winningyet_us_59ca9a9ae4b0e02ffdb77f37

TV Show Arrow Has Every Right To Discuss #BlackLivesMatter

This article appears in The Huffington Post, where I am a contributor: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/tv-show-arrow-has-every-right-to-discuss-blacklivesmatter_us_59babf92e4b02c642e4a14a7

Trump: The Racist President WE Made In America

This article appears in The Huffington Post, where I am a contributor: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-the-racist-president-made-in-america_us_59960b5de4b033e0fbdec27a

4:44 – The Album JAY-Z Always Wanted To Make…But We Wouldn’t Let Him

This article appears in The Huffington Post, where I am a contributor: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/444-the-album-jay-z-always-wanted-to-makebut_us_595e6066e4b08f5c97d067b3

Sally Hemings (a poem)

Get your violins out, your flutes and cellos

As I recount my days back in Monticello

The year America breaks from Europe’s chains

I’m still a slave shackled in America’s chains

And I’ll make it plain I was more than a slave

A founding father found me and he couldn’t behave

Y’all can call him what you want, America’s son

I call him a rapist under Virginia’s sun

Put him in the books for the country he claimed

But me, I’m just a blip y’all don’t know my name

Know nothing about from whence I came

Call me Sally or Sarah, some say I’m to blame

But I ain’t ask for this I was part of a deal

So hear my story as a slave just recountin’ the real

While Jefferson was workin’ so hard to plant nation

I was his concubine on his plantation

Tried to make it slick and just call me a nurse

While I was savin’ lives they put my soul in a hearse

Doin’ nothing but my best to help heal Mary

Then she go to sleep and I’m screamin’ hail Marys

Prayin’ I won’t be raped by this man so scary

Y’all venerate this man but on the contrary

I was in the room taking care of wardrobe

He comin’ from behind and he never wore clothes

Now he comin’ from behind and I’m caught in the throws

I’m special, presidential w-h-o

R-e, he birthed nation, I birthed his kids see

Y’all see his face everywhere but mine don’t exist see

I’m Sally Hemings case you didn’t know

And I was more than a slave more than Jefferson’s ho

So know my story it’s an American classic

How I survived for centuries from life so tragic

See I rep for my sisters that you’ll never know

The ones mastered by the masters, sexed on the low

Y’all say it was just a sign of the times

Then you rewrite history, rewrite the lines

But I ain’t ask for this and some say it’s my fault

Look down at my sisters now it’s still their fault

Janet sabotaged her bra, it wasn’t Justin

Rihanna pissed off Chris Brown—musta been

Tina Ike-d up just cause she tried to mic-up

Anita knocked off the Hill she tried to rise up

Halle Berry had it comin’ who she think she be

Damn… in retro she kinda look like me

But I digress, I distress when I have to digest

Centuries of women being blamed for men stress

But until we tell our story won’t nobody care

So sisters rise up and tell your tales without fear

Malaika (a poem)

When you educate a girl, you save the nation

When you teach girls to lead, they become our salvation

Digging wells isn’t just about digging holes

When a community is nourished, you’ve nourished its soul

Malaika Malaika, Swahili for angel

YOU are Malaika, helping girls succeed from every angle

Creating change agents for tomorrow

By focusing on the good, not the sorrow

If each girl can wake up with a possible new beginning

She’s waking up every day with the chance of winning

Building community, one girl at a time

And day after day, we’re seeing the signs

That an investment in girls is some thing never wasted

Because day by day, new trailways are created

All our girls need is hope and a chance

Then we can get out of their way and watch them advance!

I’m a Preexisting Condition (a poem)

I’m a preexisting condition because I was born
I breathed
I sneezed
I wheezed
I coughed
I delivered
I was born
I loved
I worshipped
I immigrated
I crawled
I walked
I marched
I talked
I yelled
I resisted
I persisted
I served
I taught
I sought
I said my life matters
I said my zip code shouldn’t
I said my education shouldn’t be separate and unequal
I bled along side my oppressed people
I’ve been told that poverty is expensive
I’ve been sold on the false directive of equality
I’ve been told inequality shouldn’t bother me
I see daily the rich getting richer
I was born into a world that doesn’t want me
I was torn by a past that continues to haunt me
I was ensured my country would cover this
I know no insurance policy that can cover this
I’m still waiting for this country to be as good as its promise
I just hope my preexisting condition won’t kill me in the process

Is It Time to Revive Critical Thinking in America?

This article appears in The Huffington Post, where I am a contributor: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/is-it-time-to-revive-critical-thinking-in-america_us_58e6c72ce4b0d6001f07f330

Trump, Casey Affleck, Brock Turner, and the Soft Bigotry of low Expectations

In July of the year 2000, then President George W. Bush spoke about his vision for education at the NAACP’s 91st annual convention. He made headlines from the speech in main part by his use of the term “soft bigotry of low expectations”:

“Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim  Crow, there’s racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten…I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations…we have come so far in opening the doors of our schools. But today we have a challenge of our own…There’s a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society. And whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination.”

Truer have never been spoken as it relates to challenges we face in education in America, even 17 years later. As I watched the political rise of President Donald Trump and the low bar set for him, however, I find myself finding the “soft bigotry of low expectations” being more and more applicable to him. I have never seen a United States president have such a low bar set for him. The only reason I can find is that he is a rich, famous, white male, and like many others who occupy this group such as Brock Turner, Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski, Ethan Couch, and Ryan Lochte, the ultimate consequences towards these individuals vary, but the initial assumptions about their actions are usually excused or downright defended in ways other people simply are not.

U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte lied about being robbed in Brazil when he and his entourage were the guilty party for vandalizing a gas station. Ultimately he suffered some consequences but initially when his lie was unearthed, some called what he did a “youthful error” though he was thirty years old at the time. Mel Gibson, among other things, told his wife that he hopes she gets raped by a “pack of niggers” and sat front row at the Oscars in 2017. Roman Polanski admits to raping a child yet still in this decade receives standing ovations for his movies at the Oscars while some of our favorite stars appeal for his exoneration. Collegiate star swimmer Brock Turner received 6 months in a county jail for rape, or what his father called, “20 minutes of action” and was released after 3 months. Lastly, Ethan Couch committed vehicular homicide and got off because he suffered from “affluenza meaning he was too rich and spoiled to be held responsible for his actions. What these men have in common is that they are rich, popular white males and therefore they are given a benefit of the doubt, which so many other groups are denied, as Sady Doyle wrote in her brilliant article: “What we lose when we give awards to men like Casey Affleck.” Enter Donald Trump.

Throughout the campaign and well into his presidency, Trump has demonstrated a level of incompetence that we have never witnessed. All one has to do is compare the analysis of his campaign to that of Hillary Clinton. Despite Clinton’s many flaws and flawed campaign, the fact of the matter is that she, like President Obama, have had to be twice as good in their campaigns to receive just half the accolades showered upon Trump. Hillary Clinton by many accounts won all of the presidential debates, knew her facts when discussing the issues, and made her campaign about policy, demonstrated by her ability to speak knowledgeably on the issues. Trump focused much of his campaign on bombast, rhetoric, hate, hyperbole and outright lies and was praised by many because he “tells it like it is.” What does “tell it like it is” mean when what you “tell” is a lie?

From stating that President Obama wiretapped him, that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 911, that millions of people voted illegally for Clinton, and countless other fabrications, Trump has repeatedly lied and when he gets called out on his lies, he is excused because he is a “businessman” and not an actual politician. It’s so weird because, for everyone else, once you decide to run for political office, you’re a politician. It’s sort of like 1+1=2 for most of but for many Trump apologists, 1+1 can actually = 1.5 if he says so. Furthermore, Obama spent his entire two terms working imperfectly to unify America through his policies and social commentary in the face of massacres like Sandy Hook, while Trump gets called “presidential” for being able to read calmly from a teleprompter for an hour. This is the presidential equivalent of Chris Rock stating that fathers shouldn’t expect to receive praise for actually raising their own children.

At the end of the day, too many of us in America are quick to excuse the actions, ignorance, and downright crimes of white men of status, while we are quick to turn boys into men when they are murdered at the hands of law enforcement and others as we did with Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, who had just reached the age of adulthood at 18. Comparatively, Ethan Couch was a juvenile when he actually killed four people and went home to sleep in his own bed simply because he was rich. President Donald Trump, a man well into his 70s, continues to get a pass and even be praised for his downright ignorance of basic common knowledge. He can say it’s OK to sexually assault a woman and call it locker room banter and it’s OK. He can admit to being a racist and an anti-Semite and it can be excused because he said he is the “least” of these. The list is exhaustive and will continue to grow until some of us in America make the conscious decision to no longer give rich white men a pass because the bar we set for them is set so low. This soft bigotry is indeed a new type of discrimination and is having hard consequences for the entire country.