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!

Schools need same “Zero Tolerance” for hate acts that they have for students of color

              Across the country, Trump supporters have been targeting people who look foreign, threatening their lives and attempting to bar them from entering schools and their jobs. Trump’s half-hearted request for his supporters to “stop it” while at the same time blaming the press for overblowing these racist and islamophobic incidents does little to help solve the problem. It is also true that there have been incidents of Trump supporters being attacked. Everyone who is found to be guilty of any crimes need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but what about our nation’s students who are harassing other students? What should happen to them?

              From schools like Westland Middle School in Maryland to the Royal Oaks Middle School in Michigan, racist, islamaphobic graffiti has been painted on walls, students have barred Latino students from getting to their lockers and other students have chanted “Build a wall” in their cafeterias. Statements from school leadership basically state that investigations will occur and are fairly vague beyond that. If schools do not implement the same “zero tolerance” and “tough love” policies that they use to discipline students of color, the hypocrisy will speak volumes.

              It has been well documented that across the country, students of color are suspended, expelled, or disciplined in other ways often at 3-4 times the rate of their white counterparts and are disciplined more harshly for the same offenses, even in preschool. Everything from “talking back” to dress code violations have led students of color missing excessive time from school or being excluded from school altogether. Furthermore, Special Education has been seen in many schools than nothing more than a system that prepares students to do a bid in prison because they spend most of their days isolated from the general school population participating in non-intellectual activities. The Justice Department has indeed investigated several of these schools across the country and brought charges to some districts.

              If our nation’s (pre) K-12 institutions that have such a slanted record on school discipline, they must be even more vigilant in the face of intolerance we are seeing now at schools across the country. How can a student be suspended for a “menacing tone” to a teacher but not be suspended for threatening to deport their classmate? How can a student be given in-school suspension for violating a dress code but not for blocking a path for students to enter their school in hate-filled imitation of a wall? How can students be taken out of school in handcuffs for writing on a desk but not severely disciplined when they are found to be the ones who wrote hate-filled language on school grounds?

              President-elect Donald Trump is still receiving kid-glove treatment from the media. He is still has paid surrogates on our news networks spinning every question posed to them. We cannot treat students in our schools who are committing hate crimes or other violent and threatening acts to also be treated with kid gloves just because of the color of their skin or the socio-economic status of their parents. If this country is serious about healing, it starts at home but must spill over into our schools. Our youth need to know that we will move forward as a country with dignity and respect for our fellow man, woman, and especially the child. Too many black and brown students already feel ostracized from their educational enclaves because of the lack of culturally competent educators. They should not now be made to feel ostracized from their country simply by entering their school door. We can and need to do better.

 

How student leaders can respond to controversial topics in the news

It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.

It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.

  1. Educate yourself on the issue

We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.

  1. Survey your community

It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.

  1. Actively reach out to the affected community

The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.

Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!

Reflections on working with Bahamian youth upstanders

Last week I had the incredible pleasure of working with 50 high school students in The Bahamas at C.R. Walker high school on how to use the arts, specifically poetry, for effective expression. The poet-in-residence (PIR) project was organized by the United States Embassy in Nassau. The goal of the PIR program is to build cultural and community pride through the use of poetry and the spoken word. While most people know The Bahamas as a top vacation destination, there are serious challenges facing the Bahamian community from crime and drug abuse to xenophobia towards Haitians and alarming rates of breast cancer. The PIR project was brought to The Bahamas to not only provide an outlet for these students to speak on these issues, but also to speak about what makes them proud—their culture.

The youth in this program really taught me a great deal more than I could have ever taught them. The most important lesson I learned is that there are youth who in the most challenging circumstances, still manage to keep their priorities in order. Whereas some people (youth included) I have met across the globe have an obsession with obtaining material items as proof that they have “made it” in life, the youth in this program had their priorities in order. Their goals were to keep their faith, get an education, and have a family. It was after they attained these things that the talk turned towards fancy cars and huge houses.

The students of the Bahamas are as passionate about creating a better future for their island and planet as any youth I have encountered in the 21 countries I have visited to date as a youth speaker and UPstander. On the night of the final performance, these teenagers shared powerful songs, raps, and poems that spoke to Bahamian multicultural unity, a passion for faith, women’s rights, animal rights, and so much more. While I know that most of us will only think of The Bahamas as a tropical vacation island (as I did when I first visited it over a decade ago), I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone while you are there or anywhere you vacation, and step into the heart of the city, which is the heart of the youth. You will indeed learn a valuable lesson.

The youth of Wisconsin keep my hope strong

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of speaking the Wisconsin Association of Student Councils (WASC) leadership conference. The goal of my  presentations to the middle and high school students as well as their advisors was to talk about not just being a leader, but being an upstanding leader. As a youth speaker, speaking on this issue is one of the topics I am most passionate about. I talked about the importance of not being a leader in name only who is just a bystander, but an upstanding leader who remembers to truly serve others. Speaking to these incredible students showed me that there was not much convincing that I had to do keep them motivated on this topic.

The WASC students came into the conference already motivated and excited to take themselves to the next level as leaders as well as individuals. Their dedication to improving their leadership skills for the betterment of their school and community was truly inspiring. I wish that they could livestream their entire 2-day conference so that America could see the positivity that exudes from our youth. Most of what we see of youth on television is overwhelmingly negative. If we as adults could be fed a daily dose of what youth like the WASC students are doing, we would be as optimistic about the future of this country as I am. Simply put, WASC students rock!

I encourage you today to intentionally look for something positive in the youth around you or in your community in general. It is too easy to be pessimistic about the future of our youth. If you look for negativity on the news from flashmob robbings to school shootings, you will find it. On the flip side, if you look for youth serving their communities by volunteering to help the homeless, tutoring after school, or helping to keep their community clean and safe, you will find that too. If you believe it and seek it, you will find it. Don’t stereotype our youth. They deserve better. They deserve our best. I am fortunate in my career to get to see them give their best everyday. I thank the WASC students for giving me that opportunity this past weekend.

How student leaders can respond to Ferguson or other tense issues

For the past few weeks, many people across the nation as well as across the globe have been caught in discussion, debate, or even serious violent protests over the death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. If you took a step back to analyze this tragedy like I have, you probably saw how many media outlets and activists were using their camera or blogging opportunities to shout at one another without much listening. I found myself wondering how you as student leaders could take the lead on generating discussions on this issue when you have received such poor examples from adults. Below are some steps that you should take as a student leader to address issues such as Mike Brown’s killing, or any other incident in your school that may bring about tension.

  1. Check the pulse of your community. Whenever an issue that has great potential for controversy occurs in your school, you should conduct surveys of your student colleagues to see how they feel about the situation. Just because you were voted into your leadership role, it does not mean that you should expect everyone to agree with your stance on the issue. Once you know where your community lies on the issue pro, con, or somewhere in between, you can move on to step #2.
  2. Engage those who think differently from you. There are two types of people who may take opposing views to your own: those who will be very vocal in their opposition and those who will not say a word. It is important to engage both because you will be more likely to find common ground on the issue, which is important for maintaining a positive community environment.
  3. Talk to your teachers and advisors about the issue. It is sad that many student leaders do not look to their teachers for counsel. Too often, I come across issues in schools of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. where the students think these issues are happening for the first time because it is the first time they are experiencing it. It is very likely that teachers in your school have had similar experiences, maybe even more severe given the tumultuous times different groups have had to endure on the path towards equality. Find teachers of varying opinions on the issue to help foster a conversation. If no one can be found at the school, find someone outside of your school.
  4. Organize a speakout session. Students want an opportunity to be heard so provide the space for them. Sometimes leadership is all about listening. If it is a school-based problem, students may have valid suggestions about how to move forward. If it’s an external issue like the Mike Brown killing or something internal such as bullying, let students vent about their concerns and serve as a facilitator as opposed to a decider. Let them help in the formation of next steps, if next steps are indeed necessary, so that your school can move on together.

At the end of the day, a leader needs to provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard. It is easy for the loudest voice to be heard but not necessary listened to. As a leader, you should be a conduit for others to channel their energy. If you do this, you will be able to maintain an active constituency that will support you because you support and respect them, which was the reason you ran for your leadership position in the first place. Don’t shy away from controversy, no matter how small or large. Embrace the challenge and your colleagues will embrace you!

National Student Council Conference: a better future IS possible

This past weekend, I had the true honor of speaking to over 1,000 students at the National Association of Student Councils’  (NASC) annual conference. I have spoken to youth across America and across the globe, but I had never participated in a Student Council conference before, even though I was president of the Student Council in high school. This conference was a refreshing reminder of why I chose to serve my school in this capacity when I was a student. In short, student council leaders are awesome!!!

From the second I walked in the door of the lovely Ocoee High School where the conference was held, I felt the student energy. Whether in the hallways or in the sessions, these students were actively engaged in everything they did. They were not just there to get away from home. Over three days, I saw them engage great speakers like Cara Filler, Mark Black, Kimyung Kim and others in serious conversations about leadership, service, and decision-making. What NASC does so well at their conferences is that they do not just have keynote speakers speak and leave. The speakers and students also lead smaller workshops, so we got to engage the students at a deeper level.

When it was my turn to speak, I truly felt like a rockstar because the students and incredible advisers gave me such a great reception over the prior two days. I was so moved that I just HAD to put on one of their capes when I took the stage! I have NEVER worn a cape on stage before but I was feeling the spirit after a great introduction by Tori and Cooper, two powerful student leaders! After my speech, I spent about an hour just talking to students who came from as close as Florida to as far away as China! It was an event I will never forget.

Theses student UPstanders at this conference had me feeling extremely confident about the future of America. I really believe that these youth will right our wrongs. It is a shame that I cannot point to our “adult” lawmakers in my town of Washington, DC as an example of what can happen when we put service and country first but I believe these incredible leaders of today (not tomorrow) have figured out how to build communities together just fine. I truly hope that I am blessed with future opportunities to work with NASC at state conferences and summer leadership programs. These students and advisers have created an incredible model that other programs should follow. As I said to so many of them at the conference, ROCK ON!