Political leadership in the African-American community has not resulted in wholesale positive change in the quality of life in the areas of crime, employment, healthcare, and education. In his new book, How to Lead When No One Follows, Jerry takes you on a journey to discover why things have not improved as much as they should following the Civil Rights Era and the years immediately following.
Below are a few excerpts from the book.
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Many constituents have tuned us out, and I believe their apathy is justified in many instances. People come to realize that we only show up when we have a ribbon-cutting ceremony or a parade, or we have been asked to share in someone's public recognition. If there is a news camera or a reporter there, then our presence can be expected. At least, that is the impression I believe we are giving to the public. But, what happens when the schools are crumbling or there's high crime or there's no access to health care? Do they see us in the community then? Do they see us when there are no television cameras around? Do they see us when there are no newspaper reporters around? You only will achieve true leadership when people see you acting on their behalf when there is no one there to give you credit and there are no press releases to follow.
I believe that our citizens would be much more willing to follow a politician who has a strong background in actual service-working in the community, rallying their neighbors, tutoring or coaching at the local school, helping men and women learn job skills or offering support in the difficult task of raising children. True leadership begins with service that is not compelled out of a desire for more votes. When you actually serve a constituency while expecting nothing in return, when you actually confront issues and challenges and you provide true leadership by affecting positive change, you are making the case that you are a leader who deserves to be followed-because, most likely, you are not achieving your goals alone. You are engaging the people and organizing for a common cause in which you are all invested. When voters are looking for someone to represent them in the halls of Congress, you offer compelling evidence of your ability to make a difference when you have actually been involved on the streets of your neighborhood.
I believe we have it backwards. How many times do we watch someone standing on a stage making beautiful campaign promises but who has never served or delivered quantifiable results to the community whose votes he now needs? You should serve first, and then run for office. Instead of declaring grand statements about what you plan to do, tell the people they should elect you based on your track record of service and what you have already done. People will follow you if you have already engaged them and served them and because they have seen what you have done when you weren't seeking office. You cannot just decide to appear and show an interest in your community when the act is one that is for your own benefit or you need to ask the people for their support. You must simply serve out of sincere love for people and the desire to improve their situation or out of frustration with the status quo and because you have the drive to make things different. Service comes first. With that fundamental idea in place, people will follow.
With the priority of service established, is there one area in mind for which you have a driving passion? Where will you make your mark with the effort you put forth for the community? It is best to start with one area that you really want to improve and even transform, whether it is schools, public safety, health care, job creation, neighborhood beautification, or another issue of social justice. When you start with one issue of focus and put all of your energy into making a noticeable change there, your work will be the most effective and the people you are asking to join you in the cause will be confident in your resolve.
On November 3, 2008, the voters of the United States elected an African American man to the highest office in the land. President Barack Obama took his oath of office on the mandate given to him by people of every race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic background. While support for his candidacy carried across all demographic lines, it was the African American community that galvanized in a way that had not been seen for generations. This new administration was going to mark a change for the black population in our country. We were finally going to have a larger voice in the political process, a seat at the most important table of power, and a greater involvement in the issues of education, business, and justice. But, the years that have passed since that historic moment have not resulted in the marked change we expected. Instead, much of the African American population has returned to their previous feeling of disconnect toward elected officials and the political system in general. The momentum that was able to create an unprecedented change in 2008 has been stopped short and, even when electing people who come from similar experiences and have reason to share concerns and priorities, African Americans do not trust their leaders. They are not following.
A leader can be defined as someone who is guiding or directing a group of people toward a common goal. The leader of a military unit is in charge of getting his men across the battlefield, and his soldiers trust him with their lives as they follow him into enemy territory. The leader of a band prompts the rest of the musicians to start the song and takes them through every verse until the piece reaches its end; they all need to stay on the same beat and play the same tune or the result will be noise and chaos. We usually think of the quarterback as the leader of a football team, the one who calls the play, makes sure that everyone is positioned before the ball is snapped, and guides his teammates down the field with the common goal of scoring a touchdown. When we reflect on the nature of a leader in the political arena, many of the same characteristics should apply to the men and women who have been charged with directing all of us toward a destination of better schools, safer communities, and more effective and responsive government.
Think about the elected officials who represent you right now. Do you feel as if they are working with you towards a common goal? Do they know what your goals are, or the goals of the community at large? Our councilmen and state legislators and congressmen need to be leading in a way that engages the citizenry and makes us want to march behind them in the battle for our children, our families, our neighborhoods, and our country. We should want our politicians to come to us and say, "Alright, here's the play that I designed to get us to the next level of economic development and, as a result, to the creation of desperately needed, well-paying jobs. Here's the role I am asking you to play in order to make this goal a reality." We need our politicians-our leaders-to stand with us in front of crowds and demand the change that we need to see in our communities. I wonder how many of us can truly think about leadership in this context and say with conviction that our elected officials are acting as the leaders we need them to be.
I will be examining the lack of true, involved leadership and how the impact of this broken connection is leading to devastating consequences specifically for the African American population. I do not write this as an outsider who has a desire to criticize the system, but as someone who hopes that I am using my leadership positions, both in political and religious circles, as opportunities to engage and involve everyone. I want this book to be a way to examine my own strengths and shortcomings and to start a dialogue with all of you concerning the changes we hope to make together.
After our president, it is difficult for me to provide any outstanding examples of political leadership in office today. I have to reach back at least ten or twenty years to find names of politicians who had a real impact on me. These men include the late Harold Washington, who served as mayor of Chicago for four years in the mid-1980s, and Maynard Jackson, who was the first African American mayor of Atlanta and held that position from 1974 to 1982 and again from 1990 to 1994. Also, I have great admiration for Congressman John Lewis, not so much for his work in the House of Representation, although I do respect his voting record there, but for the courage he showed as a leader in the civil rights movement. He was a young man, only a student at the time, but felt the conviction to take a stand in a way that directly impacted millions of lives. All three of these leaders opened doors in government and areas of our society for so many who followed them. I truly believe you cannot have a great nation when a segment of the population is disenfranchised, ignored, powerless, and without hope. In these aspects and so many others, these men have effected positive change.
Beyond the world of elected leaders, Thurgood Marshall is my hero. He serves as an inspiration to many and should be studied as a model of leadership for anyone who wants to make a real difference. While an attorney for the NAACP, Marshall traveled to cities both in the North and South to confront segregation and racism. Even though he faced threats to his life in every place he visited, he relentlessly fought against the injustices faced by African Americans. Marshall eventually became one of the most brilliant Supreme Court justices we have ever had. Thurgood Marshall understood the fact that you could not have a nation which garnered pride as long as so many people who lived within its borders suffer from brutality and indignation based on the color of their skin or their socioeconomic status. He advocated the idea that the Constitution is a living, breathing document that must be applied to each individual situation and be used in a way that would administer the law equitably to all.
We see the result of an electorate losing faith in the idea that politicians might actually listen to them whenever an election rolls around for offices such as mayor and school board. I'm amazed when I review the results of these local contests, especially those that do not have the benefit of an accompanying state or federal election, and see that only four or five hundred people voted in a district that contains 16,000 potential voters. It's a problem that continues to grow and build momentum-politicians don't listen, so the voters stop trying to be heard; voters aren't speaking out leading up to and during elections, so politicians don't think it is worth their time to listen. What will it take to make this pattern end and instead create a system in which our leaders are responsible to the needs of their constituents and the voters are engaged to make sure this relationship is maintained?
In most countries in which free elections are held and participation is encouraged, the voter turnout rate stands at between eighty and eighty-five percent. It is just understood in these places that you are going to exercise your right to vote. In 2008, when President Barack Obama was elected, the pundits in our country were thrilled over the fact that 64% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Of those who were voting in an election for the first time, 40% of them were black men and women. We had not seen that high a percentage of voters come out for a presidential election in a century. And, the number of people who voted, 130 million, was the highest in history. Even though the numbers still weren't impressive in comparison to other nations, some of us hoped that the 2008 election would mark a turning point in electoral politics and we would see a shift to greater involvement by all people, and particularly those who had long been underrepresented.
The excitement that surrounded the Obama campaign several years ago does not seem to have carried over into subsequent elections. The midterm elections that were held in 2010 brought out around 42% of eligible voters, which marked just a one percent increase over the midterm elections that were held four years previously. This decreased participation affects all of the state and local elections that ride on the coattails of federal races, such as those for governor and members of state legislatures. While elections for president get a great deal of media attention and bring out the volunteers, it is often these state and local elections that directly affect a community's quality of life in areas concerning education, employment, and crime. The absence of each voter is felt so acutely when we are deciding on the candidates who will best represent our needs in these elected offices.
And, as I mentioned earlier in the chapter, the lack of engagement at the local level is even more pronounced. In my city of Nashville, the elections in 2007 to choose a new mayor and fill forty seats on the Metro Council brought out only 28% of eligible voters. The following year, the school board elections, which have a tremendous impact on the quality of education that our children receive in our city, as well as school reform, teacher training programs, and after school activities, managed to draw the interest of only around 8% of voters. We allowed only a few hundred voices in each district determine the fate of 79,000 children for the thirty-five hours they spend in our schools every week. What is it about the process that is making us not want to share our voice or believe that it won't be heard no matter what we do?
The reality is that people are now making their voices heard by not voting. They are sending us a message by staying home. The statement being made is, "I've looked at the people who are running and I don't see a hint of difference between any of you. You've shown me that my vote means nothing so why waste my time?" Part of this disenchantment is rooted in a real lack of service on the part of elected officials, but lack of communication is also a contributing factor here. Yes, it's true that in too many instances we have failed as politicians and the supposed leaders of our communities to be advocates for people in a way that really matters. We have let the mundane details of the office bog us down or, equally as negative, we have become consumed with the trappings of power and turned to unveiling what the position can do to advance us personally and professionally. There is no doubt that the citizens' lack of faith in the system has a legitimate foundation. But, what about the instances in which men and women on the city council or in the state legislature are working for the will of the people but that message still isn't being heard. We need to do a better job of communicating with our constituents about what is happening in our offices so they see that voting truly does make a difference. Despite those who cling to the notion that circumstances won't change no matter who is in office, I hold firm to the idea that voting is the cornerstone of our country and the best way to ensure justice for our people does progress.
African Americans cannot afford not to be involved in the political process because we are disproportionately affected by every difficulty that our country faces. Just look at unemployment numbers or health concerns or home foreclosures or urban decay-the black population in the United States continues to face more severe consequences in every one of these areas. Have we reached the point of throwing our hands up and simply accepting the fate of a people who bear the brunt of society's ills, or are we going to fight to choose elected officials who will take the status quo to task and push for real change?