Shed A Little Light: A Riff on Leadership for Black History Month
(riff; verb: to perform a monologue or spoken improvisation on a particular subject)
Oh, let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the absence of leadership. It’s difficult not to. I live in Washington, DC, where the US Capital dome looms only a dozen blocks from my house. Congress has recently changed to look a lot more like America than it did before, and I hope that means we will have a resurgence of leadership in our government. For the first time, women of color represent 42 percent of the women in the US House of Representatives, including the first Native American women, and the first Muslim-American women. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would celebrate that change.
Leading isn’t easy in any sector of society. I know, from experience, that it’s even more difficult when you don’t look like America’s prevailing image of a leader.
As a young woman, working in broadcast media in Detroit, I was thrust into leadership roles. I was a cocky reporter/producer; thought my opinions mattered; and always questioned the decisions of those above me. So, ultimately, I was asked to step up or shut up. I began a career journey through a series of vice president positions—first at local television/radio stations, and later within public media’s national organizations. I learned quickly that being smart, assertive, and ambitious just isn’t enough if you’re young, and a woman of color.
There wasn’t a lot of visual reinforcement for my leadership. Most of the bosses I’d had, the professors who’d taught me, and the public figures I interviewed in my city government/auto industry beats didn’t look like me. Even the street names in Detroit honor dead, white, men who led the city to industrial greatness in the twentieth century.
So, I brought my insecurities—all packed in my bags—when I stepped across the leadership threshold. With my working-class background, public university undergraduate degree, new-mom status, and as a closeted lesbian, I asked myself: am I good enough? I felt I always had to prove myself, and I added an extra, self-inflicted burden when I decided I had to represent my race in everything I did in my professional life.
I persevered. I had the help of training, and mentors—including a couple of white men—and I proved myself worthy of their faith in me. But the responsibility of leadership was not without sacrifice of my personal growth and well-being. I stayed closeted because I didn’t want to give another weapon to those willing to see me fail, and I put limits on my ambitions because I believed I’d have to give up even more of myself to go further.
Flash forward thirty years.
Leadership has a brave new face. Women of color. These capable, experienced, enthusiastic leaders work in government, higher education, and in our civic and cultural sectors. One wears the robe of Associate Justice on the highest court in our democracy. One is governor of her state. One is the Librarian of Congress. Some have emerged from the grassroots of America’s cities as courageous change agents challenging the status quo.
There’s Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, who has propelled the epidemic of sexual assault into a critically important national conversation; Emma González, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student whose activism inspired the Florida state legislature to enact more sensible gun control laws; Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez, who mobilized nearly one-million citizens in an action dubbed the Women’s March, seeking “to harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change.”
As James Taylor so aptly wrote (“Shed a Little Light,” 1993):
There are ties between us
Bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. Zero women of color head Fortune 500 companies. Zero lead America’s major media organizations. But, it’s not just women of color we must rely on. We need well-meaning leaders from a diversity of experiences—conservative and liberal, straight and gay and queer, all ethnicities, races, and socio-economic statuses—all prepared to guide and engage us when partisanship, xenophobia, and blind greed overwhelm our better angels. I won’t agree with all the ideas of these leaders, but I will applaud them if they act from their convictions; to be judged, as Dr. King said, for the content of their characters.
Today, I channel my own leadership ambitions into fiction writing. My goal is to challenge readers’ perceptions of race, class, and tolerance in America. I am no longer limited by the expectations of others, nor my own uncertainties. Leadership has a new face. That face is us.
And let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King. ▼
Cheryl Head writes fiction; plays Scrabble; and eats chocolate. All of this going down in Washington, DC. The next installment of her Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series drops in March.