(Here at the Willow Creek GLS trying to learn about leadership for our Operation Christmas Child team.)
It is a great honor to be here. I am a lawyer and I’ve spent my career trying to increase the justice quotient in our country. In 1972 we had 300,000 people in prison and now have 3.2 million – highest percentage of incarceration in the world. Percentage of women going to prison has increased _____ in the last 20 years.
1 in 3 black babies now born are expected to be in prison in their lifetime. How do we create justice in this setting?
1) I believe to be an effective leader we have to get proximate to the people who are suffering. We can’t be effective leaders from a distance. Many politicians are too far removed from the suffering. I am persuaded most of us are taught to stay away from “bad parts” of town. We have to be willing to get closer so we can begin to understand what it means to lead. I grew up in a family with a classic family matriarch grandmother. She was the daughter of a slave. When I was 9 or 10 she’d hug me so tight I thought she was trying to hurt me and she’d ask me later if I could still feel her hugging me. As she was dying I was holding her hand and she squeezed my hand and asked, “Do you still feel me hugging you? I’m always going to be hugging you.” Leadership requires the people we are serving to believe we are with them. I grew up in a community where only white kids could go to public schools. I went to ‘colored school’. I graduated from high school and then got to go to college at Eastern University. I was captivated by the experience. I began to think I would spend my whole life in college. That’s how I ended up in law school at Harvard. Soon I was deeply disillusioned because no one was talking about social justice. Then I took a course that required me to provide legal services to people on death row. In proximity with them I began to work with people who were victims of injustice. I learned some things. I worked with a 14 year old boy whose mother’s boyfriend was violent. One day the boyfriend called the boy’s mother in the kitchen and hit her in the face and she fell and hit her head and became unconscious. After 10 minutes the boy thought she was dead. The boyfriend fell asleep and the boy got a gun and pointed at the man in his sleep then ended up accidentally pulling the trigger and killing the boyfriend. That boyfriend was a deputy sheriff so the boy had to stand trial as an adult. When I went to interview him and finally got his trust he told me what happened to him in the jail and how he was hurt and raped. That little boy didn’t want me to leave him. We’ve gotten distanced from the people in our communities and leadership requires we not run away from the problems. There is power in proximity.
2) We have to change the narrative in the problems we address. We have treated addicts as criminals because we are driven by fear and anger that are the basic elements of injustice. We are burdened by our history of inequality. We use the narrative of racial difference to justify inequality. We got the court to say African-Americans were 3/5 human. Slavery didn’t end in 1865 it just evolved. Black people fled the south and a terrorism they experienced. The geography of America was shaped by terrorism and blacks had to flee to the north. If you go to South Africa you are confronted by the legacy of Apartheid. In America we don’t talk about slavery and we have to change that—not to punish our country but to liberate it.
3) We have to stay hopeful. Hopefulness is essential for effective leadership. We will be confronted by things that challenge our hope. You’re either hopeful or you’re part of the problem. I live in Montgomery, AL and get provoked when people romanticize our history. Johnny Carr was the architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She told me, "When I call you up and ask you to speak you will say, 'Yes, Ma'am.'” One day she said Rosa Parks was coming to town and she asked me to come over and listen. They were talking not about what they had done but about what they were going to do. Rosa Parks asked me about the Equal Justice Initiative and when I finished she said, “That’s gonna make you tired, tired, tired and that’s why you’ve gotta be brave, brave, brave.”
4) We have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. Because we’re human we’re programmed to be comfortable and have to choose to do the uncomfortable. Effective leadership only happens when great leaders do uncomfortable things. I’ve had the privilege of winning freedom for clients but I’ve also had difficult moments. I got involved in the case of a man who was facing execution in 30 days but was intellectually disabled. On the day he was scheduled to be executed I was pacing and an hour before the execution I found my motion for a stay of execution was denied. I had to tell the client and he began to cry and then to sob. He said he wanted to tell me something important but he stuttered and couldn’t get out the words. Tears were running down my face. Finally he thanked me for representing him and told me he loved me. I started to think I couldn’t do this anymore. It was too hard. But then I realized I do what I do because I am broken too. The broken understand the quality of mercy and redemption. In brokenness we begin to transcend and to lead. If someone kills someone they’re not just a killer; we have to understand what they are.
The opposite of poverty is justice. Sometimes as leaders we’re distracted by the shiny things but it’s about how we treat the poor and neglected. Effective leadership has a different metric system. Your income isn’t a measure of your capacity to lead.
An old man looked at me and said, “Do you know what you’re doing? You’re beating the drum for justice.” He pulled me into his wheelchair and showed me the scars he got from trying to register people to vote. “Got my bruise in Birmingham trying to register people to vote. These aren’t my scars, cuts, or bruises. These are my medals of honor."
If we get proximate and change these narratives we will honor what it means to be a good leader.