A Final Word: Step Up, Step Out, and LeadBy Thomas E. Bertrand
When my youngest son recently returned from the University of Illinois, he told me of an experience involving his high school friend and college roommate, Preston, a musically talented engineering student. Preston and his girlfriend were discussing going for a jog. Preston explained that as a young black male, he was afraid to go for a run outside.
When my son told me this story it gave me pause. Later that week I watched the horrifying video of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd.
My thoughts shifted to my now three-week-old grandson, Lincoln. What kind of world do I want my Lincoln to grow up in? I know that I do not want him to grow up in a country where young men of color can not go for a jog, walk in the park to watch birds, or feel safe when in the presence of the police.
As I told our IASB staff on June 1, issues of hatred and systemic racism can not be solved by only one part of our communities. People who look like me need to step up. People like me who want their grandchildren to grow up in an inclusive, supportive, caring community must step up. We can’t leave these issues to our communities of color to try to solve alone. Those of us who are fortunate to hold positions of influence and privilege in our organizations and communities must step up, step out, and lead.
I recall reading the story of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson lacked a political mandate; as vice president he assumed office only after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson faced an election in 11 months. As a former senator from Texas, he risked personal and political relationships in advancing Civil Rights legislation. Yet he took those great political and personal risks while working tirelessly to get the legislation passed. After recounting stories of how the segregated South impacted his own staff members, Johnson used a poker analogy to make his point.
“There comes a time in every leader’s career, when he has to put in all his stack. I decided to shove in all my stack on this vital measure.”
The nearly 6,000 school board members in Illinois, working on behalf of nearly 2 million public school children, are in a unique position to effect change. You can lead the conversations in your community about equity, access, and opportunity. You can adopt policies to promote practices that will make a difference for every child, and acknowledge when failed policies and practices require a change in direction. You can demonstrate the respect, empathy, and acceptance that we must model for our children and grandchildren.
Now is the time to push in all your stack.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.