“Leadership is at its core, the ability to influence others to achieve a collective goal, even if those others don’t see what the collective goal is right away.”
With those words, Delaware labor secretary Cerron Cade kicked off a two-hour WHYY civic engagement event Wednesday night in Wilmington. The session, entitled “Courage, Creativity and Change: A Blueprint for Diverse Leadership,” was held at the Delaware History Museum.
Cade told the 75 people in attendance that leadership is not bestowed on people by virtue of their position in politics or with a company.
“Just because you have a title doesn’t mean anybody is going to follow you through a dark alley at night,’’ Cade stressed.
Two panel discussions on the nature, scope and varying forms of leadership featured a doctoral student, newspaper editor, corporate attorney, U.S. Senate candidate, community organizer and a teenager who runs a STEM program for low-income girls.
That student, 16-year-old Jacqueline Means of the city’s impoverished Southbridge neighborhood, said she began volunteering at a community center when she was 7.
Means did so because she knew how to play chess and her mother insisted she teach other girls.
She drew energy and enthusiasm from her little charges and that propelled her to eventually start the science, technology, engineering and mathematics program in schools for girls who, for example, “don’t know what a scientist actually does.”
Means draws inspiration from Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education who won the Nobel Peace Prize as a teenager and survived an assassination attempt.
“I think it’s admirable that she would put her own life on the line,’’ Means told the audience. “She’s so passionate for this cause that she would literally die for the right.”
Attorney Kyle Evans Gay said it’s not just “type A” personalities who have the right stuff for leadership. “As far as the essential trait, what I see underlying it all is personal drive … the person you have to motivate is yourself.”
Dubard McGriff, a community organizer with the ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign, said the key for him, along with knowing the issues, is “that whatever is driving you is bigger than you.”
Cimone Philpotts, who is getting her doctorate at the University of Delaware, said humility is crucial, that leaders need to straddle that “thin line between confidence and cockiness and arrogance … making sure you are pulling people up with you.”
Matt Albright of The News Journal said leaders know how to tell people no and perhaps disappoint them without being insulting or “making them feel worthless.”
Referring to an issue he has written about extensively for the newspaper, Albright said the city’s struggling schools won’t improve without the courage to change the status quo.
“We are never going to fix the schools if your ambitions are limited by ‘we can’t make anybody angry,’’’ Albright said.
The message from Kerri Evelyn Harris, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Tom Carper for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2018, was that the political scene needs new blood from people like her.
Harris said she was among the vast majority of people who live paycheck to paycheck and need lawmakers and policymakers who understand their struggles.
The candidates for change, she said, “are continuing to fight for you because it’s personal.”
Moderators were former WHYY reporter and anchor Nichelle Polston and radio personality Loraine Ballard Morrill. Partnering with WHYY were the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, Junior League of Wilmington and the Christina Cultural Arts Center.
The sponsors also honored Raye Jones Avery, who is retiring after heading the cultural arts center since 1991.