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Three lessons on Leadership Development From Reverend William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign

As three full days were coming to close at the Othering and Belonging Conference, I could not imagine that there was any space left in my overflowing brain or heart, that was, until Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign took the stage. I was riveted for the next hour, and my thoughts have returned repeatedly to several lessons about leadership. I encourage you to listen to the video of his speech yourself.


First, as context, the leadership that Reverend Barber inspires is squarely anchored in the pursuit of our full humanity, without pulling any punches. He resurrected what he describes as the often forgotten tenets of Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for wholeness, the fight against systemic racism, poverty and militarization. As someone with a passion for social justice leadership, I found myself listening for ideas about leadership, who leads, and how.


What is leadership? Reverend Barber pointed out that MLK Jr. is often remembered as a lone individual and not as someone who was deeply committed to movement building, not as someone who worked with sanitation workers, students, lawyers, labor organizers, many churches and religions. His message and call was not to the sole actor or individual organization. In the spirit of MLK Jr., Reverend Barber went on to say that we do not need an organization, we need an organism, and intersectional moral fusion. People often ask, “What do you mean by collective leadership?” As his speech came to a close, Reverend Barber called out to the group of 1,600 assembled, “If you have been rejected, if you have been made to feel less than, if you have not felt you belonged, come up on stage!” As he made an impassioned  call to action, he was joined by 50 people on stage, he had the mic and was as powerful as the experience to which he was giving voice. Leadership does not happen in a vacuum or as product of one person’s vision, it arises out of shared pain and aspirations.


Who leads? The closing began with a video about the Poor People’s Campaign. Heavily featured in the video were people who shared their stories about what it means to be poor for them and their families. They testified in hearings and spoke to the press. Reverend Barber was uncompromising in his words, “We will not have people talking about people, we will have people talking about themselves!” People do not learn to lead in a classroom, they learn to lead by doing it, by organizing rallies, by speaking, and reaching out to others.  We will not see progress until people who have resources use their privilege to support and get resources into the hands of the people who know the problems best, and who have to be part of the solution.


What is the message? Lately, I have been paying a lot of attention to the power of narrative. I often feel we concede words and meaning that has been co-opted, e.g. leadership is a charged word, as is patriotism or morality. I was struck by Reverend Barber’s willingness to reclaim and reframe the meaning of democracy, or his faith, Christianity. I am curious about whether this will appeal to a broader group of people around some commonly held ideals as a path to justice. We have become good at talking to each other, okay, I will speak for myself, I have. And, I feel challenged to think about the frame and narrative that creates new common ground, and in the spirit of the conference, that expands my circle of belonging.