What Langston, Malcolm, and Marshall Can Teach Our New Co-CEOs

Leadership lessons for Teach For America's new co-CEOs.


Monday, February 25, 2013

I only know Teach For America’s new co-CEOs from a distance. In Matt Kramer, I see a man who wants to empower others to be agents of the change they want to see. In Elisa Villanueva Beard, I see a woman who has stepped into history as Teach For America’s first Latina CEO. The announcement of their new roles came during the first few days of Black History Month; how apropos, then, for Elisa to be the mother of sons named Langston, Malcolm, and Marshall. These august names of African-American history have three leadership lessons to offer our new CEOs.


A black and white charcoal sketch of a young man with curly dark hair and a black blazer sitting in a thinker's pose.


Photo by Winold Reiss via Wikimedia Commons 

Lesson #1: Talk about race.

Langston Hughes's poetry raised blacks’ sense of self-worth by validating their way of seeing and feeling the world. This made him a threat.  On March 24, 1953, Hughes testified before a Congressional Subcommittee on charges of being a Communist and Soviet spy:

“My interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely really emotional and born out of my own need to. . .this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I cannot even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or in the South go to the library and get a book out.”

After the Subcommittee dismissed him, Langston continued to keep a pulse on black life and articulate the role of race in the obstacles and challenges blacks faced. As you embed yourself in the communities where we work and develop strategies to address challenges, I hope that you will make race a central part of the conversation.

Lesson #2: Bridge the differences.

On April 3, 1964, Malcolm X delivered a speech titled "The Ballot or the Bullet" in which he advised African Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely. The speech was an effort to distance himself from the Nation of Islam and extend an olive branch to moderate civil rights leaders. In it he emphasized the common experience of African-Americans of all faiths:

“It's time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem—a problem that will make you catch hell whether you're a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist. Whether you're educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley.”

Malcolm realized that he could not do the work alone and neither can we. Not everyone in your inner circles will understand why you decide what you do, but I hope you will lead us and others to stop seeing differences and learn to work toward a common goal.

Lesson #3: Stand up for what you believe.

Thurgood Marshall made a huge impact on the movement long before he became a Supreme Court Justice. He did so by being a relentless integrationist. If black people could mix freely with white people, study and work together, he believed, there would be no racial problems in America. He had pushed that theory in courtrooms throughout the nation, culminating in his landmark Brown v. Board of Education win in the Supreme Court, desegregating America's public schools. On June 13, 1967, President Johnson made history by sharing:

"I have just talked to the Chief Justice and informed him that I shall send to the Senate this afternoon the nomination of Mr. Thurgood Marshall, Solicitor General, to the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. . .I believe it is the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place."

Marshall’s unrelenting commitment to his vision is what landed him a spot on the Supreme Court. In like fashion, I hope you lead with your authentic selves and have the courage to advocate for your beliefs, even when it is risky.

Langston, Malcolm, and Marshall. Their names represent the promise of a future where every person has an equal opportunity to be fully human—at school, at work, at home, in our neighborhoods, in our minds.

Matt and Elisa, we’re following your lead.


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