Q&A with Dr. Ruth White: 'Never give up. Never let go. Be tenacious.'

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When did you first start thinking of yourself as a leader?

Leadership emerges as much from the way one is seen as from the way one sees oneself. I never thought of myself as a leader until I began to teach at Washington High School. I am shy by nature — one of those students who was reluctant to raise her hand in class, and then kicked herself when another student said exactly what she would have if she could have summoned up the courage to speak.

I wanted to be a dancer — not a teacher — but the scholarship was for study in education. When I realized the state of education during my first teaching position in Gary, Indiana, I was aghast, but not active. It wasn’t until an unlikely move to Cedar Rapids and several unpleasant experiences in the schools here that I summoned the gumption (as my mother would have said) to leave. After a year as scholar-in-residence at Cornell College, I was asked if I wanted to return to Cedar Rapids Washington High School to teach English and become academic advisor to minority students. I was being seen as one with potential to intervene, if not lead. The beauty of that position was that I got to work with “smart” kids (mostly white), underperforming kids (mostly black), and lots of immigrants and students of other minority extractions. I gained more firsthand knowledge about people from various cultures in that experience than I had to that point, and used that experience to innovate several programs around diversity at Washington, at least one of which still is operative. I have had at least three jobs since I retired from Washington, and I think that all of them emanated from the way I was seen, as opposed to the way I saw myself.

Two moves brought out the real leader in me. They have emerged from an interior place and out of a sense of urgency. I chose American Studies as the course of study for my Ph.D. because I needed to find myself. I saw the same gaping void in the education of students I taught that I had experienced in my own education. I needed to know who I am and what I learned made me a leader. That knowledge spurred my development of The Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success. I was and am convinced that out of the increasing complexity that is childhood and adolescence, one thing that is missing is self-knowledge. There is an appalling dearth of information on African American contributions to the development of this great nation. That was true when my parents were growing up in the Jim Crow era, that was true for me as the only black child in my classes, that was true for the vast predominance of the students I taught, and sadly, it still is true today. The Academy fills that void for students of color.

Leadership is not about gathering accolades. It is not about making money. It is about doing what needs to be done. True leaders are called and teaching is among the noblest of professions. The best teachers are leaders by necessity. Their influence creates impacts that may ripple for generations. Whether through the classroom or in The Academy, whether through my myriad mantras (My students know them.), through sharing words of wisdom that my parents gave me, or through hearing former students who are now leaders in their own right, say, “I remember when you told/taught/admonished me about X”, that’s what I think I am. A leader who has influenced generations for the better.

What was one of your biggest challenges in leadership and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge I face in leading my small yet important program is anonymity and lack of resources.

Everyone knows who I am but no one knows what I do. Anonymity in the face of stark and obvious need is my biggest challenge. And I have yet to overcome it. Success breeds success? Isn’t that the cliché? It is difficult to understand how, in the face of dire and growing achievement disparities, a successful program to encourage achievement among students of color could be underfunded. This is the sad reality — a black face in a crime story on TV has become commonplace; a black face in a story on academic or artistic excellence is a rarity. Why is this? It is the mission of The Academy to change this perception, which exists, by the way, inside the black community as well as in the larger community. While I admonish my students to shy away from the “always” and “never” choices on a test, I believe that the answer to any question is always in education. Who is it who says, “The more you know”? The thing is that the more you know the more you need to know, and it’s really a lot of trouble to disaggregate the vast amounts of information there is and think about its application to our community. (If I said, in 1903, W. E. B DuBois said, ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the color line.’, or if I talked about the “school-to-prison pipeline”, or if I asked, “Who is Toni Morrison?”), would anybody know what I’m talking about?) People are busy; focused on their own success. And for a long time it was comfortable to act as if there was no disparity, because there was always an athlete to point to as proof of equity and success. But here’s the thing: When students are not effectively educated in the “now” (which implies cultural understanding on the part of staff, and willingness on the part of students and families), we will end up paying for them in the “then”. I would much rather support a program like The Academy, which offers a culturally specific road to self-respect, independence, and academic progress, than to pay to keep some kid in prison. So, despite a 28-year run, and with profound gratitude to our existing supporters, my biggest challenge is that The Academy still is largely undiscovered, and there still is an apparent reluctance to fund culturally specific programming.

What do you want young women of color to know about leadership?

The Staples Singers said it best: “Respect yourself: If you don’t respect yourself, ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoots….”

And Sisyphus demonstrates it best — You will often feel as if you are perpetually pushing that rock up that hill.

A woman in leadership must certainly know her issue/area/profession; she must also be aware of the power of perception. That I am several generations removed from young women striving toward professionalism today, is all the more reason to pay attention. Self-respect suggests an understanding of the goal you want to achieve, and incudes your awareness of the way you may be perceived. If you are not well groomed, you’ll be referred to as “unkempt”; if you’re not pleasant, you’ll become known as “surly”; you have to be confident and, you have to know your stuff. Small business owners, take advantage of agency help; corporations will often provide a mentor. Also know that advancement toward or pursuit of a goal is a destination that is never reached. Your challenges may just be beginning. Be prepared to demonstrate your acumen, and be just as prepared to have to demonstrate it again. Persistence is the watchword.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

I learned tenacity from my father. He taught us to never give up. Never let go. Be tenacious.

Know your history. I cannot stress the importance of this seemingly academic pursuit. It is necessary. But is most likely means you’ll have to read.

Leaders read.

Strive toward excellence; seek and take advantage of help as you move forward.

• Ruth White is a veteran educator, having taught at Washington and Jefferson High Schools, with adjunct assignments in African American Literature at Cornell College and the University of Iowa. She was appointed Director of the Iowa Department of Human Rights by Governor Tom Vilsack. She serves on a number of boards and commissions, and is founder and Executive Director of The Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success.

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