A few months ago I was asked by Sherri Raftery if I would accept the Toastmasters Communication & Leadership award from the Toastmasters District 31 (which is all of Eastern MA from Worcester and Rhode Island). I had never really paid much attention to this organization, but the opportunity to speak to a group of people that were NOT gathering because of an interest in school reform was intriguing. Would my ideas and stories connect to them? I’ve been deeply gratified by the number of teachers and school leaders that have commented on my book and how it has helped or inspired them, but I have wondered what the impact would be for non-educators.
I was seated at a banquet table for lunch with all of the district 31 governors of the Toastmasters, as well as the international director. Toastmasters are organized into local “clubs” and then they elect governors. It seems to me like a wonderful opportunity to practice local democracy. The audience for the lunch was about 120 strong. Since the whole idea of Toastmasters is making speeches, I asked one of my table mates if he would critique my speech since I’ve only had minimal feedback about my talking/presenting around my book.
My speech focused on three leadership lessons I’ve learned in my life: 1. Cajoling is paramount– people often need to be convinced that they want and can do something. 2. Leadership is deeply rooted in trust– you can’t be a good leader unless folks trust you. 3. You must revel in the success of others and never expect anyone to say thank you.
I also told some of the stories in my book—especially those about equity and access—among them, the story of Shanita and how she didn’t get to go to college because she didn’t have money for a deposit and never let us, her teachers, know until it was too late. It’s a complex story of how some of us are born into a socio-economic strata that understands the invisible threads of access, and others are often denied this immediate undertanding because of race or social class. I tell the story fully in my book, but what I try to do in my talks is to provoke audience members to ask themselves, “Do I know a Shanita?” or “Am I doing all I can to make access transparent?” I don’t want the conclusion to be just about Shanita, but rather about the structural and emotional impediments that block access to opportunity for all kids in similar circumstances.
Afterwards, many in the audience approached me to talk about Shanita. Some told me that they were just like Shanita and had had the same experiences. Another gentleman from a mixed-income suburb told me that even though his kids were out of school, he now wanted to go to the school to make sure that the graduating seniors understood the college admission process. I was very moved by his energy.
And I sold out of books! That was very cool. I also got a great critique of my talk from a Toastmaster district governor!
Many thanks to Sheri for honoring me with this award. And for inviting me into her world of the Toastmasters.