Economic wealth key to Black leadership?

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There has been much debate between African-Americans about the Black community’s two worlds. In one, entrepreneurs and corporate leaders see economic security as the key to success. In the other, community organizers and lifelong civil rights activists continue to fight for social justice as the key to African-American freedom.

The 3rd Annual African American Leadership Summit on June 10 tackled these issues with its theme “Influential Leadership: Moving Forward, Looking Back.” It also explored what leadership should look like today in a post civil rights era, technological age.

Chester
KEY TO SUCCESS—Chester Watson sparks a discussion on whether or not economic wealth is the key to Black success. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“The importance of this platform is to talk about solutions. The one thing I’m confident about is we have everything we need. We can solve our own problems,” said Bernadette Turner, co-founder of the African American Leadership Association. “Until we no longer have to preface appointments with ‘the first African-American,’ we need our own businesses. We need our own organizations.”

The summit at the Herberman Conference Center of UPMC Shadyside Hospital brought in Chester Watson, senior auditor of General Motors, who highlighted the importance of economics in the Black community.

“We’ve given our blood sweat and tears as African-Americans to this country from day one. With a spending power of $800 billion, our spending power is bigger than the budget of some countries in the world. The question is what are we spending it on,” Watson said. “Clearly business endeavors and access to entrepreneurial opportunities should be higher priorities on our list.”

In his address to the audience, Watson illustrated how he rose from an impoverished background to achieve corporate success. He said African-Americans in positions of economic power have the obligation to help others in the Black community find success.

“Don’t let corporate speak get in the way. You have to be, when you’re at the table, a voice that speaks for fairness. Those of us who are successful need to make sure those who wish to start a small business have fair and equal access to capital,” Watson said. “I think it would be wasted effort and selfish unless we put other people on the path to replicate success.”

However, during the discussion following Watson’s keynote speech, some in the group disagreed with the idea that financial success would equal prosperity for all African-Americans. Most vocal among them was Khalid Raheem, president and CEO of the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice.

“We have so many folks who are leaders within a particular group, but it’s not clear what the organization is trying to do. The first step to being any kind of leader is you have to clearly identify what your agenda is,” Raheem said. “I’m not encouraging everyone to become entrepreneurs because it’s not realistic. We need to stop this petty bourgeoisie crap because it’s not reality. When you don’t recognize the structural inequalities, you’re missing the point.”

As the discussion continued, others illustrated how they had used their economic success to reach back and help others. Kenneth Huston, a former convenience store owner, now mentors the budding entrepreneurs who purchased his stores from him.

“As a young entrepreneur, I think the delivery of our community starts with economics. Our young men sell drugs because it all goes back to economics. No everybody can’t be a business owner, but I take my playbook from the Jews. Hitler didn’t wage war on the Jews because they were Jews, it was because they owned everything,” said Huston, who is also a community liaison with the Black Political Empowerment Project and the Coalition Against Violence. “I learned economics from a young age. We always have our hands out and then we blame the government. I don’t like in Pittsburgh that we sit back and pretend nothing’s wrong and everyone’s getting a damn award. We can challenge each other respectfully.”

Other topics explored throughout the day were “Leadership, are you ready?,” “Leading through Social Media,” and “Call me! Text me! Generational Leadership.” The concluding discussion gave participants a chance to talk about how these topics relate to Black leadership in the Pittsburgh region.

“The form of leadership that may have served us well before, isn’t anymore,” said Majestic Lane, a representative from Senator Jim Ferlo’s office, who facilitated one of the breakout sessions. “We have a vast majority of people who are disenfranchised. Masses of people are disenfranchised even from this conversation.”

“We have an obligation to mentor. Go and mentor a young person,” said Claudette Lewis, who serves on the AALA advisory council. “If you have seen your 40th birthday, you have an obligation to turn back and help someone else. We can give them a chance.”

“I don’t think of myself as a Black leader. I think of myself as a leader who is Black,” said Jackie Dixon, director of government relations for Giant Eagle. “I think of myself as a global leader. Let’s be leaders, not Black leaders.”

At the summit, awards were given to African-American leaders old and new who have made an impact on the Pittsburgh community. The Blazing Emerging Leaders award was given to Sean McCaskill, president of Xodus Consulting; Brandi Fisher, co-founder of the Alliance for Police Accountability; Angel Gober, president of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing board of directors; and Rev. Mike Smith, co-founder of Destiny International Ministries. Paradise Gray, a community organizer and hip-hop legend, and Olivia Jones, executive director of the Homewood Brushton YMCA, received the Influential Trailblazers award.

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