Major Key: What It Means To Have A Leader-ful, Not Leaderless, Movement

Jose Vilson Featured, Jose

I haven’t mentioned much about the presidential debates because a) I’m a socialist and b) the most affable person in the race said he’d step aside if he lost to the Democratic nominee. Even though everyone in the race was / is problematic, a requirement for running the world’s largest empire, it’s weird having such low favorability ratings for the two leading candidates in a presidential election. Compounded with that is the phenomenal work that I continue to see on the ground, the vast movements sweeping the nation to make people move forward, and the hyperlocal, earnest work that so many folks undertake as classroom educators and public intellectuals. While they seem disconnected, activism is one of the most important mechanisms for people’s survival and the betterment of this republic.

All of this reminds me of the famous Malcolm X quote:

“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda,” I had written to these friends. “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

In context, I understood this as part of his transformation from the one-man ideology that subsumed Malcolm X’s devotion to Elijah Muhammad to the universal understanding of Islam after his trip to Mecca. Ironically, it’s been used as a touchstone, to suggest that we can literally put anyone in a certain position and, as long as they’re saying all the right things, no one has any more work to do. Worse still is those who think the ways and means aren’t as important as the end.


If anything, I don’t think the public – including myself – has held officials accountable enough for not representing us. Just as important, we all must learn how to support the folks who are doing positive, uplifting work around us. Putting in work shouldn’t be an individual effort. If anything, leadership requires that people are standing right beside said “leader,” much the way that teachers aren’t teachers if there aren’t students. Students teach teachers too.

What good is “leadership” if, when the leader leaves, no one’s there to continue the work?

Instead of looking to the one mythical wunderkind, movements would be much better off building up everyone and feeling comfortable with what that person’s going to bring once they occupy certain seats. Do we trust that they’re going to represent the best intentions of their respective communities or their specific agendas? Do we see them giving props to the people who came before them, including the unnamed, that made that work possible?

Do we wait on the leader to move or does the leader have to lead at every given turn? Leader-ful, not leaderless.

It’s not just in movements, but in schools. People outside of the school building, who’ve only experienced school as students, think that leadership is the one factor that makes or breaks a school. But, as someone who’s seen that work as a teacher and as someone who’s had a plethora of conversations across the country, I have more faith when schools have a wide set of people who understand a school culture and hold steadfast to it over time. Principals turn over seemingly every two or three years, some because they’re unsuccessful and others because they’re too successful. Usually, the measures change for success, but the kids don’t always need full consciousness of those measures when they feel like their school genuinely cares about them as people and as learners.

There’s also the understanding, too, that whoever becomes the principal will bring their own set of skills. But when the school is leader-ful, the school can keep making moves.

Too many people want all the right conditions and the right people to make something happen. I contend that we cannot wait. We have to build ourselves up to make moments happen. We have to arm ourselves with truths wherever they come from, and recognize we as people won’t be 100% perfect in the moment we’re asked to step up, but step up we must. We are problematic, complicated, conflicted, and deep in complicity. It’s not just having a competent leader or a competent group. It’s both / and / mostly.

I’d rather ride with 100 folks who understood this than 80,000 who don’t.

But in politics, as in the classroom and any aspect of life, mass movements create the conditions for improvement. I’d just love to see more mass movements recognize that about themselves and organize. My write-in candidate, still alive in my soul, said the following:

“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

We would all do well to step up regardless of who takes the largest seat on the planet.

photo c/o