When I was growing up my parents constantly tried to be and to expose us to good role models. Daddy would pile us children into our old Dodge and drive us to hear and meet great Black achievers whenever they came near our small hometown of Bennettsville, South Carolina. I remember he drove us children about 100 miles to hear Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the first Black president of Howard University, when he came to speak in Columbia, S.C.’s auditorium. Today Howard University’s president Dr. Wayne Frederickis carrying on the tradition of inspiring college leadership set by Dr. Johnson, by our beloved Morehouse College president Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many civil rights activists in my generation, and by Dr. Howard Thurman and other great visionaries who graced Howard’s campus and school of religion and set a high example of excellence, integrity, commitment to service, love, and hopefulness for a new generation.
Howard’s new president reflects these crucial values. Dr. Frederick grew up in Trinidad and Tobago dreaming of being a doctor so he could find a cure for sickle cell anemia, the disease that kept him hospitalized for three to four months every year. His grandmother and mother always affirmed that he could do anything he wanted, and he recently told a group of college students, educators, and juvenile justice personnel preparing to conduct Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools®programs that they must do the same for the children in their care. “[My mother] gave me one of the things that has a currency like no other, which is hope . . . I would encourage you [to] give that in abundance, to always encourage the young minds that you are trying to influence that the next thing that they attempt to do is the next thing they will be successful at. Do not allow them to believe that they are not good enough, because they are.”
He added: “We often tell ourselves that there are things that we cannot do because of limitations others put on [us]—and I’m here to tell you today that I am living proof that if you pour love and hope, determination, and dedication into anything you do, you will succeed. But more importantly, if you do it into a child, who has limitless boundaries, they will rock the world.”
Dr. Frederick enrolled at Howard at age 16—“I was 5’6”, 88 pounds when I entered Howard, and I remember how excited I was and how much I thought about that day that I would be able to call myself Dr. Wayne Frederick.” By age 22 he achieved his dream with a dual B.S./M.D. degree. He became a cancer surgeon and eventually earned an M.B.A before becoming Howard’s president last July at age 43. But Dr. Frederick also told his audience of young teachers he quickly realized his degrees were not fulfilling all by themselves. “I tell my Howard grads that your degree will not come alive until you go out and change the world. You must think of what will you frame your degree with? Will you frame it with fame and fortune . . . or with the willingness to go and serve others, to make the community around you better? . . . I will assure you that if you believe in what it is you’re doing, and you do it with a passion, and you keep the right motivations in front of you, which is that of servant-leaders, to serve others, you will be successful.”
He shared a personal proof. “My sickle cell reminds me every day. I have stood in an operating room for 22 hours in a painful crisis while operating on another patient, not experiencing that pain completely until my operation was finished. And I was amazed at how ill I was after doing that operation. But the fact was that while I was focused on serving someone else, on trying to heal and cure someone else, I did not experience that pain. And that is what you will experience in your own way.”
Dr. Frederick also noted servant-leadership is often a quiet power. “We live in a society that focuses on the big things . . . [but] the things that you will do outside of the spotlight of the cameras and the notoriety are the things that will make a difference. The one child that you will talk to who will walk away and think that he or she wants to be like you. The one kid that you will inspire because you’ve given them the ability to fight for themselves, to educate themselves, who will then grow up and become a productive member of society and then go back and give back is what matters . . . Everything you do around children influences them—everything. There are structured opportunities to teach, but just as Howard students spend only 20 percent of their time in the classroom and 80 percent out of it, every moment is a teaching moment, and you have an opportunity to influence a young mind with every single thing you do—how you dress, how you speak to each other, how you speak to kids, how you allow them to speak to each other.”
As a new school year begins Dr. Frederick’s words are a powerful reminder for teachers and all those who work with children in various ways about how much their caring and sensitive leadership in even the smallest things matters. Let’s celebrate and encourage all of our children through the currencies of hope, service, and excellence always remembering that children will live up or down to our expectations and example.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.