How to Lead: True to Oneself and “With Confidence, Trust and Kindness”
By Mora McLean
Franklin Thomas’s numerous accomplishments belie any notion that he defined “success” as the result of pure luck. So a recent quote of his, from an interview published by his Columbia Law School alma mater, caught my attention. Intriguingly, he characterized his life as “unplanned” and the “ordinary…byproduct of some forms of experience”.
To me this was his way of saying: “Making history is not a solo enterprise.” Rather, the impact of individual lives is most fruitfully examined in relation to others and context.
Frank’s pithy reflection squares with his interest in Black Studies. The Foundation’s major support for the discipline throughout the duration of his 17-year tenure testifies to this. Frank was acutely aware that Black Studies in the United States came into being in response to Black Power demands of the 1960s. Proponents advocated a liberatory form of education, a corrective to the deeply embedded false ideas that Africa and its worldwide diaspora have no meaningful history (apart from encounters with white Europeans) and have played no significant role in the creation of the modern world.
African area studies, the field of my undergraduate major in the late 1970s, was also part of this politically contested terrain of knowledge production.
For me, the complement of scholarship and activism was one of the Foundation’s main attractions. Given the ongoing campaign of assault in the United States on the production and dissemination of scholarly-based and unbiased knowledge about race, the impact of Frank’s leadership embrace of support for Black Studies in its ascendency cannot be overstated.
By the time I joined the Foundation in 1985, Frank was firmly established at the helm. As a newly minted program officer, I felt overawed by his role as a black man in charge of a powerful white institution, appreciative of his reserved but approachable demeanor and an affinity with his Caribbean heritage, which I shared.
One distinctive memory from those years is an incident that occurred during a meticulously planned Trustees’ visit to the Mississippi Delta. I was tasked with organizing a panel, including the National Conference of Black Mayors, a group formed following the historic enactment of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
I felt the weight of responsibility for the Foundation’s grantmaking to strengthen the governance capacities of these newly elected and overburdened black officials. I prepared as though the program’s fate, and voting rights, hung in the balance.
During the Q & A, one of the mayors rose to aggressively denounce the Foundation or my remarks. I vividly recall having to muster the composure to conceal my panic and chagrin, and offer a measured response. Happily, whatever I said was well received. Unita Blackwell, Mississippi’s first black female mayor, and the only woman among the group of mayors present, diplomatically rose to my defense and diffused the tension.
I remember looking over at Frank (I didn’t want to let him down) and my relief at seeing his beaming smile. Afterwards he made a point of complimenting my handling of the situation, and we even laughed about it.
That experience was a lesson in how to lead by motivating people with confidence, trust and kindness. Later on, I would encounter a far more serious challenge, and Frank gave me some of the most impactful advice I’ve ever received on my own life’s journey to make a lasting contribution.
On “institution building”
Darren Walker, Ford’s current president, has observed that Frank saved the Ford Foundation from spending itself out of existence. The same might justifiably be said of the Africa-America Institute (AAI).
I left the Foundation to head AAI in 1996, the same year that Frank retired from Ford. I was drawn to AAI because of its education mission and founding during the convergence of African decolonization, the modern U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, three momentous eras in United States and global history.
Taking on the leadership of AAI during the waning days of official apartheid in South Africa was a heady prospect. But before accepting the position, I sought Frank’s advice. I was especially keen to get his informed view based on his experience of chairing the Study Commission on United States Policy Toward Southern Africa.
In his understated way, Frank made clear to me that, from day one, my priority should be to get a firm grasp on the status of AAI’s financial health. Seeing the look on my face (think “deer in headlights”), Frank didn’t skip a beat. He urged me to secure independent financial advice from the late John Koprowski, then also recently retired from the Foundation.
Thankfully, I had the good sense to follow Frank’s sage advice. John’s incisive financial analysis enabled me, with the invaluable support of AAI staff and board (then chaired by Foundation alumnus Roger Wilkins), to steer AAI through an intensely difficult period. Without this input it would not have been possible to conceive of and implement a plan for diversifying AAI’s revenue base. I’ve no doubt that AAI skirted obsolescence, and is now approaching its 70th anniversary largely due to Frank’s intervention.
Coda: on “making history”
The last time I saw Frank was at the Foundation board’s send-off for Kofi Appenteng (who succeeded Roger as AAI’s board chair and is its current president). He was in great spirits and pleased to learn about my ongoing efforts to recover buried portions of AAI’s founding history. He was intrigued by my account of William Leo Hansberry, the black scholar of African antiquity who pioneered African area studies in the United States in the 1920s and was one of AAI’s principal co-founders. I described how Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, whom Hansberry had taught at Howard University, inaugurated the Hansberry School of African Studies at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in 1962.
Frank marveled at this, and we bemoaned the fact that so much of black history remains obscured or is forever lost. I opined that he should write a memoir, and was delighted when he shared that he was in the process of doing just that.
To have known Frank and benefited from his mentoring is a gift of great fortune that I strive to pay forward. I hope he was able to make headway on his memoir before joining the ancestors.
Regardless, Franklin Thomas’s “unplanned” legacy will doubtless be studied by historians committed to deepening our understanding of the triumphs and travails of the human family, in its entirety.
Mora McLean worked at the Ford Foundation from 1985 to 1996 in the Human Rights and Social Justice and the Africa and Middle East programs.
LAFF Remembers Franklin Thomas: Co-Presidents’ Reflections by Suzanne Siskel and Betsy Campbell
He Left the World a Better Place by Susan Berresford
A Man of “Vision, Tenacity and Dignity” by Barron “Buzz” Tenny
Celebrating the Remarkable Legacy of Franklin Thomas by Darren Walker
“A True Humanitarian” by Shepard Forman
From the Class of ’92: “We worked for Frank” by Radhika Balakrishnan, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos, Natalia Kanem, Anthony Romero and Marcia Smith
Grantees: “Up Front and in the Center” by Charles Bailey
Taking Risks “Is What We Do” by Steven W. Lawry
A Leader With “Vision and Courage” by Barry D. Gaberman
Forging “New Paths on Multiple Fronts” by Judy Barsalou
“The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Akwasi Aidoo