Lessons Lynn Taught Me
By Mora McLean
As she was with so many who were fortunate enough to be taken under her wing, Lynn Huntley was a singularly profound and positive influence in my life.
We met in 1985, when she interviewed me to work with what was then the Foundation’s Human Rights and Social Justice Program (HRSJ). I was a relatively recent law school graduate, with experience mainly in the area of legislative policy-making. But in my heart of hearts I leaned toward history and the humanities, was greatly influenced by the writings and internationalist vision of W. E. B. DuBois, and was ambivalent about whether to practice law. She was an accomplished civil rights litigator with an already stellar track record that included clerking for Judge Constance Baker Motley, icon of the federal judiciary; representing clients on death row as a staff attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and serving as Section Chief within the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. She quoted Howard Thurman, the renowned African American theologian, philosopher and educator, and had a picture of Malcolm X displayed prominently in her office.
I can almost see myself through Lynn’s eyes: a somewhat shy and very introverted, but determined, young black woman, trying to figure out how to, as Joseph Campbell exhorted, find and follow her bliss—and be of service. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to help overcome the long shadow of slavery by working to advance the collective psychological and material well-being of all people of African descent.
Developing the minority rights and opportunities component of HRSJ in those years was, at once, a demanding, exhilarating and revelatory experience. Lynn entrusted me with handling grants to strengthen the governance capacities of black elected and appointed officials confronted with unique challenges, and to support voting rights and major civil rights litigating organizations working on behalf of Black, Latino and Native Americans. This work was perhaps the most necessary, enriching and transformative part of my education, preparing me to assume positions of leadership and influence later on.
It’s hard to believe that was 30 years ago, and harder still to come to grips with the loss of Lynn’s physical presence. Exactly 10 years my senior, she was my sister-friend and guide, a steadfast source of sage advice and unflagging encouragement through good and bad times. I want to give tribute to her by sharing a few of the ways that she pushed me to be a wiser, more emboldened and even more committed humanist—a better version of my young idealistic self.
Compassion is key
It is fashionable these days to talk about “partnerships” between grant-makers and grant seekers, although in philanthropy, as in the world at large, money and disproportionate power and influence go hand in hand, notwithstanding good intentions.
Lynn, however, was the real deal. Whether we were going to the Mississippi Black Belt or a remote portion of the Navajo Nation, visiting a grantee organization with Lynn was like homecoming. People knew she was there to do due diligence—as the saying goes, she laughed but did not play—and they welcomed it. Indeed at times it seemed they couldn’t wait to tell her about all their personnel, programmatic and even personal challenges, problems that typically bedevil organizations and endeavors run by human beings.
This was true of encounters within as well as outside the Foundation. Meetings with prominent civil rights litigators presenting complex legal strategies, the erudite filmmaker describing his plans for a multi-episode civil rights documentary, and unlettered grassroots community activists with no previous experience of writing proposals were all accorded the same attentive, probing and solicitous consideration—and they responded in kind.
I think Lynn earned this reception because she exemplified genuine compassion, the foundation of any meaningful commitment to social justice. Her interest in engaging ideas, strategies and the people who conceived them went beyond the theoretical. Despite wielding a multi-million dollar grant portfolio, she never fell into the trap of beneficent omniscience.
By the standard she set, we thought of ourselves not simply as “grant-makers” but, rather, as allies in the larger cause who happened to be in the privileged position of being able to support the work of the real heroes on the front lines.
Laughter is serious business
Thankfully, Lynn was no angel. Her capacity for hilarity was seemingly endless. Just recently Kathy Lowery, a former member of HRSJ’s top-flight administrative team, wrote me this note reminiscing about our work in the 1980s: “I’ve been remembering how you, Lynn and Bernie McDonald [the late Director of what was then the Urban Poverty Program] would be together in the office howling with laughter! Sarah [Taylor, Lynn’s indefatigable executive assistant] and I were outside the office laughing too.”
Lynn was a raconteur extraordinaire. But she wasn’t just playing around. In keeping with a longstanding Black American tradition, she detected and poked fun at the absurdities of racism, and injustices of all kinds, as an antidote to anger and outrage that could otherwise be debilitating.
Among the innumerable jokes I heard her tell, I can best recall those that convey a kind of folk wisdom about handling dilemmas that inevitably arise along the course of a protracted struggle.
Take for instance the one about the little dog who fails at his daily attempts to get to the park because he’s being terrorized by the big neighborhood bully dog, intent on blocking his path. The bully tells the little dog he cannot proceed unless he eats the pile of you-know-what on the side of the road. Then, one day, one of the little dog’s friends offers to escort him to the park. The little dog and his companion make their way jauntily down the road, but just as they get close to the park entrance they encounter the bully, this time accompanied by a pack of mean dogs, all barking and growling ferociously and baring their teeth. Whereupon the friendly escort looks toward the side of the road, turns to his little friend and says: “Well, it’s only a little pile.”
Your life is your message
Lynn and I developed an abiding sisterly love for each other, but our relationship was anything but consistently blissful and rosy. We had several long-running arguments about matters, big and small, important to both of us, for instance: what books are worth reading, what I should do after leaving the Foundation and whether American understandings of racial identity and racism are cross-cultural and transnational.
We shared a love of reading, but with respect to fiction our tastes were sharply divergent. Lynn liked mysteries and thrillers, and insisted I read novels by John Grisham and P. D. James. I reluctantly conceded that P. D. James served up a good read. She said she could kind of see why I liked Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, but otherwise had no use for my favored 19th century novelists who, she maintained, wrote books in which “nothing happened”.
As I approached the end of a five-year stint with HRSJ, she opined that I should leave the Foundation to become a civil rights lawyer. She was not thrilled when I accepted the Foundation’s offer to head up the Nigeria office and relocate to Lagos.
To Lynn what mattered was not the position. She herself held many prominent posts over the course of a varied and rich professional career, not to mention a vast record of volunteer service on university, non-profit and community service organization governing boards. She was completely unpretentious. She was also supremely confident. And humble. She did not need the external affirmation of position. Her good works spoke for themselves.
So in questioning my decision to go overseas rather than join the civil rights bar in the U.S., she was essentially asking: How are you going to continue to be a warrior for justice?
I now have a sense that my international sojourn marked the beginning of a rapprochement, a meeting of the minds, on the direction of my professional life, as well as another topic that was the focus of our most heated debates: race.
The debate was partly a reflection of our different backgrounds. She started her schooling at U.S. Army bases in Germany where her father was stationed during World War II, and grew up mainly in the U.S., steeped in black southern heritage. I grew up in the Caribbean and studied the history of Pan-Africanism. Early on in our impassioned discussions, I argued that people in the African Diaspora could share common interests without sharing a common identity. Lynn pushed back hard, challenging my assumptions and reasoning. But all the while, she was listening.
Before I left for Nigeria, in a characteristically loving gesture, she gave me a book of essays by Chinua Achebe in which she wrote: “Dear Mora, my life has been immeasurably enriched by our friendship….I know that you will do well in your new endeavors. And although I will miss you, I will take satisfaction in knowing that you are living your life to its fullest and working hard on behalf of our brothers and sisters across the sea.”
Re-reading these generous words, and reflecting on the Southern Education Foundation’s Comparative Human Relations Initiative that she brilliantly conceived and launched in the mid-1990s, I see that, despite all her protesting, Lynn heard my argument. Moreover, she anticipated its practical implications in ways that I am only now beginning to fully appreciate as, having come full circle, I am re-focusing on the plight of disadvantaged people in the United States as well as in other parts of the world.
At every opportunity over the course of our three decade-long friendship, including this past June, during what turned out to be our next to last visit, Lynn held forth with this explanation for why she decided to hire me to work with her at the Foundation: She said that during our meeting over lunch, as she interrogated me with a barrage of questions, she noticed beads of perspiration on my upper lip. And this, according to her, was the deciding factor, a sign that I had the requisite stoicism and fortitude to combat the unrelenting forces of injustice. I could not make this up.
I so mourn and regret that Lynn is no longer here, alive and well, challenging us and making us laugh, in all her, to borrow Shep Forman’s phrase, “stunning authenticity”. But as someone all the better for having known her, and graced by her generosity, steadfast encouragement and friendship, I know that the best tribute to her is to gird my loins, keep the faith and continue to do the work.