THE BLOG
11/04/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Educating Reformers and Activists: Dr. Howard Fuller's Powerful Example and Lessons

When I speak to groups on leadership, I close by stating that every leader should be able to articulate the what, why, and how of their leadership. The "what" is their mission for the change they want to make in the world, the "why" is the life experiences and lessons that led them to that mission, and the "how" is the values they want to be held accountable for as they pursue that mission. Dr. Howard Fuller's new memoir, No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform should be a textbook for how a leader defines and lives by the integrity of such purpose and values.

Many leaders may dismiss Howard's memoir because of their differences with him over school choice, a movement he has led for the past two decades and which occupies the last quarter of his memoir. The sad thing is that many activists who dismiss him for that reason will lose out on one of the most important lessons Howard teaches in his book - the differences between purpose, strategy, and tactics. To disagree with his current strategy and tactics, (which I sometimes do) does not mean one has to question his proven commitment for improving the lives of African Americans and the poor or his wisdom as an activist and leader. Those who can't make that distinction lack credibility in an education debate.

Born in 1941 in a shotgun shack in Shreveport, Louisiana, Howard was raised by a single mother and a grandmother whose courage and dignity in the face of Jim Crow racism was an early inspiration. His mother and eventual stepfather joined the "Great Migration" north to Milwaukee for the promise of better work. Despite many hardships, Howard was a stellar student, basketball star, and class President at the racially diverse North Division High School, yet there were invisible boundaries between black and white students. Those boundaries were even more pronounced when in 1958 he became the first and only African American student to attend Carroll College, where despite joining a fraternity, making many friends, and being cheered for his success, he always knew there were lines he could not cross.

In 1964, he was pursuing a Masters in Social Work at Case Western University in Cleveland when he attended Malcolm X's "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech and was transfixed. A few days later he participated in his first political action with CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), which was protesting the building of new schools that would reinforce segregation. A CORE leader, Rev. Bruce Klunder, laid down in back of a bulldozer while Howard and others laid down in front. The bulldozer rolled backwards. Everything changed.

He continued protesting and spent time working in economic development for the Urban League in Chicago, but yearned to become an organizer. That chance came in North Carolina, where he became an anti-poverty and civil rights organizer for Operation Breakthrough and the North Carolina Fund. He writes: "To be an organizer, fighting for people's rights, you have to be totally in the fight with them. The people I worked with in Durham were my brothers and sisters, not some 'clients.' I refused to put distance between me and them." His community organizing work in North Carolina made him public enemy number one to television commentator (and future Senator) Jesse Helms, the Governor, and other powers that be. The local police even had a betting pool on when he'd be killed.

In 1969, a protest by African American Duke students eventually led to the creation of Malcolm X Liberation University with Howard as leader and a Pan-African, empowerment, and defiant focus. In 1971, he was invited to speak on education at a conference in Tanzania, his first trip to Africa. In two of the most gripping chapters, he joins a group of Marxist guerillas in the war zone during Mozambique's revolution against Portugal, dodging bullets, bombs and rats. After he returned, he honored promises to freedom fighters and villagers by helping organize African Liberation Day on May 27, 1972, when over 100,000 people and dozens of prominent African American leaders marched in support of new African nations. But the movement soon splintered over issues of race, class, and ideology. Howard became a union organizer in the Marxist Revolutionary Workers League.

In 1976, having lost his family and having become disillusioned by ideological extremism, Howard moved back to Milwaukee to begin again, first becoming a successful life insurance salesman and then working for the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette University. He was called back to activism in support of his alma mater, North Division High School, but rose to greater prominence when he helped lead the Coalition for Justice for Ernest Lacy, taking on Milwaukee's brutal police chief after the killing by police of an unarmed African American man. I remember watching Howard often on the evening news, and the campaign led to the firing of the police and new state legislation on police reforms.

After years of battling on the outside, Howard and a group of fellow African American leaders decided in the early 1980s to work inside the system. "I would never criticize those who chose to 'stay on the outside,' but I needed to pursue a different path. The reality is that for significant change to take place, you need to have both an inside and an outside strategy. I also knew that for those on the inside trying to make a difference, their hands were strengthened when there was outside pressure."

During the next decade, his political organizing and reputation as a dedicated and practical reformer led him to be the Secretary of Employment Relations for Wisconsin, the Dean of General Education at Milwaukee Area Technical College, the Commissioner of Human Services for Milwaukee County, and then Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools (state law had to be changed to hire him). He demonstrates in each of these roles how he built political capital, approached reform, battled interests, and remained true to his purpose.

It is at this point that he lays out his path to school choice, grounded in a guiding principle that poor people should have the same right to make choices that rich and middle class people do and informed by his experience inside the system. As he describes the rise of this movement and his passion for it, the title of the book really comes home. He does not demonize public schools or hold up "choice" or "charter" schools as perfect. He also draws a clear line about what types of choice he supports and does not. I found most compelling his story about the high school he is most involved with, The Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, and its own struggles with student achievement and the very real struggles of the children and families it serves. The important thing to Howard seems not as much to be whether schools are public or private, but the degree to which the administrators and teachers are struggling to help students achieve against the odds. You either struggle for progress or you reinforce an unjust status quo.

This remarkable story and history has many other lessons. He admits to shortchanging his family through his activism, and admits many mistakes and failures along the way. He acknowledges countless mentors and colleagues of all races and even differing ideologies who have helped him throughout his journey. In fact, one of his oldest and best friends has been one of the most strident critics of school choice. In the ongoing debate about whether change should be top-down or bottom-up, I found his explanation of the need for both inside and outside strategies refreshing. It also helps explain his current "outside" strategy. The primary lesson of his memoir and his life, though, is that leaders must have the courage of their clearly articulated convictions and be willing to pursue even controversial strategies and tactics in the struggle to achieve them.