There are individuals in Detroit who have taken their place in the pantheon of next-generation leadership. These men and women have an abundance of grace, appreciation, selflessness and humility. They have a self-discipline that equips them to be tough in the face of tough challenges. Their courage and deep and abiding sense of doing what is right have positioned them to be influential figures in our community for years to come.
Rev. D. Alexander Bullock, Rev. Charles E. Williams III and Donnell White all fit this profile. Each one talks with animated delight about their role as up-and-coming leaders in the community, as well as the simple doctrine that binds them: the need for leadership to serve as a vital component to a thriving and prosperous community.
It is easy to look at these three gentlemen and conclude that the future of the community is in good hands. They are all passionate and engaged individuals eager to make a difference. That desire to make a difference in the lives of others is what drives them.
“The noblest motive is the public good,” Donnell White said. White, 36, is the executive director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. “If we as leaders can subscribe to that notion, we’d be better off as a community.”
White’s involvement in the NAACP’s largest chapter can be traced back to when he began volunteering. Both his mother and brother were active in the chapter, which made his decision to participate an easy one. After demonstrating an unwavering dedication as a volunteer to the cause of fighting for justice, White became an administrative assistant with the NAACP, followed soon by appointments to deputy director and his current position as executive director.
While some may look at leadership as a complex matrix of demanding procedures, White has a more simplistic viewpoint.
“Leaders have only one responsibility, and that’s to lead,” he said. “Our community is looking for leaders who are ready to lead — and not just our elected officials. Our religious leaders, our business leaders and our community leaders — we all have to play a role.”
One of the unique details of White’s position is his self-described “tweener’ status. He said many view him as not quite the young adult he used to be, and not yet as seasoned as he will be. Instead, he is somewhere in the middle, or a tweener. “My contribution is being a bridge between those two groups. Ultimately, though, being a leader is about being able to deliver.”
Rev. Williams often leans on the words of Mahatma Gandhi for a dose of fortitude: “You must be the change that you want to see.” Rev. Williams, 31, is the pastor at the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church and president of the National Action Network in Detroit. He first became engaged in the social movement while a student at Eastern Michigan University, when the affirmative action battle on college admission surfaced in 2006. He was one of the leading voices on campus against what was labeled Proposition 2, and it was the attention he garnered from that experience that led him to meet with Rev. Horace Sheffield of Detroit.
Rev. Sheffield later asked him to become the youth and college director for the National Action Network. He accepted the role soon thereafter and was eventually appointed to president of the National Action Network in Detroit.
“I speak for the least, the lost and the left out,” he said. “I cannot allow folks to be taken advantage of. When I see issues that need leadership, I’m there. I think that’s what people are looking for —passionate voices around issues they care about the most.”
“If I look around and don’t see someone speaking out on an issue, then what am I going to do? Do I hide and do nothing? Or do I seek to try to education, agitate and mobilize people around the issue at hand? That’s my approach.”
Interestingly enough, Rev. Bullock, 35, also looks to another word besides leadership to describe his social justice pursuits. The senior pastor astor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park and the state coordinator and president of Rainbow Push’s Detroit chapter says he sees himself as a servant and an advocate.
“Although I do have a leadership role in the faith-based community, I see myself more as an advocate than a leader. I see myself as someone who tries to speak to the issues, someone who tries to raise awareness and consciousness of our citizens, someone who tries to fight back against the rising tide of apathy in our community.”
Rev. Bullock describes himself as part preacher, part teacher and all activist. This “triple threat” of social progressiveness prompts many to label Rev. Bullock a modern day renaissance man. He has always maintained a razor-sharp focus on preparing himself to become one of the community’s change agents.
That focus started while in school. From the third to the eighth grade, he was taught at his parents’ organized religious school. He eventually went on to graduate from Morehouse College in 1998 with a degree in philosophy, and later matriculated through Wayne State University to earn his Masters of Arts in philosophy — all by the age of 22.
Rev. Bullock was a college professor for 10 years in both Michigan and Illinois. He was called to the church in 2007 and to advocacy work in 2009, when he worked with the Highland Park chapter of the NAACP. While in the midst of the everyday fight for justice with the NAACP, he met with Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. who asked him to carry the mantle of social justice for Rainbow Push in Michigan.
Rev. Bullock fully understands how important his role is in the continued development of our community. But he says that responsibility is not his — or Donnell White’s or Rev. Williams’ — alone. “We’re all leaders,” he said. “We’re all called to leadership. But we as a community have to believe in and embrace our own potential as ordinary people to do extraordinary things in the world we live in. I advocate for ordinary peoples’ ability to not give in to the darkness, but to fight back.”
While each of these three emerging leaders may have somewhat alternate definitions of the word leadership, the commonality they share is one of elevating the community one person at a time.