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Catalytic Leadership with Professor Patricia Parker

December 1, 2020 | Sophia Ramos, IAH Communications Specialist

There are many names used to describe Ella Josephine Baker. Time Magazine called her the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” or she earned the nickname “fundi,” a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. While she remains a lesser-known civil rights figure, she was able to create lasting change during the movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Reiterating her importance, President-Elect Joe Biden chose to quote Ella Baker during his Democratic Party nominee acceptance speech in August: “Give people light and they will find a way.”

This raises the question: Who is Ella J. Baker, and what can we learn from her efforts that helped strengthen equity in America? Dr. Patricia Parker, Chair of the Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has an answer.

Ella Baker at a news conference in 1968. Photo credit.

Raised in the rural town of Littleton in North Carolina, Ella Baker grew up near where both sets of her grandparents had been enslaved. She graduated as valedictorian from the nation’s first historically Black institution in the South, Shaw University in Raleigh, before moving to New York City to begin her work as a civil rights and human rights activist. Her life’s work spanned over 50 years and was centered on strengthening communities to develop black economic power and finding solutions related to mass incarceration. She was pivotal in the NAACP, worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which recognized the potential of the students involved in the sit-in movement. Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, Baker helped ideate and disseminate similar boycotts throughout the South, implemented campaigns against lynching, and even had an influential participant in one of her workshops — Rosa Parks.

It makes sense that Dr. Parker has put Baker’s ideology into practice. Her research, teaching, and engaged scholarship focuses on social justice leadership and decolonizing organizational communication processes. In Dr. Parker’s latest book Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership: A Primer on Community Engagement and Communication for Social Justice, she shares how Baker’s approach can help create a more equitable future for all Americans.

Dr. Parker first discovered Baker’s ideas in 1998 while researching a book on African-American women senior executives’ leadership (Parker, 2005). As she interviewed the book’s participants, she found their stories cited legacies of wisdom that had been passed down to them. Intrigued, Dr. Parker believed that this demonstrated a tradition of leadership in Black women’s history of antiracist resistance. One pioneer who embodied that tradition was Baker.

“In 2006, I received the Kauffman Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities,” said Parker. “That competitive research leave afforded me the time away from teaching and service for a more in-depth study of Ella Baker’s organizing praxis and opportunities to engage with Black women organizers in communities locally and across the country who seemed to be organizing in the spirit of Ella Baker. It also provided access to a paid consultant who helped me establish the Ella Baker Women’s Center as a nonprofit and community-based organization in 2007.”

Working alongside community leaders, graduate students, and undergraduate student service-learners, the Center engaged African-American teenage girls in a series of leadership workshops that became the basis for youth-led community initiatives and a model for community engagement and service-learning pedagogy. Dr. Parker expounds on her first six years of this work advancing what she terms Ella Baker’s “catalytic leadership” in the book.

Dr. Patricia Parker, Chair of the Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, holds her latest publication.

Dr. Parker defines catalytic leadership as an approach that creates and cultivates leaders from the grassroots up and not from the top down, while also taking into consideration how white supremacy, patriarchy, and extreme capitalism are operating in a particular context. It is drawn from Baker’s philosophy of developing the capacity for an in-depth understanding of the world, allowing for the perception and exposure of social and political contradictions and growing that into collective leadership for social justice.

In her book, Dr. Parker details a case study of social justice leadership in “College Town,” a real place with a fictionalized name that signifies the racialized spaces where historically White universities are situated in or near historically Black communities, like those in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. Examples of these racial dynamics can be seen in the over-policing of Black and other people of color, as well as the continued disparities in health, education, housing, and employment. She translates Baker’s approach into communication practices for readers, shedding light on coalition building and solidarity in social justice activism.

Dr. Parker also includes an important, yet often overlooked, aspect needed in social justice. She coins it “activist self-care.” She reflects on how the emotional, intellectual, psychological, and physical labor of being in a community with people across raced, classed, gendered, generational, and spatial boundaries can take a toll while working in activism. Dr. Parker recounts how her participation in the IAH Academic Leadership Program (ALP) in 2011 helped give perspective on the role of introspection in leadership.

“I will say that participating in the Academic Leadership Program was a life-changing experience. It afforded me with tools for critical self-reflection and leadership development that set me on a course for renewal and regeneration, which I detail in the book. It also provided a cohort of peers that continues to be a source of inspiration and guidance,” she said.

Examining closer to home, we can see how and why the University’s troubled past with racial equity has come to a head many times in recent years. But, Dr. Parker remains optimistic for UNC and other universities and organizations across the nation, urging us to learn from Ella Baker so that we can foster a more hopeful future.

“The hope for social justice that resonates throughout the book is grounded in Ella Baker’s foundational grassroots organizing principle: believing in the power of people in communities to lead social justice actions for change. The call is for universities and other well-resourced organizations to learn the art and practice of supporting community-led racial equity work. I believe Ella Baker’s catalytic leadership praxis—the connection of theory to practice—can lead the way,” said Parker.

To learn more or purchase a copy of the book, please visit the University of California Press website here.