Reading the Tea Leaves

Since the news of Washington, D.C.-based activist Lisa Sullivan’s death last October, she has been eulogized as a mentor, organizer, institution builder, applied intellectual, and servant leader. But the quality that stands out for me now as I reflect on our collective loss of this sister, so committed to freedom struggles, was her keen political savvy—her genius, really; what Lisa called "reading the tea leaves."

The story of how Sullivan, as an unknown graduate student and adviser to the local NAACP youth council, organized a coalition of teen-agers to help elect New Haven’s first black mayor is a defining moment in post-civil rights organizing tactics. By the time Lisa arrived in New Haven in 1983, the 1980 census had already identified young women, especially of color, as the city’s fastest growing demographic. As a political scientist trained at Clark College and Yale, Lisa began crunching the numbers and quickly honed in on the city’s new emerging power base.

"If you could engage this burgeoning youth population and get them involved in politics," Lisa recalled during a 1999 interview, "they could be your cutting edge." The coalition Lisa pulled together registered 5,000 new youth voters, delivering the election to John Daniels, who won by 4,000 votes. The day after the historic victory, the New Haven Register ran a front-page story naming Lisa as one of the city’s up-and-coming power brokers.

Her political acumen and dynamic personality often positioned her to be the kind of leader whose charisma could carry a cause. But rather than seek the spotlight as a politico in New Haven’s democratic machine, Lisa remained true to her organizing roots and took the New Haven strategy—mobilizing poor urban youth to move a political agenda—to a national stage.

As field director at the Children’s Defense Fund, Lisa founded the Black Student Leadership Network, a national community service organization for black college students, which in five years provided training and leadership development opportunities for almost 700 youth activists nationwide. It was at the network, and then as a consultant to Rockefeller’s Next Generation Leadership Fellowship program, that Lisa’s thinking about 21st century leadership crystallized.

"New leaders build bridges, establish free spaces where citizens can be supported as community change agents and problem solvers, and continuously foster the emergence of new leaders," she wrote in a co-authored piece in the Wingspread Journal. In 1998, Sullivan founded LISTEN—the Local Initiative Support, Training, and Education Network—with the intention that it be such a "free space." LISTEN was created to develop the leadership skills of poor, urban youth who, as Lisa loved to say, "are the leaders we’ve been waiting for."

Sullivan was a visionary with a pragmatic streak. Rather than the romantic political theater of rallies, marches, and grabbing the mike, Lisa understood movement building as the unglamorous, even painful work of creating institutions. And though she celebrated the boundless potential of young people to lead, she understood that too many struggle today to be an agent of change within their own lives—much less their communities—not only for lack of skills, but for lack of values.

"We leaders want to socially engineer a movement, but we don’t want to talk about values," Lisa said last April during a convening of national youth leaders in New York City. "For movement building, for action, young people be in a certain place inside so that they can be engaged actors outside." Helping youth develop those values is the work of 21st-century leadership, she predicted.

In the immortal words of Ella Baker, Sullivan’s mentor, "we who believe in freedom" lost a most courageous warrior when Lisa fell. But in our grief, we can also rejoice knowing that she nurtured and bequeathed to us a strong nation of emerging youth leaders who will not rest until freedom’s won.

Angela Ards, an associate program officer at the Surdna Foundation, serves on the board of LISTEN Inc.

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