Leadership means never having to say, ‘too tired’

Dr. William C. Bell’s presentation at the Children’s Defense Fund leadership retreat in Knoxville, Tennessee.


Your commitment, talents and skills are sorely needed at this particular time, given, among other things, the current economic situation in this country, and indeed in the world.

Every now and then, we reach a point in time where the challenges our world is facing cry out for an answer that dictates, for the greater common good, we must, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

I believe that we are now in the midst of such a time.

A time when individual profit will drive well-respected businessmen and women to risk mine collapses or oil rig explosions in the name of profit.

A time when those who are sworn to protect us are killing innocent little girls as they sleep in their living rooms.

A time when children are using guns to take the lives of other children on a daily basis.

The time has come for an answer.

During the past decade, in the United States:

  • We have more billionaires today, from roughly 300 at the turn of the century to about 450 today.
  • The number of people living in poverty increased from 31 million to 37 million; about 14 million of them are children.
  • The inmate population grew from 1.9 million to 2.3 million, the largest prison population in the world. The United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, but nearly one-quarter of the world’s prison population.

As you proceed through your training at the farm, and even beyond this training, figuring out your specific place and role in your quest to improve our world, find that injustice that so tugs at your heart and dedicate yourself to the eradication of that injustice.

I ask you to live the rest of your life as an answer in search of its question. Examine your gifts, talents, skills and interests and regard them as an answer to the world. Ask yourself, with these tools that I possess, to which of life’s perplexing questions, issues, concerns and problems am I the answer.

Become external facing versus internal facing.

Keep on building, because you are not just building a future for yourself, but you are building a platform on which those who come after you must be able to stand.

I am thankful tonight that those who walked this walk before me understood that. They understood that no one can ever succeed alone. Everyone must have the benefit of those who went before and the expectation of those who will follow.

The benefit of those who went before comes in the form of the pain that they experienced so that you wouldn’t have to.

The benefit of those who went before comes in the form of the walls and fences that they tore down so that your path to the other side would not be as restricted as theirs had to be.

The benefit of those who went before comes in the form of a belief that we can succeed because they succeeded. We can run the next leg of the relay race because they had the strength and the courage to get the baton in our hands.

And therein lies the expectation of those who will come after you, those who are watching you and waiting for their opportunity to run. Those who are coming behind you have an expectation that you will get the baton into their hands; that you will persevere even when you know that some people are trying to make you fail.

Their expectation is that you will push forward even when you get so tired and it seems like you can’t make another step. Their expectation is that you will build that platform not to just hold you and your family, but that you will build the platform so that those you may never even know can stand on it.

Build a platform for the 460,000 children in foster care to stand on.

Build the platform for the more than 14 million children living in poverty in America to stand on.

It has been said that it is a wise man or a wise woman who plants trees just so that others can have shade and fruit.

I am thankful tonight that one such wise woman chose to go to Washington, D.C., so many years ago to work with the Poor People’s Campaign; that she chose to forego what could have been a very enriching personal and individualized career, given her qualifications.

But I am thankful tonight that she chose to plant trees. Because of her efforts, a little boy from Mississippi has been able to rest from the hot sun of oppression. Because of her efforts, a little boy from Mississippi has been able to gain strength from the fruit of the trees she planted.

So tonight, I just say thank you Marian for your leadership. Thank you for your selflessness and for your vision for a better world.