Black Male/Female Leadership Development as Social Justice Education

By Dorsey Spencer Jr. and LaFarin Meriwether

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Dorsey Spencer Jr. Dorsey Spencer Jr. serves as the Director of Administration for the Division of Student Affairs at Florida State University. He earned his doctorate in Higher Education from Florida State University. Dorsey’s main research interest is leadership learning and identity. He has presented at numerous conferences including ILA on several occasions.

LaFarin Meriwether LaFarin Meriwether is a Ph.D. student in the Higher Education program at Florida State University. She received her B.S. degrees from the University of Kentucky in Agricultural Economics and Public Service and Leadership and her M.B.A. from the University of Cincinnati. LaFarin’s research centers around Black female identity development.

When we look at the leadership literature, we see gaps in the narrative. Primarily, scholars in the field have not articulated the leadership experiences of students of color. Instead, they have examined leadership from a lens that is void of racial and social identity (Dugan, Kodama, & Gebhardt, 2012). Yet, students of color face challenges in leadership that their White peers do not (Arminio et al., 2000). For example, in a reflection paper where students were asked to reflect upon their experiences with leadership, including their time in the course thus far, a student in a Black male leadership course stated, “As a black male, my leadership skills may be called into question by those who doubt my integrity and the skill set I have, however, I am confident in the person I am and the leader I will be.” He believes that by the very nature of being Black, people will question his ability to lead. This student’s perspective supports the idea that students of color, and more specifically Black students, face additional struggles within the context of being a leader when compared to their non-Black peers. This notion is apparent in how students define and describe what leadership is and what it means to be a leader. With this in mind, the following section will explore recommendations for leadership development for Black students.

Recommendations for Future Practice / Lessons Learned

The leadership literature consistently asks: “What is leadership? Who are leaders?” In pursuit of answering these questions, there is an undeniable and, until recently, unquestioned pervasiveness of Whiteness and masculinity in leadership studies and education (Blackmore, 2010). Imagine engaging in a leadership learning experience and not seeing yourself, your values, or your community reflected in the program or curriculum. What would that tell you about leadership or being a leader? In order to address this chasm, there needs to be a paradigm shift in leadership education and in the leadership studies/research that informs it. This change in thought is not easy and will take hard work, bravery, and intentionality, but it is absolutely necessary to address this issue. Below are some recommendations for leadership educators who are providing leadership learning opportunities for Black students.

Pedagogy and Curriculum

To develop Black student leaders, we must acknowledge that there is not a monolithic Black leadership experience. Aspects of students’ social identities also play a part in how, when, and where they lead. Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) gave voice to the concept of intersectionality. Crenshaw presents the idea that we experience the world not through just one of our identities, but through multiple identities that operate in tandem. When looking at Black women, for example, it is advantageous to look at Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought (1991), which values the lived experiences of Black women and speaks to the impact of Black women experiencing the world, initially, through two oppressed identities. For Black women it is hard to separate race and gender as they experience the world through both identities simultaneously.

Putting this awareness of intersectionality into practice may look like a Black female leadership conference or a course that uses Black Feminist Thought and Critical Race Theory as the foundation in its design. The curriculum for either focuses on the Black female experience. For example, sessions may focus on how Black women navigate predominately white spaces, dispelling negative stereotypes while not creating new ones, and being Black and female. In our experience presenting aspects of the Black female experience, it has been critical to bring Black female voices into the classroom. The notion of representation is often discussed in communities of color. By representation, we mean racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity. It is important to move beyond just talking about this concept to implementing it. Having students physically see someone in leadership who looks like them positively influences that individual’s own development. It is equally as important for those who do not identify as Black to see these leaders as it also redefines what leadership looks like for them.

To enhance leadership learning for Black students a critical review of pedagogical approaches and curriculum design are necessary. The Culturally Relevant Leadership Learning model (Guthrie, Bertrand Jones, & Osteen, 2016) is a strong framework to provide guidance. Leadership educators must ask themselves the following questions: How are Black people represented in this program/course? Are the theories and concepts that ground my work or that I teach conducive to Black identity and culture? What books and articles am I using and who wrote them? Do the teachers/facilitators of this program/course, myself included, know and understand Critical Race Theory (Delgado, 1995), Black Feminist Thought, and the Culturally Relevant Leadership Learning model? How are they incorporated? What might hinder a Black person in my course or program from participating and fully engaging? These questions are all necessary to consider in order to facilitate an effective leadership learning environment for Black students. Asking these questions says that the educator is considering the learner.

Consider this example. The Black male leadership course at Florida State University is a three-credit course open to all students and has been taken by students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as genders. The focus of the course is to examine leadership through the lens of a Black man in the United States of America and the societal influences that shape that perspective. The main texts, Between the World and Me (Coates, 2015) and We Should All Be Feminist (Adichie, 2015) are written by Black people and focus the Black experience. Topics such as double consciousness, discrimination, oppression, power, and allyship are discussed in the course.

One exemplary learning activity is a class discussion on power. The students are given a handout with the 48 Laws of Power (Greene, 1998) and asked whether or not they agree with them based on their experiences, individually, in a small group, and then as a class. The learning outcome is for the student to acknowledge that power is connected to leadership but looks differently depending on the context. The guest speakers are predominantly Black men and women from campus and the local community.

Black History

In addition to adjusting one’s curriculum, knowledge of Black history is also imperative to educating Black students on leadership. Despite how educated and well read one might be, an in-depth knowledge of Black history is generally not part of a Leadership educator’s repertoire. From our experience, this is also the case with many Black students who come to us at college in universities. In his reflection paper, another Black student mentioned:

In grade school, all you really learn about in terms of black history center around 2 topics: Slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement… many other important events in black history get tossed to the wayside and no one really learns about them... From this [leadership course] I learned that black history needs to be taught more extensively than what it is so that all students are more aware of what happened, and what still needs to be done in order to truly achieve racial equality.

Beyond the “Big 3”, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and former President Barack Obama, the long history of Black leadership and leaders has traditionally been ignored in leadership education. It is vital to discuss Black leaders within one’s course or program for Black students because it allows them the opportunity to learn about leaders that look like them and that Black leadership has existed for a long time. An intentional cognizance of one’s history is important in excising positive life practices (King, 1994). This notion also applies to Black leaders. Knowledge of the student’s own history provides them with a solid foundation upon which to build their leader identity, capacity, and efficacy.

In the Black Male Leadership course, we spend an entire class on Black history. The session covers history from colonialism to President Obama. Initially, there is a presentation on the history followed by a game of team Jeopardy. The class concludes with a discussion on why we include Black history in a leadership course. The intended learning outcome of this format is not only to expose the students to Black history, but to have them learn about the long history of Black leadership. During that class, we discuss history, policies, pop culture, key individuals, and an introduction of double consciousness by W.E.B. DuBois. For the educator, familiarization with Black history, and leaders whom emerged from that history, is key to effectively teaching leadership to Black students.

Black Leadership Learning

There are many opportunities to advance and enhance the leadership learning of Black students. Yet, the number of Black leadership educators and leadership researchers that work with college students leaves much to be desired. To address this need, those who design leadership programs, certificates, etc., must identify, train, develop, recruit, hire, and support Black faculty, staff, and facilitators for leadership education. The lack of these individuals is noticed by Black students.

In an interview with a young Black woman, she stated:

I wish I would have had more interaction with Black leadership educators. Every leadership class I have taken has been by a White woman…I just wish I would have had more of that education from someone who looked like me. It would have legitimized what I was learning.

She had taken multiple leadership courses and still questioned the validity of what she had been taught because she had not had an instructor of any other color than White, let alone Black. In her experience, what she had been taught did not speak to her experiences with leadership, especially at a predominately White institution in predominately white spaces.

Equally important as needing Black leadership educators is the need for Black leadership studies, theories, models, and researchers. The field of leadership must fully embrace Black people. The two aforementioned items will not only help diversify leadership education and research, but also provide more insight on how to best engage Black students in leadership education.

Concluding Thoughts

As scholars, we have recognized the gap in leadership pedagogy as it relates to Black students. The hope is that we have given some insight and practical means for others to help in filling the gap. Our challenge to other scholars and educators is to consider the learner first. Only when we do that can we shift narratives and be leaders ourselves in this work.


Adichie, C. (2015). We Should All Be Feminists. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Arminio, J., Carter, S., Jones, S., Kruger, K., Lucas, N., Scott, A., Washington, J., & Young, N. (2000). The Nature of Leadership Experiences for Students of Color. NASPA Journal, 37, 496–510.

Blackmore, J. (2010). Preparing Leaders to Work With Emotions in Culturally Diverse Educational Communities. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(5), 642-658.

Coates, T.N. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.

Collins, P. H. (1991). Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, 139–167.

Delgado, R. (1995). Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge (Ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University

Dugan, J. P., Kodama, C. M., & Gebhardt, M. C. (2012). Race and Leadership Development Among College Students: The Additive Value of Collective Racial Esteem. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(3), 174.

Greene, R. (1998). 48 Laws of Power. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Guthrie, K. L., Bertrand Jones, T., & Osteen, L. (Eds.) (2016). New Directions for Higher Education, no. 152, Developing Culturally Relevant Leadership Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

King, A. E. (1994). An Afrocentric Cultural Awareness Program for Incarcerated African-American Males. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 3(4), 17-28.

About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

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