Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

At breaktime at a dance, the DJ was visiting with some of the patrons. When one of them told a racist joke the DJ said, “I really don’t like racist jokes, I think I’ll go to the bar and get a drink.” Four others followed.

What a great move. Although four people shared his views, it took his leadership to spur a call to action. We can learn a lot about the power of leadership and “followership” from this story. His leadership gave others the courage to act, and their willingness to follow intensified the message.

As we work to dismantle racism in America, this story carries a powerful message. The first is a lesson in methodology. He didn’t call the joke-teller a racist or use any other form of personal attack, but simply dealt with the unwanted remark in a calm and civil manner.

The second lesson to be learned is the importance of being an ally. The four people who followed him also assumed a leadership role. We tell our students to intervene when they observe bullying of any kind. We also teach others to help. If a student steps in to intervene and he or she is getting hammered by the bully, step in and support the one who had the courage to intervene. A simple statement like, “He/she is right. There is no place in our school for this kind of behavior,” sends a powerful message.

Four quotes lay the groundwork for our Dismantling Racism forums for educators. The first is from Pope John Paul II. “Society as a whole must respect, defend, and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life.” Notice that it ends with a period. It doesn’t have a comma, then say “unless he or she is a different color, a different religion, a different sexual orientation, or whatever.” It simply says every human person, at every moment, and in every condition of that person’s life. What a tall order for any school or community or for each of us individually to live up to, but what a great thought to use as our guiding light.

The second is from Eli Wiesel. “I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Individually, and as a society, it is time to stand up and be counted. There are far too many people with racist beliefs who may never change. So, our goal is not to argue with them or out shout them. Our goal is to outnumber them.

The third is from Galileo. “I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with a sense of intellect and reason would intend us to forgo their use.” He said this as he was excommunicated from the church because he had the hare-brained idea that the earth revolved around the sun, which was contrary to church teaching. We can use this to give ourselves permission to change. We have all had our shortcomings when it comes to racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination; but this philosophy gives us the opportunity to grow and evolve in our quest for judging less and loving more.

The fourth is from Nelson Mandela. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. At times we may question whether love is more natural than hate, but this reinforces the reality that your very core as a human being is kindness and goodness and love. Please do something every day to keep that in the forefront of your thinking and encourage your staff and students to do the same.

Dismantling racism is a daunting task, and once again, the field of education will assume a leading role in that endeavor. How does it happen? I wish there were an easier answer, but here It is: “One person at a time.” As an educational leader, you are especially important in the scheme of things.

Let us conclude with a message of hope from the late John Lewis. In his final interview, he said, “I have been so moved and so inspired…by people of different backgrounds from all over America and from around the world. It gives me great hope that as a nation and as a people, we’re going to get there. We’re going to make it…and this time there will be no turning back.”

In his final writing, shared on the day of his funeral, he left us with this challenge. “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe….Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” Let’s answer the call.

Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and an author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. His free “Teachers Make the Difference” video series is available at or email

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