“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but I do know one thing: the only ones who will be truly happy are those who seek and learn to serve.”
Growing up in the Arkansas Delta, my parents, preachers, and teachers all agreed on one thing above all else: education is the engine of opportunity for individual success and transformation of the black community. Their convictions were so fierce that they became a rallying cry and a major source of motivation for those of us willing to listen, believe, and commit to the pursuit of educational excellence.
To be honest, it wasn’t easy! Like most of my poverty-stricken rural classmates, I was tempted to drop out of school and get a well-paying job driving a tractor. I also considered joining my cousins who left the South to work “up north”, working in the automotive, steel or other manufacturing industries where little formal education was required and where even a custodian could earn several times more than a seasonal farm worker, sharecropper or subsistence farmer.
Although it has been more than seven decades since I fully embraced the values and beliefs espoused by my parents and other adults who played a significant role in my life, I am glad I did. Simply put, the message my parents and teachers tried to convey to my generation was important both do well and do well. Fortunately, despite my bias, I believe I have successfully managed both.
Now that I am preparing for my third retirement, which means a substantial reduction in my daily workload, I have thought hard about how to say goodbye to my colleagues, friends and protégés. Not that I’m holding them, folding them or going away. I’m simply scaling back my professional engagements and making myself available for longer, more reflective walks, spending quality time with those I love, and co-editing a book of leadership essays.
I invite those interested in learning more about my own leadership journey to explore the myriad resources on my website: www.charlienelms.com. Here you can explore my books From Cotton Fields to University Leadership: All Eyes on Charlie, A Memoir, published by Indiana University Press with a helpful teaching guide, and Having My Say: Reflections of a Black Baby Boomer, an extensive collection, with all proceeds donated to the fund United Negro College Fund.
After actually voicing my opinion, through hundreds of blogs, articles, social media posts on Twitter and LinkedIn, radio and television programs and podcasts – and more speeches than I can remember! – I have to admit that finding the words for my last column is daunting. . Instead of trying to come up with something new, I’d like to share the five most important lessons I’ve learned in my leadership journey and six of my favorite columns in the hope that others can be inspired as they seek to lead and serve .
- The only thing bigger than our dream should be our imagination. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was right when he said that “Sin is not failure, but low aim.”
- Education is the engine of opportunity. If we let this engine idle, millions of historically disenfranchised people are destined to live on the margins of society.
- Leadership is a process and No position. Those who combine the two are destined for limited success or failure. Service is authentic and purposeful leadership in action.
- Never confuse WHO are you with what yes, or what you do with WHO you’re.
- Everything is important, but not everything is equally important. Time is our most important asset and we must not waste it on what is popular rather than what is essential.
Over the years, I used my column to try to make a compelling case for why I thought a particular issue should be important to my readers, especially black people and other historically marginalized people, and how the action I was advocating could to change our collective lives. In a political and social media environment dominated by half-truths, incomplete information, or outright lies, I’ve always tried to speak as truthfully and authentically as possible about what matters, rather than sensationalizing it to reach readers. What touched me most was that people said I made them think and act in a way that was more in line with their core values and the needs of their fellow man.
Here are six of my columns that have generated particularly strong responses, for which I am grateful.
1. Five reasons why I vote and you should too.
2. Trustees must be held accountable for student success.
3. Why I am optimistic about the future of HBCUs.
4. Five things black people must do to make the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not become a nightmare.
5. Why I plan to get vaccinated against COVID and you should too.
6. From the edges to the center: The legacy of Dr. William E. Cox.
The most important of my parting words are these: Thank you! Thank you to everyone who has fueled my dreams and to those who have allowed me to fuel theirs. Thank you to my parents, my wife Jeanette, my son Rashad and my whole big loving family. I thank those who appointed and empowered me to lead and serve. Thank you dr. Nadine Pineda, my editor, researcher and collaborator. Finally, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Diverse Issues and other publications for the opportunity to share my views during my storied career in higher education. What a privilege it has been to be a part of this community.
Those who have read my columns know that poetry has always been my mother tongue. So it’s only fitting that I leave you with one of my favorite poems that I memorized as a little boy in the cotton fields, dreaming of a better life.
Hold on to your dreams Because if dreams die Life is a bird with broken wings It can’t fly.
Hold on to your dreams When dreams come true Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.
— Langston Hughes
Spring came full of promises. May we keep our eyes on the prize—and fuel our dreams!
Dr. Charlie Nelms is a veteran higher education administrator and chancellor emeritus of North Carolina Central University.