One of the best qualities in a leader is the ability to empathize. Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda has this quality in spades and it is much appreciated. But as I noted in my column Friday, Banda takes empathy too far when he fails to forcefully convey the district’s mission and priorities. I’m referring to the tug-of-war Banda has been in much of the summer and fall with Africatown Central District, an umbrella group for about 18 organizations that have been operating out of the Horace Mann school building sans a lease agreement and steady rent payments.
To his credit, Banda went out to Horace Mann last spring and listened as community leaders, parents and advocates offered emotional, compelling reasons for turning the school into a hub for small businesses, job training efforts and educational enrichment programs. People spoke their truth about the ways racism in Seattle has kept the Central District from being all it can be.
Banda listened. That’s good, but he did not ask detailed questions about Africatown’s vision and how it would improve academic performance, the district’s top priority. Honestly, I like the idea of Africatown. My cynical spirit is buoyed by the innovation efforts behind the plan. I also agree with the speaker in the room who said, “Anything that is about us but does not include us is not for us.” We know what it takes for our children to succeed and we have to be more involved and vocal about it.
But good intentions doesn’t eliminate the need for a solid education and business plan built on proven principles. Africatown sublet space in Horace Mann from a private school and stayed long after the school moved out and the district asked Africatown to move. Some of the group’s leaders, for example Omari Tahir-Garrett, infamous for breaking bones in the face of a former Seattle mayor, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But district leaders, afraid of being called racist — again — have scrambled to find new digs for Africatown. So the groups’ real estate problems become Banda’s. Here’s what I think the superintendent should have told the group:More