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BLAC Legends: Dr. Curtis Ivery

The Wayne County Community College District leader talks educational opportunity, the importance of family and his biggest mistake.

Photo by James A. Melton

When a member of Dr. Curtis Ivery's incredibly personable staff shuffles us into his office, he's ready and we're excited. Who better for the inauguration of our BLAC Legends series than the man who's been an educator, an author, the first black – and youngest – cabinet member in Arkansas state history and, for the last 23 years, CEO and chancellor of Wayne County Community College District? When Ivery took over the position in 1995, the district was in its earliest stages of growth and ready for a timely transformation. Ivery, who recognized the opportunity and potential in the college, ushered in a new chapter of the institution's history, backed by a fierce commitment to his students. As we chat, we sit amongst photos of his family – to whom he credits with teaching him how to love and how to lead – an array of plaques and awards, and one snapshot of the chancellor with Bill Clinton, Ivery's Arkansas boss when the would-be president was still a governor. The influential man eagerly offers his philosophies on opportunity, race, politics and legacy.

Has education opportunity always been a passion for you?

In many ways, yes, I saw education as a path of enlightenment that could not be taken lightly. I always had a passion to help people be better. Perhaps I unknowingly wanted to be an educator.

What have been some of the biggest stumbling blocks to fix educational inequity?

The assumption that talent is not distributed equally. We have to lead by changing our attitude. At some point we decide that all people are created equal or they are not. It's really that simple and yet as complex as that. But that's where it all starts.

How can we do that?

I don't know that there is anything we can do except work hard and prepare. I say to my family –my student family and my own adult children and grandkids – "We will have an opportunity to do something we love, but we have to be prepared to walk through those doors when that opportunity knocks."

You received your Ph.D. at a time it was less common for African-Americans than it is today. What do you attribute that to?

I've always been a competitor, and college was my arena. That's been true in my professional career as well. No matter what your job is, be a competitor. Whether you want to be a doctor or a journalist or whatever your dream is, you better work hard. I work every night. I don't know a time when I'm not spending time on my job.

What are some of the obstacles you have faced as a black man growing up in the South?

I'm not sure I recognized there were obstacles. I never bought into the idea of racism. I'm not saying it doesn't exist. But what is sexism? What is racism? It's about power. A person or a group of people who are trying to hang onto their power by depriving it in others. … Racism is a man-made construct, not something that someone bestowed on us from on high. The issues we struggle with are bigger than racism.

What's the biggest problem facing black men today?

One thing is family. It's so important – and having an intact family is particularly important for young men. My father was my rudder. In the family, the father is the protector, the leader. Growing up you could see the difference in the kids like me who had a father. They slept well at night because they knew that they had someone taking care of them. That's got to happen.

What do you say to young people who are disheartened by the current politically divisive climate?

Don't let anyone define you. What is it you want in life? Where do you want to go? Work hard and go for it. And remember that people who try to hold you down are not bad people. You don't have to agree with them, but you must recognize their humanity even if they don't recognize yours. As soon as you forget that, you lose. Yes, we live in a very divisive society, but we're better off than we were in the 1860s when my grandfather fought his way out of slavery. Or the Jim Crow era. Are we happy with how things are right now? No. But we are in a better place. So, believe in yourself. Determine how you can make a difference. Don't be too concerned about other people. … You can't change what happened 100 years ago, but you can change you.

How much responsibility do young black people have to advocate for their own economic and social equality?

Leaders have a special responsibility, but we all have a responsibility to build a better community. We have tribes, we operate out of silos, but we have to work together out of the nobility of our shared experience as members of the human species. … Some years ago, I'd go to the mall with my wife and I'd come home so upset because of the way a person treated me when I purchased a book or when I was shopping. Over time I realized that if I smiled, the other person was more likely to smile. If I scowled, the other person was more likely to scowl. A student taught me that. They told me I would be their favorite teacher if I smiled more. That stuck with me. You have to be a good person and like who you are. You can't do much good in the world if you don't like who you see in the mirror and project that back to people in the way you approach them.

What advice would you give students today?

I have an adult son and daughter and I've spent a lifetime giving them advice, just like I do with students over the years. And what I tell them is don't worry so much about material things. Don't let it be the driving force, the thing you obsess over. Find something you love doing. When you discover your passion, it gives you a reason to get up in the morning. … And remember: What happens to you means less than what happens in you.

What is the biggest professional mistake you've made?

We make them every day. So many. Probably taking so long to come to terms with the fact that it's OK to make mistakes was one of the biggest mistakes I've made. Because if you're not making mistakes, you're not stretching yourself, you're not allowing yourself to grow and learn from those errors.

What are you most proud of? 

My family. I've been married 44 years (to Ola). My wife, my children, my grandchildren have all taught me so much about life, how to lead, how to be passionate and compassionate. I give them credit for every single thing I've accomplished in my life. They are my greatest achievement.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Discipline, discipline, discipline. Get up every day and stay the course.

If you could have three wishes for our country, what would they be?

Tolerance, respect and inclusion. With these, we can also truly be the country that we were promised – one of fairness, equality and opportunity for all. Tolerance of those who are different in look, livelihood and opinion. Respect for those differences and not allowing them to be divisive. And, inclusion. True inclusion, which is possible when the aforementioned items are also a reality.

How do you want to be remembered?

I just want to be able to look in the mirror and like what I see. To know that I've done my best, that I'd done the right thing and I've worked on behalf of others, not just myself. Boy, that's important.

In His Own Writing

Dr. Ivery has written 14 books on everything from fatherhood to the urban crisis. Here are some of his favorite passages from his book Journeys of Conscience.

On diversity and understanding…

We all need to reflect on the idea that there are other legitimate and sometimes even better ways of doing or seeing things, that our way is neither the only, nor always the best, way.

At some point we decide that we believe that all people are created equal or that they are not. It's really as simple and as complex at that. But that's where it starts.

On defining characteristics…

I know what it's like to be a father, and so I feel I share the common experience of fatherhood with other fathers the world over: black or white, rich or poor, Muslim or Jew. We may approach child-rearing differently, through different customs or life experiences, but we have in common the joys and hopes and worries and fears for our children.

We can't ignore the significance of race, gender, ethnic heritage, religious choices, etc. Nor should we. But we should also downplay the absolute and automatic importance attributed to race alone as our main defining characteristic. Doing so limits us all, keeps our circle of friends small and closed.

On racial awareness…

You go through life at one level always aware of race, and in most situations always being in the minority, wondering if the situation is OK. Wondering if the person you are approaching will rebuff or accept you, or just tolerate you. This adds a chilling dimension to stepping out into public areas.

I don't know if there will ever come a time when I will be able to drive out of my driveway and not be aware that I am a black man, and therefore in one way or another, "different" from a number of people that I will interact with that day.

On the possibility of a colorblind society…

Despite the often-proclaimed view that we are finally a colorblind society, nothing may be further from the truth. Listen carefully and you will hear a new kind of bitterness spurred by a sharp increase in tension. There is a rising sense of insecurity as many of us struggle to make some sense of things.

Paris Giles is BLAC Detroit's associate editor.

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