Dr. Toby S. Jenkins



“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” – Christopher Reeves

Who are you really and what people, places, and experiences contributed deeply in the making of you? The traditional view of powerful leaders has often been white, male, and upper class. Understanding how cultural hegemony impedes the healthy growth and appreciation of cultures that have been placed on the margins of society helps us to visualize the type of leadership ethic that is needed to resist cultural hegemony. Feminist theory considers cultural hegemony to be a social system that involves devaluing non-dominant cultures. Hegemony and cultural imperialism concern the domination of power—one social class or entity has power over the other. Beyond the ways that this power of dominion provides the dominant group access to resources, wealth, and opportunity, this group’s values, behaviors, beliefs, and ways of knowing and being become the norm.

In the case of leadership, this often means that the bold and visionary work of many members within marginalized communities is overlooked and not included in traditional ideologies of “leadership.” Often the oppressed aren’t viewed as leaders or experts. However, they are undoubtedly leaders within their cultural circles and experts of their own experience. And so, in many ways a leadership proxy that is centered in culture and based on resistance engages creative strategies to privilege the marginalized. It uses culture itself as a tool of resistance—family, community, art, heritage, and folkways. It destructs the systems of cultural hegemony not by raging against the machine, but rather by strengthening an ethic of love within oppressed communities. The foundation of this type of leadership is rooted in ordinary people helping each other. It is a grass-roots effort focused on helping underrepresented cultural communities to better appreciate their culture, see the utility in their culture, and appreciate the amazing potential in what they may initially see as ordinary life and ordinary people.

Traditional definitions of culture discuss things like art, religion, cuisine, tradition, and ritual. Perspectives vary across several disciplines. Culture is of interest to fields like anthropology, sociology, ethnic studies, history, education, and psychology. A clear understanding of culture is an important first step in the attempt to integrate culture into leadership studies. In the last twenty years, definitions of culture have generally evolved to view it as the symbolic vehicles of meaning and experience such as beliefs, values, ritual practices, artistic expression, patterns of thinking, behavioral norms, and ceremonies. These critical experiences and interpretations of meaning influence the actions, worldviews, approach to life, and values of cultural group members.

Cultural leadership draws on things like the cultural arts, family/community fellowship, spirituality, and other creative forms of expression to create social change. Cultural leadership values the potential of culture to serve as a community education tool to teach politics of survival and create a space for dialogue, discussion, action, and change. Cultural leaders are constantly exploring and deepening their understanding of their cultural values, beliefs, and ideologies. Cultural leaders are reflective, wise, and holistic leaders who understand that the collective of their life experiences—in the classroom or on the block, in college or in church, through professional networks or through dysfunctional family trees—have made them who they are. Conversations about culture in higher education are often organized under an umbrella of “understanding others.” However, one of the most important aspects of cultural education is intra-cultural growth and development—understanding, learning, and appreciating your own culture. This is particularly salient for people whose cultures have been traditionally marginalized and underappreciated. For many college students, college becomes the first space where they can gain a deep education on their history thanks to African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Latino Studies, Cultural and Ethnic Studies, as well as through cocurricular programs.

This lack of knowledge is true regarding our understanding of both other people’s histories as well as our own. All people need to become more keenly aware of their histories, family story, ethnic heritage, racial realities, and the strategies, values, and politics that have helped their community to come through these experiences. A strong sense of cultural efficacy allows individuals to travel to and through other cultures without feeling a lack of value, jealousy, or defeat for their own. It may be the very attachments to cultural heritage that some seek to move beyond that actually provides them with the tools necessary to keep going and growing. I consider cultural efficacy to be a demonstrated level of cultural capacity or agency (positive feelings about one’s culture; strong understanding of the components, values, and structures of one’s culture; confidence in one’s culture to contribute to the world). Because viable social change is often best created from within communities, it is critically important that attention is paid to how college students from marginalized communities are taught. The firm and positive commitment to their communities that are created in college can have potential longterm effects not only on the students, but also the communities that raised them. I see leadership education as a space where students can wrestle with a sense of their cultural self and make firm their cultural agency and efficacy.

In our leadership work, we must remember and appreciate a culturally driven life ethic—a sense of community, drive to create and imagine, and value for making time to tell the story. Essentially, we must wipe clear the smudges of oppression, sweep away the social garbage that causes us to demean the substance in our everyday lives, and learn to appreciate the audacity in the ordinary.

Dr. Toby Jenkins is currently an assistant professor of Integrative Studies and Higher Education at George Mason University. Her work focuses on the utility of culture (contemporary culture, folk culture, and pop culture) as a politic of social survival, a tool of social change, and a transformative space of knowledge production. Dr. Jenkins past professional experiences as well as her individual research projects and studies have taken her to over twenty countries to examine transnational issues of culture and education.