Kenneth O. Simon
Partner, Executive Committee, Christian and Small LLP
There are two people who had a major impact on life: My mother, who helped me learn at an early age that education is the key to a better life; and my English 101 professor at the University of South Alabama, who gave me the words of encouragement I needed in order to believe in myself.
Life for me began in Mobile, Alabama, in the Roger Williams projects during the 1950s and early 1960s. Artificial barriers of race and class that were supported by forces beyond our control separated our community from the larger world. My mother graduated from a local high school as valedictorian of the Class of 1948 with dreams of being a teacher. My father, who was several years older, spent much of his early adult life following his father to small Mississippi towns where they were both Pentecostal preachers.
The housing projects of the 1950s and ‘60s were very different from the projects of today. They were filled with families headed by two parents simply aspiring to a better life. Rather than being crime- and drug-infested prisons of despair and dysfunction, those projects were places of psychological imprisonment. Even in those days, there was a stigma associated with living in the projects—a stigma that produced shame and embarrassment.
My mother never gave up on her dream of being a teacher. After raising seven children, my mother decided it was time to pursue her dream and return to school. Together, she and my father made two important decisions: 1. She would go back to school; and 2. Our family would get out of the projects.
In 1963, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, we moved from the projects and began the process of entering the mainstream. My mother started classes at a local junior college and finished in two years—with honors. She then went to the University of South Alabama (USA) and obtained her education degree, again with excellent grades, and became the first black USA graduate. She accomplished this while working at night as a short-order cook at a local hospital, and during the day as a domestic. Despite being repeatedly ridiculed for what she had undertaken, she proved that she could not be psychologically imprisoned by the words and the actions of others.
My mother realized her dream and became a teacher. She taught reading for many years in Mobile and went on to earn her master’s degree. The pinnacle of her career was being recognized in the early 1980s as Mobile County’s Outstanding Reading Teacher. Ten years after my mother graduated from South Alabama, I graduated from South Alabama. In fact, all of my brothers and sisters have either attended or graduated from South. And all of us have drawn on the legacy of goodwill my mother left for us there.
My mother’s example taught me that escape from the psychological prison of self-doubt and lack of confidence is a process. For me that process began with my acceptance at South Alabama. The first challenge I had was my summer work-study job before school began in the fall. I was assigned to work in the Maintenance Department. I spent every workday with the university’s maintenance crew landscaping the grounds, watering shrubs, and laying sod. I learned a lot about landscaping and a lot about myself, but I still wondered, “Am I good enough?” My English 101 professor answered that question for me.
The professor was a special inspiration, although he never knew it. In fact, he did not learn this until we exchanged letters several years ago. I wrote to him about an English composition course, twenty years after I took the course as a college freshman.
Your class is memorable because of the first composition assignment. I don’t remember the specifics of the assignment. I do remember your face and demeanor when you returned the graded papers. You expressed disappointment that, as a group, our writing skills were so deficient. You began calling our names to retrieve our papers from the front of the classroom. I recall several classmates returning to their desks with long faces. I prepared for the worst and walked to the front when my name was called. I mustered the courage to look at my grade and was shocked when I saw the verdict: A-. More important than the grade were the words you sketched in the upper right-hand margin of my paper. You wrote, “Educate thyself Brother, and you will go far.” Me? These words were meant for me? Was there a mistake?
I can’t tell you the impact of this message. It boosted my confidence and affirmed my self-worth. I know it sounds corny, but I was inspired to do well at South and in life.
Indeed, life has been good. I did reasonably well at South, went to law school, and practiced law in Mobile, Washington, DC, and in Birmingham. I am not sure if you ever knew my name, but I have drawn on those words you gave me many times. It’s time now to thank you for them. Thanks.
And he wrote me back:
You are right about one thing—I don’t remember your face or name. But I do recall the note I scrawled on your paper. An unusual message, it sprang from a gut-feeling that here was intelligence and understanding, and the right words might convey to you the need to develop your potential. So, I tossed the words out into the unknown, and you and they have “gone far”; and now, 20 years later, they return to me in the form of thanks.
Well, it is just in time. I have been teaching English for some 27 years now, and have recently begun to wonder whether it’s worth the effort, trying to teach people to read and write in the Age of Television. You letter seems to say to me: “you never know, Brother, what your words can do for others.” You have restored my faith in teaching.
And so the prophecy has been fulfilled; the circle is complete; and now it is my turn to thank you. Thanks.”
We can be there for a young person at the right moment. Maybe a word or two will inspire them for a lifetime. Maybe we can help them get over a hurdle that allows them to develop their full potential. I hope my words will encourage others as I have been encouraged.
I have sought to give back to the African-American community by working to increase educational opportunities for African-American students, by working for racial reconciliation, and by breaking down barriers and opening doors.
Two schools in the Birmingham community are close to my heart—Cornerstone School of Alabama and Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School. Both schools are located in, and serve the poorer areas of, our community. Cornerstone is a K–8 faith-based school whose mission is to provide an excellent education for at-risk students. Holy Family’s mission is to provide a Catholic, college-prep education and corporate internship opportunities for the poorest of the poor. Most of my community service over the last 10–12 years has been dedicated to these two schools. For five of those years, I served as board chair for Cornerstone, and saw it transition from a relatively new outreach ministry to a dynamic instrument of change. Similarly, I’ve served as Holy Family’s board chair for the last six years and have seen it grow from the embryonic stage to a school that is transforming lives. While both schools were in the early growth stage, I spent hundreds of hours in the trenches with school leaders and fellow board members pushing things forward. More important, hundreds of young African-American children have been and are being touched and transformed by both Cornerstone and Holy Family, just as my entire family has been changed through the power of education.
I have had unique opportunities to break down racial barriers as a college student, lawyer, and civil servant, as well as in my faith life. After beginning my college career landscaping the University of South Alabama’s grounds, I was the first African American elected Student Government Association president and vice president at a majority-white state university in Alabama. Today, I am vice-chair of the University’s board of trustees, and may have the opportunity to serve as chair one day. Following law school, I was perhaps the first African-American lawyer hired by a majority firm in the state. Today, the door is wide open as more than 100 African-American lawyers have followed. Twenty-two years ago, as a young lawyer, I was only the third African-American circuit judge in the history of our county. Since that time, at least 15 other African Americans have served as state circuit or district judges in the Birmingham area.
A year or two after law school, I had the opportunity to serve as chairman of an effort to create and establish a food bank in the Mobile area. While a food bank serves all comers, and is not specifically targeted at the African-American community, it nevertheless was a vehicle to serve and give back. Although I really had no idea what I was doing, we somehow got it up and running. Today, the Bay Area Food Bank is a mature nonprofit, and serves the poor of Southwest Alabama. It was recognized a few years ago as the winner of a $50,000.00 Pepsi Challenge grant. Imagine my surprise when I heard the announcement on NBC’s Today Show as I was getting dressed one morning!
In the early 1990s, I helped found a spiritual retreat community known as the Birmingham Emmaus Community. Its mission is to sponsor “walks” or 72-hour retreats, approximately four to six times per year. The special mission of the Birmingham Emmaus Community is to promote racial reconciliation and bring Emmaus Walks to the inner city. Over the years, more than one thousand people have attended our retreats. I served as the board chair for five years, and have worked on countless retreats, as well as serving again as chair during 2013 as we completed our 72nd retreat. With every walk, the Birmingham Emmaus Community has broken down racial barriers and brought diverse people of faith together to serve others.
I say all of this not to be a braggart, but to illustrate that I’ve had the opportunity to serve the African-American community and the greater community in a unique way: To break down barriers, to serve others, and to bring together diverse groups to work for the common good. My hope is that psychological barriers have been shattered and those formerly imprisoned have come to realize the possibility of a better life.
I’ve learned that the tools of reason, analysis, and persuasion are the way forward. Early in my career at University of South Alabama, the debate coach invited me to join the team. I was terrible—in fact, I was awful. But I stayed with it and my two years of struggle brought me many gifts. It taught me the fundamental tools of lawyering. Debate established firmly in my mind the manner in which the tools of analysis, reason, and persuasion could be used to serve the greater good. And it created the expectation that people who possessed these skills would in fact use them in service to the community. Today I find that these same skills are useful in resolving disputes. Legal disputes are resolved two ways—through litigation or negotiation. While I’ve relied on the tools of reason, analysis, and persuasion as a courtroom lawyer and trial judge, I’ve relied on the same tools in the mediation process. Indeed, reason, analysis, and persuasion have served me well. They have been the means by which my own psychological barriers were broken and serve, along with faith, as the foundation of success in every area of my life.
At this stage of my career, I have come to realize that I am now best suited to be a mediator. I liken the skill set needed to be an effective mediator, to the skills used by Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. After all, human behavior is not that far removed from our canine friends. Dogs are pack animals. So are humans. And as with dogs, one person must rise as the pack leader.
The Dog Whisperer is a reality show that features Millan training problem-child, out-of-control dogs. The dogs exhibit phobias, obsessions, aggression, or fearful behavior that Millan is called on to rehabilitate. He embraces the idea that dogs as pack animals engage in conflict until a dominant, alpha dog emerges. This is the “pack leader.” To many dogs, a human owner is just another pack member. Millan’s goal is to cause the dog to view the human as the “pack leader” rather than as a submissive or fellow pack member. Millan teaches that when dogs are agitated, their brains are hijacked and their attention shifts to the source of the agitation. They cannot learn in this emotional state. Before dogs can learn new behaviors, they must be in a calm and submissive state of mind.
Conflict among pack members is not unique to canines. Human conflict can involve a range of behaviors from an angry look to physical conflict, from fighting to giving in, from passive aggressiveness to scorched-earth litigation, and from anxiety, stress and frustration to hostility and anger. Parties in conflict think of resolving their dispute in limited all-or-nothing, winner take all terms. They seek to dominate their opponent, demand complete surrender, and impose their will. They want to lead the pack. Without a forum or mechanism to resolve the conflict, pack members compete until an alpha dog acquires dominance.
Mediators must recognize that strong emotions underlie much conflict. Stressful situations, such as mediations, can trigger strong emotions. Strong emotions can intensify and escalate to the point that our higher, rational, executive brain functions are “hijacked” by our lower, irrational brain functions. People with a competitive, emotionally charged mindset may see domination of the other party as the only acceptable outcome. People in a cooperative state of mind can see that such a world-view is unproductive and costly. Like a dog whisperer, the mediator’s task is to break the pack mentality, de-escalate the situation, defuse the emotions, and guide the parties to a state of emotional rationality. To seize the high ground of pack leader, the mediator must show that win-win is better than win-lose.
At this stage in life, I am trying to develop a high emotional intelligence quotient. Effective mediators have high EQs—personal qualities and social skills that create an atmosphere of trust and establish the mediator as “pack leader.” As a mediator, I try to be the “grown up”—calm, inspirational, careful listener, creative, flexible, assertive, persuasive, self-control, level headed, practical, honest, instinctive, connects with people, patient, and thick-skinned. I also try to be articulate, visionary, empathetic, careful, optimistic, low-key, objective, analytical, bold, improvisational, deliberate, persevering, energetic, dynamic and self-aware.
In the end, I’ve learned that I am able to advance compromise by leading the pack—encouraging intelligent negotiation, being a leader, and helping close the deal.
On my desk, where I see it every day, is a note that says, “Be Aware. Understand. Take Action.” This is my advice to anyone. I tell young people that success means realizing your potential and I share with them my own guiding principles.
Be Aware: Set goals and have a sense of mission and purpose. Have a strategy, but recognize the importance of adapting that strategy as life has a way of throwing the occasional curveball. Have a source of inspiration—for me it was my mother and my English 101 professor.
Understand: Develop a value system, a means of determining right from wrong and gauging conduct. And understand the importance of self-esteem and self-confidence. I share with young people my experience as a young lawyer and a national finalist for the White House Fellows Board of Directors.
At a reception for the 32 national candidates, I was approached by a White House Fellows board member and Counsel to the President. He suggested I consider switching political parties to accelerate my career. His challenge forced me to identify who I was, where I stood, and what I would do go get ahead. In determining that this path to advancement was not right for me, I discovered more deeply who I am and what I am called to be. As it turned out, the challenge was a test designed to see how I would respond to an invitation to take an action merely to advance my personal interests. I am proud to say I was named a White House Fellow.
Take Action: Take initiative—growing up and reaching maturity happens when we become self-starters. Remember that we must serve others. Public service is part of the glue that holds our society together. Recognize that every one of us has the power to make a difference through our time or talent. I learned this as a young lawyer in Mobile.
One of my first projects involved working with a small group of people to start a food bank on Dauphin Street. There were only four or five of us, and none of us really knew what we were doing. Somehow, I was made president, which meant I had to go to area churches on Sunday mornings to ask for seed money, develop an action plan, and get the organization incorporated. Churches responded, as did the community as a whole. The Bay Area Food Bank was born. From that point forward, I was involved in serving the community—United Cerebral Palsy, United Way, Volunteer Mobile, and Cornerstone Schools.
All of this activity was fueled by the belief that we are required to work for the common good.
Finally, I tell young people to THINK BIG:
T = Talent. Recognize and accept your God-given talents, develop and use them.
T = Time. Learn the importance of time. When you are on time, prove your trustworthiness.
H = Hope. Anticipate good things; watch for them.
H = Honesty. Speaking the truth makes life amazingly simple.
I = Insight. Listen and learn from people who have already been where you want to go.
N = Nice. Be nice to people—all people.
K = Knowledge. It is the key to independent living—all your dreams, hopes, and aspirations.
B = Books. When you read, your mind must work to connect ideas, thoughts, and concepts. We develop our minds by reading, by thinking, by figuring things out for ourselves.
I = In-Depth Thinking. In-depth learners find that the acquired knowledge becomes a part of them.
G = God. Never get too big for God.