By Isabel Feinstein

During a recent campus visit, Hauser Leader Michael Lomax filled us in on his CPL experience, current advocacy priorities, and sources of leadership inspiration.

Michael Lomax PhotoQ: Your first semester as a Hauser Leader was Spring 2021, when Harvard was still functioning remotely. Why did you choose to return for the 2021-2022 academic year?

A: As a Hauser Leader in Spring 2021, I spent a lot of time on Zoom with everybody I met at Harvard. And I didn't feel like I connected well. I was a classroom professor for many years: I taught English at Morehouse, Spelman, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Emory. So when I think of students, I really think of engagement and knowing who I'm talking to. And colleagues: it was as important who you met in the hallway as it was who was giving a lecture down the hall.

None of that happened that semester. And so I really felt like this was going to be a great experience, but I wasn't having it. We did everything that we could to get to know people. But I said, I want to come and just feel the space and talk to the students and meet the colleagues and just have a very much more personal engagement. That's where the magic happens with students particularly. And I was amazed by the talent of the young people and the inquiry and the passion about what they want to do. 

I was also really struck by the generosity of the faculty. I mean, Harvard faculty, they got reputations, as intimidating and very esoteric. But it was none of that. It was generous conversations with people who have done very interesting work, who were actually interested in what I do. There’s a lot of camaraderie.

Q: Which colleagues did you connect with while visiting campus?

A: I had dinner with faculty members Julie Battilana and Cornell Brooks, CPL Co-Director Hannah Riley Bowles, and CPL executive director Ken Himmelman. First of all, I would say this about Cambridge: the food was good at every meal. Good restaurants, and really lively discussion.

I was very intrigued by the work that Cornell is doing, because I've worked with the NAACP over many decades. I've worked with civil rights activists from the '60s on. The work he's doing preparing his students in the program that he's created, the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, it's a very intriguing concept of immersing them in engagement. They have to take what they've learned and put it to work in the real world.

It was really interesting talking to Paul (Grogan, a fellow Hauser Leader), because he and I have worked together in the past. We worked with social entrepreneurs investing in their work and developing their enterprises. We also both worked in mayoral politics, and we're contemporaries in terms of age. Paul went from mayoral politics to philanthropy. I went from mayoral politics to higher education and more politics, because I was an elected official.

So at this mature moment in our careers, we get to share what we're thinking about in terms of next chapters, how to do the work differently, and how to really prepare the next generation. We’ve done this for 50 years; how do we reflect on it? How do we share it? And how do we continue to learn?

That's what being a Hauser Leader is about for me.

Q: Tell us about your current work as President and CEO of UNCF, an organization known as the nation’s leading advocate for the importance of minority education and community engagement.

A: At UNCF, we’re capturing this moment in American history where suddenly, in the midst of COVID, we’re having a racial reckoning. And one of the effects is that philanthropy corporations, foundations, the federal government, everybody is realizing that one of the ways of addressing inequality and inequity is education. And there's something called historically Black colleges (HBCUs). So all of a sudden, we had an avalanche of support. And we've had some pretty lean years. Our institutions were doing great work, but they were underfunded, they were unrecognized, they weren't valued. And now everybody wants to help.

I cannot overstress that historically Black colleges as a sector have been starved. Most people know of one or two: Spelman, Howard, marching bands at Florida A&M. But they don't know that these institutions have been engines of social and economic mobility, that they have been producing Black professionals for generations. The doctors, the lawyers, the judges, the creators, the great artists, the great writers, the backbones of the Black middle class.

But they've been doing that without all of the financial resources or the operational support. So if people want to invest in them and want to help, we want that investment to be capacity-building, strengthening of operations, making sure that where we work across institutions and we're the smartest network we can be to have the most impact we can have. And so you aren't just looking for money; you’re also looking for insight and operation.

One of my big projects right now is an online teaching and learning platform called HBCU-Virtual. It will be a teaching and learning platform for all of our 37 historically Black colleges and any other Black colleges that want to participate. So if Spelman wants to offer a course in Black Women's History and wants a bigger audience than the women at Spelman, they could teach that course online on HBCU-V. If Xavier University, which produces more Black graduates who go on to become doctors than any other institution, wants to share some of the work they do in forming future doctors for a bigger audience, they can do it on HBCU-V.

We're doing the design work now and we're going to launch it next year. We want the smartest, best online experience for our students, but we also want it to be unique. There's something unique about the HBCU experience. We know we can't replicate the in-person experience, but we can still try to create that home cooking, which makes this particularly nurturing to first-generation, low-income students. So we're trying to do things in an innovative way. And we're looking for smart partners.

Q: How can organizations like CPL and institutions like Harvard form meaningful partnerships with HBCUs?

A: One way is to accelerate what they're already doing. I mean, I met students who are graduates of HBCUs here at Harvard Kennedy School. Some of them are in dual-degree programs. They're sampling and experiencing a lot of the rich academic offerings across the university. We've prepared them for that through their undergraduate experiences. And we want them to come up here, and then some of them want to come back home afterwards. I think it's a virtuous circle.

So much of the work that has happened over the last couple of decades with social entrepreneurs has been a kind of missionary work. They’ve come from great institutions. They've had big ideas about how to solve a problem in a community of color. They create an enterprise, they get a lot of investment, and they go in and take a fix to the community. That's not the way you create social change in my view.

HKS students are here trying to weave together their skills and capabilities to do the work that they feel called to do. I think of leadership as vocation calling. It’s not just a job; you bring too much of yourself to it. Vocation and career and work, they're all intertwined. We put so much time into this that you have to have a motivation beyond a paycheck. And the great leaders that I deal with are people who are doing this for some higher calling.

That's the way I've approached leadership and the work I do. And so if I were spending more time with students, it would be helping them to think through, what are the skills and the capabilities that they are-- and the experiences that they need to better enable them to do the work that they feel called to do?

Who are some leaders that are inspiring you right now?

A: A lot of younger people. It’s Stacey Abrams. It’s Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. At the political level, it's a new generation of political leaders who are in the South, which I call home.

And honestly, because I'm a septuagenarian, it is also Joe Biden. I want to see old people going toe-to-toe in the last big fight. One of the things that has been an anxiety for me is, in my 70s, thinking that I can't do anything anymore because you're not supposed to at that age. So it’s seeing people bringing that to the work that inspires me.

Q: Do you have any book recommendations?

A: Right now next to my bed is (CPL faculty affiliate) Robert Livingston's new book, The Conversation. And I just had lunch with him here. So I’ll be reading that soon.

I also have to finish Charles Blow's book about returning South, because I believe that there's this new migration into the South that is so very important. I made that migration 60 years ago. And I'm intrigued by so many Black people coming back to the South. It’s a return home.