Dr. Gloria J. Burgess drew from poetry and personal stories of overcoming poverty and racism in the segregated South to stir leaders to create a legacy for the future by inspiring others now.
Burgess — an author, speaker and executive leadership professor — spoke Thursday night at an event hosted by the Catherine T. MacArthur School of Leadership and Palm Beach Atlantic University Alumni Association.
Born in Oxford, Mississippi, Burgess spent the second half of her childhood on the east side of Detroit. After earning a doctorate in performance studies from the University of Southern California, she earned her Master of Business Administration there. Burgess has presented to thousands of people in nearly 30 countries, including in the Southwest Pacific, where she met a Maori man whose words colored her view of leadership. Her description of leadership is what the Maori people call legacy, the man told her.
Reflecting on the power of legacy, she said, “I stand on many, many shoulders.”
Among those shoulders are those of the Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner. She recalled that her father, Earnest McEwen, Jr., had two dreams: to live in a house with running water and to go to college. Because of segregation, he could not attend the University of Mississippi, where he worked as a janitor, but he met Faulkner, an Oxford resident, who said, “Mr. McEwen, tell me about your dreams.”
Faulkner paid for McEwen’s tuition, room and board and pocket expenses at the school of his choosing — Alcorn A&M, now Alcorn State University — with the understanding that McEwen pay it forward. He did pay it forward, ensuring Burgess and her sisters got an education.
Few people talk about someone’s legacy until they’ve died, but every day matters, Burgess said.
“How we show up today impacts somebody else’s tomorrow,” Burgess said. “How many of you know that words have power, vitality and soul? Words have the power to bless or to blaspheme. Words have the power to harm or to heal.”
To consciously leave a legacy requires tapping into God’s soul, she said. She proposes seven sacred practices: gratitude, faith, love, vision, integrity, creative action and legacy. People make a covenant with the future when they express gratitude, Burgess said.
Burgess shared her gratitude for a teacher. The grade school teacher, Mrs. G, never called on Burgess, no matter how many times she raised her hand. Mrs. G knew that Burgess loved reading and poems. One day, she left a little blue book of poetry on Burgess’ desk. The book had poems that echoed the rhythms Burgess heard at home and pictures of people who looked like her.
“I know Mrs. G thought she was just giving me a book of poems,” Burgess said. “What she really gave me was a long, long drink of water for my withered soul.”
The gesture expressed the four most important words anyone could hear: “I believe in you.”
Leaders plant seeds of faith, even if they never see them mature, Burgess said, referring to Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Leaders make a covenant with the future when they fall in love with hope and possibility, she said. When people find what they love, they “burn with a passion that requires no fuel.”
That’s what Burgess did when she was invited to speak at an international women’s conference attended by 700 to 800 people. A woman who she knew only as “Konji” introduced herself at lunch. Burgess later learned the woman was Dr. Konji Sebati, a prominent physician who became the South African ambassador to Switzerland.
Then Sebati invited Burgess to speak in Pretoria, South Africa for the 50th anniversary of that nation’s Women’s March on government buildings in protest of apartheid. When Burgess asked, “Why me?” Sebati replied that segregation sounded a lot like apartheid, but Burgess spoke of it without bitterness.
Leaders must be conscious of the imprint they leave on others, Burgess said. Every action can reverberate through eternity – “365, 24/7, legacy leaders make life on earth as it is in heaven.”
At the end of her talk, Burgess shared a moment with the mother of the late U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Jeremiah McGraw — nicknamed “Jerms.” McGraw was a student in the MacArthur School of Leadership while serving as a Marine reservist in West Palm Beach. McGraw died on Sept. 10, 2009 during a training exercise in Central Florida. His parents awarded PBA students Jesse Fagan and Keri Chriswell the Jerms McGraw Second Chance Scholarship, created in memory of their son. Chriswell, an online student, traveled with her family from the Orlando area to receive the award.
Additionally, Orlando Campus Coordinator Martha Christlieb received the MacArthur School of Leadership’s Cohort 34 M Scholarship. Graduate students Cindy Jiminez Galeano, Kyle Savick and London Tanario-Farris also received financial awards from the cohort.
Photo 1: Gloria Burgess gestures during a presentation for the MacArthur School of Leadership.
Photo 2: Gloria Burgess smiles during a presentation for the MacArthur School of Leadership.