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03.30.17

SCHC Liberty Fellows: Consequence, Not Credit

By Aeriel Lee

 

On paper, they’re a formidable crew. And rightly so, because the prestigious Liberty Fellowship program is highly competitive, seeking only the very best of South Carolina’s grassroots leaders, leaders invested in changing the state for the better. That was the topic at the “Dynamic Leaders on Leadership” event, which the SCHC presented as part of the campus-wide Carolina Leadership Week in January. Six Liberty Fellows/SCHC alumni assembled in the Gressette Room at Harper College—an assortment of lawyers, state lawmakers, CEOs, and company vice presidents—to share their experiences with students. While each has achieved remarkable success at a relatively early age, all emphasized the importance of selflessness in reaching that success.

“It was just such a sad thing for me, and I had to think to myself, ‘what in the world can I do as a leader to help make the situation better?’” said Jenny Anderson Horne, ’94 English, ’97 law. Horne, a state representative from 2009 to 2016, was remembering the shooting of nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June 2015. The hate crime inspired her now-famous speech to the General Assembly, advocating the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. Horne’s riveting, emotional words went viral. “It really changed the tide of the debate, and we might have lost if I had not shamed some people.”

The House voted to remove the flag with a two-thirds majority vote, and the bill was signed hours later by then-governor Nikki Haley. “That’s part of being a change agent—you have to speak up,” Horne said. “If you’re silent you’re condoning what’s going on.”

While tackling big issues and seeking big change is expected from Liberty Fellows, enacting change on a smaller scale is important too. First is the decision to stay in South Carolina, where big ambition might outgrow a small pond. Case in point: Ben Rex, CEO of Cyberwoven, a Columbia website design company he started during his undergrad years in the Honors College. “South Carolina is not a logical place to run a cyber design company,” he admitted. “We’re creating this culture.”

Now there are more than 15 such companies active in the area, Rex said, and the cyber sector is burgeoning. “Seize the opportunity,” he said. “Bind together with people you care about and share your vision.”

That’s the imperative thing for Rex, ’03 business economics, and it can be done anywhere at all. Cyberwoven has designed the websites for SCETV and SAFE Federal Credit Union, among others.

In today’s politically divisive atmosphere, individual action and agency are critical, the fellows agreed.

“Try to see the decency in the other person,” Columbia lawyer Kevin Hall suggested. “If you can see and even just acknowledge to yourself, as a truth, that the other person has inherent decency and worth, your ability to be effective is enormously enhanced.”

While he recognizes someone isn’t likely to be persuaded differently in many situations, Hall, ‘87 international studies, said it’s the effort to understand on the part of each individual that is vital. “You change your life, you change the world,” he affirmed.

Iris Griffin, vice president of finance for the SCANA Corp., echoed Hall. “If you want to be a change agent you can’t just sit back and point fingers and say, ‘you’re wrong.’ Find those people you don’t agree with and don’t ignore them but have discussions with them—that’s how we bring about change in our society.”

For Griffin, ’01 accounting, focusing on those within your immediate community is key. “The things I have been interested in have changed, but the people have always been there.”

Small fights ultimately effect change, but first you must examine your own individual self in relation to others, said State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk of Kershaw County. “When you think about ways that you can change the world, you need to think about what your talents are, what you can offer, and listen to the needs and the cries of people in the world and see where they come together,” she said. “Those moments are where things align and that’s where you can make the difference.”          

Funderburk, ’97 art history, knows this approach isn’t always the easiest. “It takes perseverance, patience,” she said. “Not every issue is going to get attention like some of the known debates. Some are small, incremental—some can be frustrating.” For her, it’s all about staying in the fight.

“Leader” has always been a charged word for Charleston lawyer Cameron Blazer, ’97 BARSC. She flips the common notion of leadership into a more receptive position. “I’ve seen as much value in my quiet as I’ve found in my voice,” she said. “You can’t just talk—you have to listen.”

Then, “you find yourself accidentally being important in a lot of people’s lives.”

Blazer’s definitive statement: “My vision for my participating in change in South Carolina is to continue to find small, important things to do.” She finished with an idea that echoed down the panel. “There’s great pleasure in being a part of consequence rather than seeking credit. I don’t care about being credited, I care about being consequential.”