Jan Houbolt may be the most influential Baltimorean you've never heard of. As head of the Greater Baltimore Committee's Leadership Program since 1989, he has helped groom some of the state's up-and-coming leaders through a 10-month-long series of site visits and conversations that help them examine the city in all its complexity. Mr. Houbolt will retire in December, so this year's class, his 25th, will be his last. I talked to him about why a white sociology major from a historically black university took a job with Baltimore's business elite — and some of what he saw along the way.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: All over: New York, Taiwan, Arlington, Va., Okinawa. My father was a newspaper guy and a freelance correspondent.
Q: So you were used to being out of your element. Is that part of what drew you to Howard University?
A: There was no grand design. I wanted to stay in the D.C. area, and it was the only place I could afford. And I was, of course, aware that this was going to be interesting. I arrived at Howard in 1966 at the very beginning of the Black Power movement. Everybody who was anybody, from the traditional civil rights movement to some of the leaders of the Black Panther Party, spoke at the school.
I think lots of African-Americans who have made it in the professional world have had the experience of being, quote, "the only one in the room" surrounded by white folks. But I have not come across that many folks who've had that reverse experience, where I had four years being the only one in the room. Howard was a phenomenal experience for me, beyond anything I could have imagined.
Q: How did you end up at the GBC Leadership Program?
A: The program was formed back in the early 1980s. Back then, we still had a bunch of Fortune 500 companies in the area. Four or five people could get together, make some decisions, talk to the mayor, and that was it. I think that leaders like Walter Sondheim and Frank Gunther had a sense that times were changing, that we needed to develop new leadership.
I was in its first class in 1984 and knew, at that point, if the [director's] job ever opened up, I wanted it. I felt like living overseas in different cultures, living in Virginia when it was still legally segregated, and going to Howard University during a time of revolutionary ferment had prepared me. Probably the one thing I wanted to do the most when I came to this job was create a space where people from the far left, the far right, black, white, poor backgrounds, and the lap of luxury could have substantive dialogue around issues without demonizing each other.
One of the things that became clear to me with this position is this. I don't come from power or wealth. That's not my station in life. And this job has no formal power whatsoever. But what this position has given me and would give anybody is the opportunity to be a catalyst. So it's a different form of influence. If you were to use medieval archetypes, this is not the position of the monarch for sure. It's not even the position of the warrior. It's more the position of the magician or the shaman.
Q: You now have personal relationships with a lot of the city's leaders. Are you frustrated by some of what they have not accomplished in 25 years?
A: In a lot of cases it's really easy to say, "Well, they really should be doing the following," when you don't have to do it yourself. The tickets to the peanut gallery are really cheap, but the ticket to a position of responsibility is usually a long, hard, winding road, and the responsibilities are frequently overwhelming and beyond many people's capacities. Has [the Leadership Program] led to systemic change where everything's OK in Baltimore? No. But have large numbers of people's lives been rescued from rotten outcomes? Absolutely.
There's a lot of great stuff happening in the city, and I don't think there's going to be a silver bullet master plan. I think, if we're gonna get to where we need to go, it's gonna be more along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell's "tipping point," a lot of people talking, doing different things, overlapping, and getting more integrated with each other before things get markedly better.
Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @LionelBMD.