The Lesson I Learned from the Incomparable Ms. Debbie Allen
By Felita Jones, EdD, MPA
Most of us have a defining moment in our lives—a moment that, years later, continues to resonate and inspire. Mine happened during middle school. I was captain of the drill team and was asked to lead my team in a parade that wound through the streets adjacent to the University of California (USC). As I marched through the streets to adoring shouts of praise and adulation from my family and spectators, I was on cloud nine. But it was short lived, as I was soon surprised to see Debbie Allen purposefully striding toward me. She left the sidelines, ignored the roped off sections, and joined the march as if she were part of my team. She got within a few feet of my face and told me, “If you are going to lead the charge, you have got to get those legs up higher! No half stepping, march higher.” She stayed with me, and in my face, for nearly half the block, encouraging me to give it all I had. Part of me wanted to freeze. Part of me wanted to run and hide. But a larger part of me wanted to push past my limits and excel. I wanted to make Debbie Allen proud. I wanted to make myself proud. She was tenacious and would not let me give up, and while she challenged me, she also affirmed my successes each time I managed to raise my legs just a little bit higher. I arched my back, stiffened my posture, raised my legs as high as I could get them, and I marched as if my life depended on it.
Some 30 years later, I am still reminded of that experience—and not simply because I am a huge Debbie Allen fan. I have found it useful in my quest to become an authentic and consistent leader who operates intentionally, with purpose, and with a strong sense of giving it my all.
As I look around at the typical challenges that a new executive director often faces, I find myself feeling comforted that I have the full support of the FACT Board of Directors, who have championed me to serve this organization at the highest level, and also of the countless individuals who have contacted me to offer their assistance in helping take FACT to the next level. I am also reminded by Ms. Allen to never leave anything on the table and to always go for the gold. I didn’t know it at the time, but that experience was a defining moment for me. It taught me endurance; it taught me persistence. It taught me the qualities I now need to draw from in my new role as FACT’s executive director.
In this new role, I look forward to marching to a higher purpose and helping to redefine the way people with disabilities are perceived. In addition, I look forward to creating opportunities and experiences for others that will allow them to also march onward and upward to their highest levels of possibility and purpose.
I am excited to see what the future holds for this beautiful organization, and I can’t wait to share with you just how high we are marching to help create a better quality of life for the population that we serve.