New York State In-depth

Martha Swan on leadership: It takes conviction, compassion, humility to learn

Martha Swan is a retired teacher and the founder and executive director of the freedom education and human rights project, John Brown Lives! The exclamation point came from Swan’s time during the mid-1980s in Nicaragua, where she was a lay missionary for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse.

She saw how martyrs like Augusto César Sandino, murdered by henchmen of Nicaragua’s dictator in 1934, were honored and remembered in their struggle for justice, liberation, and equality.

“Sandino had become a national hero,” Swan said. “Everywhere you went you would see billboards and spray-painted walls with the words ¡Sandino vive! It’s the written exclamation in Spanish for Sandino Lives!”

Later, back in the U.S., Swan learned the story of abolitionist John Brown and saw a connection. She founded John Brown Lives! in 1999. In 2016, it became the Friends Group for the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in the town of North Elba near Lake Placid. In June, John Brown Lives! won an AARP Community Challenge grant of $10,000 for its “Freedom Story Project.” It has been collecting three- to five-minute audio stories from people who visit the John Brown Farm or want to share their stories of engagement and activism for human rights. To tell your story, email [email protected]

A website for the stories ( launches Aug. 20 in conjunction with the first Adirondack Family Book Festival. The festival takes place 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20, at the John Brown Farm. The book festival features more than a dozen authors and illustrators, many of them winners of Newbery or Caldecott medals. Event details are at Each May, Swan’s organization organizes John Brown Day. This past May marked the 100th anniversary of the first John Brown Day, when Black leaders from Philadelphia made their first pilgrimage to lay a wreath at Brown’s grave.

John Brown himself was a fiery abolitionist. As a youngster, he saw an enslaved boy about his age viciously beaten by his owner. It convinced Brown that slavery was a terrible sin and started his lifelong activism. In the 1840s, Brown was inspired by Gerrit Smith’s give-away of land to Black New York men, making them eligible to vote in New York. Brown bought 244 acres in North Elba to be a friend and neighbor to Black families in an enclave called “Timbuctoo.”

He became nationally known for leading opposition to pro-slavery forces in Kansas and probably best known for leading an October 1859 raid on a U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He intended to arm slaves and inspire them to strike a decisive economic and psychological blow against the slave system. He was captured by troops led by then U.S. Army Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was found guilty of treason against Virginia, conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder. He was hanged Dec. 2, 1859.

Brown’s historical significance inspired Swan to bring his story forward and connect it to the legacies of slavery and to social-justice causes. Swan demurs at being considered a leader who can offer advice. But pressed, she says effective leaders have conviction, compassion, and the humility to learn from others.

Tell me about the inspiration to start John Brown Lives!

It was 1999. I was living in the Adirondacks and was working in Elizabethtown, which is the Essex County seat. One day, out on my lunch break, I walked past the old county courthouse and saw a New York state historic marker, which had been installed in 1959, the centennial of John Brown’s death.

I wrote down the inscription on a little piece of paper, and I still have it. The historical marker says: “John Brown’s body guarded by local citizens rested in this court house on the night of Dec. 6, 1859, on its way to burial in his home in North Elba.”

One of his final wishes before his execution was for his body to be brought back home and buried in the shadow of Mount Marcy and Algonquin.

I was electrified to learn that such an important figure was buried in the Adirondacks. In a way, I also was furious, having grown up in Syracuse, educated in New York for the most part, to not learn anything about John Brown, his presence, and the home where he and his wife, Mary, and their many kids lived. Here’s this significant historic figure, who we’re not talking about, we’re not learning about, we’re not educating ourselves and our youth about, and how he and his family opposed slavery and the ideology of white supremacy that undergirded it since before the nation’s founding.

I should back up a little bit. In 1996, I was working for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is a legal organization that got its start supporting Black people in Mississippi who were trying to secure the right to vote. I was charged with organizing a series of commemorations of the center’s 30-year history.

One of the things we organized was what we called a reverse freedom ride. We filled a bus with teenagers to senior citizens and did this trip stopping at historic places on the civil rights map, but also stopping at places where there were current critical issues. To give a little context, it was a summer of horrific burnings of Black churches, another chapter in the terrorism against Black people.

So, and I’m sorry this is long winded, but a young man who was working with me as an intern said: Martha, we need to stop at Harpers Ferry.

I said to him: Why would we do that?

He said: Well, you know, that’s where John Brown’s raid was.

I pretended I knew. (Laughter) But I didn’t know. My initial thought was: You mean that white person who killed people before the Civil War? But I so respected the young man working with me I said, OK, fine, and we made Harpers Ferry the last stop on our leg home.

The way the ranger at the national historic park spoke about events there, the way he spoke about what John Brown was trying to do, and the way he spoke about the aspirations and struggles of a newly freed people completely turned my head around. I thought how could this be? How could the image and sum total of what I quote unquote know about this figure was as a haunting specter who killed people. That isn’t the story at all.

I felt then, and I still feel that if we were properly and fairly taught about John Brown, we would realize that first, as John Brown and his family believed, all people are equal. And second, as the late historian James O. Horton said, racism and white supremacy are problems of white America that are visited upon Black America. We would begin to learn about slavery’s diversity, longevity, complexity, and its centrality in shaping our nation and in shaping it still.

There are often influences early in life, so I like to ask: Were you in leadership roles growing up?

I’ve been trying to think of that since you asked me to do this. I thought to myself: He should probably ask my siblings. (Laughter) I have eight brothers and sisters.

But I don’t think so. I don’t remember anything.

I grew up in Syracuse. I went to Most Holy Rosary School. The only thing that I can think of was in ninth grade, and it wasn’t a leadership thing. Two of my siblings are older, and I guess I wanted to chart my own course and expand my world. I’d been in the same Catholic school for nine years. I guess on some level I knew the world was bigger and more robust and certainly more diverse, although those wouldn’t have been words that I used at age 15.

My dad (James) was quite conservative and very serious about our Catholic upbringing. I remember the spring of ninth grade. Night after night, I sat at the table with my father to persuade him to let me go to public school for 10th, 11th, 12th grades.

He finally relented. So I went to Corcoran High School. I used to babysit the children of a woman for many years, and I remember her saying to me: If you could convince your father to let you go to public school, I realized you could do anything. (Laughter)

Tell me about your parents.

My dad was a jeweler. He and his brother Tom had Swan and Company Jewelers in the Hotel Syracuse. Dad died quite young. I think in large part the stresses of owning a small business, having a large family, smoking, just all those things got to him. He and my uncle closed Swan and Company, and then he worked for Howe’s and Lemp’s. He was working with M. Lemp Jewelers in downtown Syracuse when he had a massive heart attack and died in 1985. He was 55.

My mom (Marcia) was at home raising a family, but when my youngest sister, Shaileen, was born, because of the economic needs of the family, my mom went back to teaching full time. She taught kindergarten at Lemoyne School on the North Side for nearly 30 years. She died in August 2012. My dad was his influence in his way, and my mom in her way was complementary but also quite different.

Where my dad was a bedrock, Goldwater Republican, at least early in his life, my mom was interested in social justice, although she wouldn’t have used these terms. I don’t say this to disparage my dad at all, but she really paid attention and cared about what was happening, both in Syracuse and around the world. My mom was much more open to change. She had this big embrace to learn, to explore, to discover right up until the day she died. She always believed in me and supported me as I started to chart my own course.

Describe the course you charted.

I graduated from Corcoran in 1976. I was not a stellar student by any means and just kind of floated along. In much the same way, I started college at SUNY Oswego and floated along. I just wanted to travel and dance, and I did a little bit of both, which I think was important in terms of my own development. One day during my sophomore year, I walked into a lecture on campus by a professor from Argentina, Dr. Diana Balmori.

Her lecture was on the importance of being bilingual. I left her lecture determined to become bilingual. I had mostly studied French in high school, and I loved it, and I studied a little Spanish. I looked into taking up French or Spanish in college. It just so happened that the Spanish department was offering an intensive program. I could earn six credits of Spanish per semester as opposed to three in the French department. So I went with the Spanish.

I figured I would end up teaching English to Spanish-speaking kids or Spanish to English-speaking kids. I thought I should take classes to know something about the Spanish-speaking world. The first class I took was a history of Latin American and U.S. relations. I walk into the first day of class, and the professor is Dr. Diana Balmori. I felt like this feels predestined.

One day, Dr. Balmori walks into class with a front-page headline from The New York Times that says the Archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, had been assassinated while saying Mass. The U.S. was heavily funding and arming and training the military and the death squads. A few days prior to his assassination, Archbishop Romero had implored the army and the death squads to, in the name of God and the name of justice, lay down your arms, your weapons.

Bringing that news into our lecture hall brought this immediacy to learning Spanish and to learning about our history. That became a focal point of my life and was instrumental 20 plus years later in the founding of John Brown Lives!

When I graduated in 1981, I wanted to live and work in Latin America. I ended up living and working with farm workers in different parts of the U.S. That, too, was an eye-opening education on my country and how, as a country, we relate to our neighbors in the Americas. Even though I hadn’t crossed a border, it was tremendously revealing. A few years later I was given the opportunity, I was selected, I don’t know what the right word is, to live and work in Nicaragua.

What’s your advice to be an effective leader?

Conviction. Compassion. Humility. A quest for truth. I think really appreciating the lessons to be learned along the way, which is where I think humility comes in. There are things to be learned from other people, who might change your perspective, might change your understanding, your view, and even your own role.

John Brown Lives! wouldn’t be anything if I didn’t rely on others. I don’t mean to reflect this back on myself, but my skills are limited, right? I do well what I do well. But I’m not a historian. I’m not a writer. I’m not a scholar. I know very intimately that John Brown Lives! needs all those people. As a white woman doing this work, I also know that there are perspectives and experiences and realities that I don’t have. A leader needs to be willing to keep learning and to question their own assumptions.

A leader actively seeks and welcomes the experiences and the sets of skills that the work requires. The work is enriched by and better for it.

What qualities do you see in admirable leaders?

One person comes immediately to mind, Soffiyah Elijah. She graduated from Cornell and became a lawyer, and she taught at Harvard Law. After a long career, she founded an organization called the Alliance of Families for Justice in New York City to work with family members of people who have been incarcerated in New York state or with incarceration histories of their own.

Soffiyah does her work with joy and love and tremendous conviction. She’s also really smart and effective. But I think it’s the joy, the love, and the commitment to support and empower the families she works with that stand out. She has a big welcoming tent for people who share the values and mission of the Alliance.

What attributes do you see in poor leadership?

First, I want to differentiate between poor leadership and exploitative power. True leaders always learn and grow and improve, and I think can be afforded forgiveness for leading poorly along the way. Leadership that is exploitative is another story.

When someone in a leadership position uses and abuses their power and manipulates their followers and supporters with fearmongering, hollow promises, misbegotten rewards, and damaging lies, for their own personal, political or economic gain – that is unforgivable to me. That’s not really leadership.

What do you think people need from their leaders?

To be respected. To be treated fairly. To be listened to and empowered to act around a vision that serves humanity and the planet we share.

The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. Last week featured Andy Clements, vice president of operations at Felix Schoeller North America. He describes how to lead change.

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