Joining Soul with Role: President Hinton Shares the Power and Potential of Leading from the Margins

Joining Soul with Role: President Hinton Shares the Power and Potential of Leading from the Margins

Diversity and Inclusivity, President Hinton, Special Events

April 4, 2024

Joining Soul with Role: President Hinton Shares the Power and Potential of Leading from the Margins Mary Dana Hinton

As she took to the podium in Hollins’ duPont Chapel before an audience of students, faculty, staff, alumnae/i, and Roanoke community members on March 28, University President Mary Dana Hinton was struck by the remarkable circumstances of her presence there.

“Even in this place that I am so honored and privileged to call home, I know that it was far more likely historically that people who looked like me would have built the building as opposed to being given the microphone,” she said. “Without a doubt, I am someone who hails from the margins.”

In “Leading from the Margins: A Talk with Mary Dana Hinton, Ph.D.,” Hollins’ 13th president shared her lived experiences as an emerging leader that were the basis for her new book, Leading from the Margins: College Leadership from Unexpected Places. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press in February, Leading from the Margins has earned praise from Council of Independent Colleges President Marjorie Hass, who stated, “Dr. Hinton is an inspiring and wise guide to transformational leadership. Her insightful book remakes our vision of what college can and should become.”

“When I talk about leading from the margins,” Hinton noted, “I ask: What does it mean to be a leader when you come from a place that’s been denied and disregarded? How might your marginal identities support and advance your leadership, especially when your leadership demands defiance? What does it mean to align with those in the margins, regardless of your own origins? What happens as you progress in your own education or career, and you suddenly find opportunities to lead, not only in response to others’ needs, but because it’s what you desire?” Hinton admitted that the questions are complicated, but “it’s my most sincere hope that they remain a tangled knot in your mind, and that you will wrestle to unwind it alongside me.”

Hinton explained that in the margins of contemporary American society, “we are talking about the people who, in the minds of many, don’t matter. The marginalization of many of the nation’s inhabitants is the product of political, economic, and social systems that actively pushed certain segments of society aside, into the shadows, off the stage, and into the margins.”

Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton: “I am not the leader I am despite my marginality. I am the leader I am because of my marginality.”

Leaders from the margins, Hinton added, include women, those who are differently abled, immigrants, and people of color. But instead of “diminishing us,” Hinton said she believes that perspectives gained from living in the margins “give us new ways of viewing the world, a readiness to question inherited assumptions, and the tools to give witness to the harm these assumptions do.”

She stressed, “I am not the leader I am despite my marginality. I am the leader I am because of my marginality. Leadership from the margins demands a different skill set, a different path, a different destination. That destination is not to arrive in the center,” the term she uses to characterize the status quo.

Hinton identified three factors that uniquely power the leadership of those from the margins: defiance, desire, and deserving.

“Leaders who have defied and continue to defy great odds will have an approach that may not be easily recognized or valued by those in the center,” she said. “But being in the margins equips one to observe the center and ask questions. It compels one to defiance. It is defiance that enables me to speak my truth to colleagues who want to dismiss the role of education and creating social, economic, and civic equity.”

Hinton cautioned that while defiance can be a driving force, it should not be the only source of motivation for successful leadership. She advocated “using our positions and our resources to focus not only on being defiant, but also on desiring more and deserving more. A central question for leadership and those who are marginalized is how we can live into what we feel and what we deserve for ourselves. We defy because we resist being defined by the center. But if we migrate to desire and deserving, think about what that would open up.”

This transformation, Hinton argued, “requires that we discern, be faithful to, and promote personal vocational aspirations whose daily work is about shaping a community.” The word “vocation” has a profound connotation, she said, because it “denotes work, certainly, or even career, but it also speaks to something deeper, something that compels your effort well beyond the daily work rewards of salary, title, and other incentives. Vocation is what tethers your heart to the work and ideally to your institution. Vocation is what marries ‘soul’ and ‘role.’ A personal vocation can be leveraged to help you become an agent of change, and if you are willing to be vulnerable and courageous in your actions and about your marginality, I believe that institutional change is possible.”

Hinton was straightforward in conveying that leading from the margins is hard work. “The attention to self and to vocation demands that we turn away from always monitoring and calibrating our actions based on the expectations of others. It requires that we shift occasionally from dwelling in the land of defiance to dwelling in the land of desire. It requires a new mindset. If your mindset is one of lacking, that you don’t deserve happiness, that you don’t deserve success, that you don’t deserve peace and comfort, then your desires will simply remain that, and they will fail to become realized. To work toward our desires, we must believe in our right to those things, that all of us in the margins are deserving.”

Urging the audience to “think through how you will honor your heart and your humanity,” Hinton offered reassurance that “within the margins, things do change.” She spoke of her mother, who lived to the age of 94 and yet was never issued a birth certificate, and her father, who was born into a family of formerly enslaved people and was never granted an education. “Yet with love, they raised a president of Hollins University, and I honor and embrace that history and those margins every day. Maya Angelou wrote, ‘May gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayers.’ Tonight, I will kneel in gratitude for all of you for being in the margins alongside me.”

Before Hinton’s talk, Elani Spencer ’27, Roanoke’s first youth poet laureate, read her poem, “Perennials.” She said she chose that particular work to open the event because it “encourages people to lead with love and compassion.”