The executive director of the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum reflects upon leadership, Black history, and the value of apprenticeships.
Delray Beach native Charlene Farrington is on a mission to share the history of Palm Beach County’s Black communities with residents young and old. As the executive director of the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach, she oversees programming that seeks not only to present this information in an effective manner, but to preserve it for future generations and use it as a teaching tool to promote understanding, equity, and unity.
Farrington notes that the county’s Black history was something that she herself was unaware of until her mother, Vera, began working in earnest to establish the Spady Museum in the mid-1990s. “I would sit in sometimes on the meetings, on the discussions, and on the planning” she recalls, “and I realized that I knew very little, if anything, about the Black history of Palm Beach County. I knew that I had to be a part of that simply for my own edification, so that I could learn about the history of Black people in the area.”
Although the Spady Museum is currently closed to visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic, the organization is still hosting online programming, including a “Stories of COVID-19” audio exhibit presented in partnership with Palm Health Foundation.
Here, Farrington shares insight into her role as executive director and the importance of working together as a team to achieve one’s goals.
PBI: You’ve been with the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in different roles since it opened in 2001. What have been the main goals you’ve wanted to achieve as executive director?
Farrington: What I want to do more than anything else is make sure that children who are educated in Palm Beach County, like I was, do not graduate from high school and go on to college careers or whatever else without at least having heard that there is a rich narrative of Black history in Palm Beach County. Because when I was in school, I had no idea. All I knew about was Dr. Martin Luther King. I did not know about the local Black heroes and what they accomplished and how they helped to create Palm Beach County. I want to make sure that the children of Palm Beach County, if they haven’t had a thorough education, they at least are aware that there is Black history that is rich and worth knowing.
Why is this history something children of all races should learn at an early age?
Everyone really needs to know this history specifically because knowledge of positive accomplishments builds respect. You respect individuals who were involved in doing something positive and creating a positive community and space where you live. I think what has been missing in our society is the contributions that Black people have made to this country have not been recognized and, therefore, Black people have not been respected in their places. That’s one of the main reasons why everyone needs to know this history, not just those who are descendants of the history-makers.
What’s been your proudest achievement thus far as executive director?
I don’t want to use the word proud; I just want to say, “I’m happy it happened.” I can never attribute what goes on here just to my efforts. It is a total team effort between my other staff person, Sharon Blake, who handles the finances and the grant writing, and our board of directors. But the first thing that we really did that I think is significant is in 2008, 2009, in a climate where the value of Black history was not really being accepted, was not being recognized by a lot of people in power, we stabilized the financial situation of this organization. We made sure that this organization was viable and sustainable. And then after that, creating a strong youth program is one of the things I’m most proud of because, like I said before, I want to make sure our youth are aware of how strong and how positive the history of Black people is in Palm Beach County.
What tenets do you consider or try to uphold within your role as a leader?
The first thing I try to practice is, when we do what we do for others, we should not be seeking credit for it. There have been a lot of opportunities for programming and events to take place in Palm Beach County that did not come off because people were arguing about who was going to be credited for the effort. And that can really set people back. That can set projects back. I try to operate from a perspective that we are all worker bees, and what needs to be given credit is the positive outcome of the project.
As a young professional, what role models did you look up to and what did you find most inspiring about them?
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched The Lion King, but when Simba was a baby he stumbled across his father’s footprints and put his own feet in them. That’s all I’m doing. I’m putting my feet in my mother’s footprints. But there were others who she collaborated with over the years who were like other moms to me. Elizabeth Wesley and Addie Lee Hudson, those two women come to mind because they always seemed to be working together. They worked as a team. Sometimes they worked collaboratively, sometimes individually, but they were all working toward the same thing. I had them all to watch and pattern myself after.
What’s one book you feel everyone should read once in their life and why do you think it’s a worthy read?
My favorite book is always the book that I’m reading right now. So, what I’m reading right now with the children is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. They insist in the book that it’s not a history book, but it’s a history book that leaves out the minutia—the dates, the times, what happened first, what happened second, what happened third—and it tells the history of racism in the United States in story form. It’s what I wish I had when I was in school, because I may have majored in history in college if I had a text like this. But, of course, we had the text that started out with the dates and I started falling asleep, because I’m not a numbers person, I’m a stories person.
What resources do you think are most helpful to young people of color in their quests to succeed in their careers?
I think that we as a culture, and I mean in the U.S. period not just Black people, we need to get back to the apprenticeship-style training. I’m a museum director; I need to have a young person working with me side by side, learning the ins and outs of what it means to be a museum director. Whether they end up wanting to be that after they select their career, that’s up to them. But at least they have hands-on training on what it takes to get the job done. I think we all need to have an apprentice, someone we are training to do what we’re doing—sort of like what happened with my mom and me. Because I was close enough, I could see what was going on and it sparked my interest. We all need to get back to that because I think that’s where children are floundering. They’re not sure where they are in the world because no one is even trying to force anything on them anymore. People used to feel like they were being forced into a career because their parents were training them. But they always had that knowledge, whether they used it or not. Children these days are just floating in the wind and they’re not anchored. They need to be anchored through apprenticeship.