When Leaders R.I.S.E.: Thanks to and Lessons from Real Heroes

Op-ed by Dr. Ryan Ross

We live in a perplexing era. Many would argue that there is a leadership crisis. It’s a time when common sense is a punchline. Inequity is normalized. The most deserving people lack access. At every turn, people in positions of power are taking advantage of those without it. The examples are countless: voter suppression in Georgia and no accountability for police who commit murder. There are disproportionate education funding models, pay inequality for BIPOC, and no food and water while waiting in line to vote. (Governor Kemp: Jim Crow, much?) The list goes on and on. The reality is that there is a constant attempt to assassinate authentic leadership and altruism in this country. 

While this is the case, and we must stand against the trending hypocrisy, we can’t lose sight of authentic leadership’s goodness and power. We see these examples in individuals like Colorado’s Honorable Wilma J. Webb and former Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb. They serve as beacons of hope and are a guiding light for our communities. Authentic leadership exists, and we can learn so much from servant leaders like the Webbs, who are the inspiration for this piece.

In the age of two pandemics, racism and COVID-19, we can never have too much inspiration; we must be intentional about finding it and sharing it with everyone. I have made it my business to seek out the best in my community and people in general. Inspiration was not hard to find. Goodness is everywhere. Stupidity, isms, and supremacy may overwhelm the news, but they do not conquer the village. My furnace of eternal optimism continues to burn bright because great people inspire me, and I feel compelled to express appreciation. Thank you, community, but today I express gratitude to these titans of grace, service, and altruism: the Honorable Wellington and Wilma Webb.   

Authentic leadership is rooted in inspiring service in the public’s interest and selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is doing the right thing because of who we are rather than because of who is watching. Real leaders understand that our calling is to flex our purpose, not our power. Authentic leadership is intentional, and real leaders inspire.

Thank you to the Webbs for the encouragement, example, and authentic leadership they display every day, even when they don’t have to. Collectively these two have served our community for nearly 80 years.

We watched Mayor Webb serve in the Colorado House of Representatives and sponsor legislation that allowed women to get credit on their own legally. He built 85% of the Denver International Airport and created Black wealth through his minority and women’s airport concession program. We watched him walk every neighborhood in the city and county of Denver to become the 42nd and first Black mayor of Denver. He created the Denver Health and Hospital Authority and even received President Barack Obama’s appointment as U.S. representative to the United Nations.   

Denver’s forever first lady, the Honorable former Colorado State Representative Wilma Webb, served 13 years in the Colorado House, sponsored and passed legislation, and created all of the activities of the Inaugural  Holiday throughout Colorado as she coined the term Marade, a joining of words “march” and “parade”, which symbolizes fighting for civil rights and celebrating the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  While in office Webb sponsored legislation for a statewide drug treatment program, long-term health care for the elderly, and mandates that Denver Public Schools must elect board members who are from the districts they are serving. She added to her sponsored bills full-day kindergarten and created the Denver Art, Culture, and Film Foundation. She was also appointed by former President Bill Clinton to serve as the U.S. Department of Labor’s chief administrator for Region 8, which serves Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Together, the duo worked to bring the new Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sculpture to City Park and the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library’s construction and opening. These community titans are living legends and more than worth the words written and the time it takes to read this. Their story should be told, accomplishments recorded and celebrated, because they are literally walking Black excellence.   

While appreciative of their past, my thanks aren’t for those accomplishments. These roses today are for what they are doing now – the right thing when nobody is looking. What can you do for living legends who don’t care for acknowledgment, have won every award, have no more room for plaques, who don’t need much? It’s simple; you say, “Thank you. We see you.”

Honorable Wellington and Wilma Webb, I see you. I have watched over the past year as you faced existing chronic ailments as the pandemic affecting all people made you captives in your home and medical challenges, emergencies, and loss of family compounded an already challenging time. I watched you face this thing with grace. I saw Black love through the care, concern, and commitment of a wife who loves and adores her husband. I saw the vulnerability of a lion of a man as he reluctantly agreed to listen to his doctors and bride and sit down to rest even though that wasn’t his will. 

Even though no one would blame these champions if they politely closed their blinds and looked internally to heal and rest, they didn’t. I saw no signs of leaving the community. I saw resilience and altruism. I saw people in the midst of their own storm R.I.S.E. I watched the Webbs give RosesImpact organizations, selflessly Serve in a season of suffering, and Empower everyone around them. This selflessness, authenticity, and altruistic mindset is why they are true living legends and why a THANK YOU is more than warranted.

From pain and exhaustion, there was mentorship, advice, and sponsorship. There was information sharing and advocacy. There was learning of technology to cope and adapt to the new connective realities of COVID-19. Were my glasses clean? What was I witnessing? How was this possible from an in-home hospital bed, providing 24-hour care, nursing a husband back to health, and honestly being in their 70s? Even in the middle of a personal storm, the Webbs never missed a beat.

Truly the time and talent were enough, but understanding the trying time, they also gifted the treasure. The Webbs gave roses and honored the work of more than 30 organizations in our community with a collective gift of more than $150,000. Organizations ranged from churches like Zion Baptist, youth programs like Kids Above Everything and community impact organizations like the Urban Leadership Foundation of Colorado to the fire department, hospitals, and homelessness organizations, education funds, youth sports organizations, and more. During one of the hardest years of their lives, I watched them make other lives easier.

Their impact over the last 15 or so months has been nothing short of amazing. I want to thank them for their selfless service and for yet another lesson. The Webbs’ real leadership example teaches us that we are all we need, that we are the superheroes we have been waiting on. No matter our storm, we can choose to shine brightly on those around us, make positive impacts in the lives of those we care for and our community. They show us that happiness is something we must create. We have a choice in a world full of hypocrisy and isms to create intentional spaces where we thrive. The Webbs demonstrate that each member of the village doing “what they can when they can” will indeed change the world.

We sometimes forget how a simple deed empowers others to move forward, not quit, and adopt a pay-it-forward attitude. Honorable Webbs, thank you for the reminder. We see you. 

Thank you for your excellence and leadership. 

We salute you.