Whether it’s at the Oscars, the statehouse or on the floor of Congress, much of our country’s ongoing struggle with racial hatred and racial healing traces back to how we memorialize our history of slavery, the Civil War and the Confederacy. Few are having such a direct impact on this critical and messy conversation as Christy Coleman, the first woman and first African-American to lead the American Civil War Museum. In fact, Time magazine recently named her one of “31 people changing the South.”
From her office in Virginia, Christy talked to me about leading and change, as well as life lessons from being in the room and pushing uncomfortable conversations.
Follow your passion, even when it means breaking with convention.
“I was born breach, so my parents knew I was destined to do things my way,” jokes Christy, whose personal decisions and career pathway haven’t always aligned with conventional wisdom.
Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia—a city known for tourism centered on Revolutionary War artifacts and actors reenacting scenes from colonial times—Christy’s passion for how history is memorialized started at a young age. Though it wasn’t her original plan, by her late 20s she realized that “the museum world was for me.”
Christy knew it was necessary to pursue higher education to move up in the industry. Conventional wisdom says you should get a doctorate, but Christy elected to get a master’s degree instead, so she could stay close to the work. “The year I considered pursuing my Ph.D.,” she noted, she had already landed her first CEO opportunity.
Not only has Christy pushed for hard changes, but she’s also broken multiple ceilings. The museum industry, especially at the C-suite, is dominated by men and white people. As just one example, at this high point of her career, people still presume that her biggest career aspiration as a Black woman would be to run the Museum of African-American History—as opposed to any of the countless other esteemed museums she’s clearly qualified to lead.
As someone whose career pathway has also been described as “non-traditional,” I personally resonated with Christy’s story (even down to the detail of turning down a doctoral program). Research shows that women have to fight much harder than men to establish their credibility as leaders, regardless of their track record of success or qualifications, and that’s even harder for women of color.
Pushing change means embracing trouble, but only for a higher purpose.
Christy’s career is characterized, among many things, by a fearless spirit to ask tough questions and break barriers. “To paraphrase Harriett Tubman,” she says, “you want change in your life, don’t be afraid to trouble the waters.”
Early on, she became the director of public history for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and managed to convince the organization to allow her to envision, lead, and execute a reenactment of a slave auction. It was a remarkable achievement at an institution many think of as whitewashing history. “Uninformed people thought it wasn’t the appropriate place to deal with slavery…like Disneyland but without the rides.” But her rationale was clear: “American history is messy and we need to look at it to deal with it.”
Practically overnight, Christy became a sensation. Calls from TV networks and talk show hosts poured in. But so did calls from critics. Some questioned her motives, while others questioned her very right to expose this part of American history at all.
I asked her if she was hoping for the kind of attention she received, if it was purposeful. “No, [I was] purposeful at trying to be innovative and trying to find larger historical truths…[my goal was to] turn over the tapestry to see the threads on the backside.” Like former Harvard President Drew Faust, who I interviewed for another In The Room column, Christy has always been driven by a higher purpose and impact, not by fame or recognition.
Build a base of support.
Christy recognized early in her career that persevering through challenges requires support.
Her experience at Colonial Williamsburg was jarring. “I was 30 years old so it was really nerve-wracking…the Foundation chose to make me the face of the discussion because it was my program.” With that level of public scrutiny, she continued, “I had no experience.”
She relied on, “a skilled public relations team, a strong personal network, and the faith…humility that is required for the work.” She also garnered strength from the letters she received from people thanking her for her courage to speak the truth.
All along, Christy has always kept close, informal mentors who believed in her and set an example for what was possible. She mentioned two women in particular who “have passed on…but [their] legacies are blazed on my soul.” She credits a “sisterhood” of black women in particular who “gather over dinner and genuinely check in with each other.” She credits male mentors with “opening doors.”
This is about “building one’s base of support,” she said.
Christy also wasn’t afraid to seek professional help. For a period of time—partially because of the stress of public pushback—she developed a fear of crowds. With the help of therapy and her support circle, she got better. “[It] came down to having a sense of control,” she explained, “once I let go of that things got better.”
I’ve had so many conversations with leaders, particularly those from groups not traditionally represented in the room, about the stress and personal toll it takes to break ceilings. So many will benefit from how openly Christy shares her strategies for healing and self-care.
Make your own balance.
One of the most striking ways Christy tended to her own needs came in 2008. After making a name for herself at Colonial Williamsburg and later becoming the CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, Christy affirmatively “stepped back to a smaller organization to be home with my children.”
After having her son, Christy was initially able to meet her career and mom goals. She brought her son on the road, took breastfeeding breaks at work (she could get home and back within an hour), and adjusted her hours to spend quality time with him.
But a more difficult pregnancy with her daughter and having two kids made the trade-offs between work and home more stark. So, she made the decision to spend a few years consulting and advising others as opposed to running something big. “I could not keep up the pace and I did not want to feel like I was not fulfilling my duties,” she shared.
“I had no interest in having it all,” she explained, “I had interest in doing what I love well.” She continued, “I want to be a mother, I want to be available to my children and my husband…with a fulfilling career.”
Plenty of friends and detractors warned her this would be a mistake, but Christy followed her path. At one point, a board member told her point blank that she needed to choose if she wanted to be a CEO or a mom. When she pushed back on the inappropriate nature of his remarks, many of his colleagues—even some of her own supposed allies—defended him.
I am blessed with a vast network of friends who happen to also be CEOs, both men and women. Every single one of my female friends has been given some version of this “talk” and none of the men, even those who prioritized fatherhood. When I shared this with Christy, she echoed my concerns, saying that unlike the treatment of mothers in the workplace, “We value men when they want to be both a parent and professional.”
She had people who supported her decision too. Her female mentors helped her understand the “balance was mine to make.” Several of her male mentors reassured her that she’d be fine and would be able to step back into a leadership role as long as she stayed connected to the work and kept her name in the space.
And that’s what happened. After a fulfilling several years prioritizing motherhood, Christy landed her most high-profile CEO role at the American Civil War Museum.
Have a sense of purpose…and a sense of humor.
We ended our conversation talking about her current work. For some, the fact that Christy, a Black woman, is leading a museum about our country’s most troubling legacy causes discomfort. She also leads a commission in Richmond, Virginia—not far from recent white supremacy rallies—that seeks to update and add context to Confederate monuments.
She shared, “If my presence helps people understand [racism’s] impact is still relevant, then I’m fine with that.”
Ever the philosopher, Christy added, “The good lord has an extraordinary sense of humor with me.”
Despite her obvious fortitude in the face of criticism and her bold leadership in breaking barriers, her one piece of advice for aspiring change agents is simply to listen. “Sometimes the best thing to do is sit down, shut up, and listen…I practice listening. Not just listening for agreement but for better understanding.”
Throughout, but especially at this part in the conversation, I am struck by her moral clarity and personal purpose, but also her willingness to be vulnerable. “I am exactly where I need to be,” she says. And boy, are we lucky that’s true.