Common Ground: Leadership is not bound by gender

A woman as the head of a boys leadership academy was a challenging role Tonya Robertson took on in 2005.

Even when others said a woman couldn’t successfully be in charge of Young Leaders Academy of Baton Rouge, she believed the program’s mission to promote integrity, courage, perseverance and responsibility, superseded gender.

She also knew she had huge shoes to fill. Kirt Bennett created the academy in 1993 and served as its leader until 2005. Bennett died unexpectedly in 2010.

The national award-winning leadership and educational nonprofit program serves about 40 urban-area boys, many from single-parent homes.

Robertson, one of nine children raised in a single-parent home, proved to be a natural for the job. She understood the hardships and economic demands facing many of her participants’ families and continued running programs, such as the parental support network and after-school homework assistance.

“The real success is the young men who are making their mark,” Robertson said. “We have young men in our community who were little boys and who are now policemen, firemen, a college professor and we have engineers.”

Robertson has also maintained the programs’ principles.

For her efforts, Robertson will become the first woman to receive the Coretta Scott King Award for excellence in leadership on Jan. 20, presented by The Baton Rouge MLK Awards Executive Committee.

“This award challenges me to be better,” Robertson said. “Mrs. King was the quintessential woman, and she did the hard work. I feel overwhelmed, but I’ve spent a whole career loving other people’s children. I don’t have my own. I just love what I do. It’s challenging.”

Robertson worked alongside Bennett from 2001 through 2006, learning the program and mentoring many of its boys.

“Leadership has no gender. Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman,” she told me recently. “You have to be generous, principled, a giver, have a heart for other people, do hard work, and I have to challenge myself to be better.”

Robertson, a Southern University graduate and former East Baton Rouge Parish school teacher, wants to be a good role model for her boys.

“I’m never off,” she said. “I go to baptisms and communions for our boys.”

She’s grateful for her kids’ parents and for her program manager, Ken McFarland.

“The award has made me start evaluating my life,” she said. “I try to live a life of example so my boys don’t have to just listen to what I say, they can see what I do.”

She said she lives by the Bible scripture “Faith without works is dead.”

“So, I work,” she told me.

Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer. She can be reached at