What I Learned From The Heritage Foundation’s New Leader

Paris Dennard /

The Heritage Foundation announced with some fanfare Dec. 19 that with the new year Kay Coles James would become president of the leading policy research organization, which turns 45 in 2018.

For some of those outside the Beltway and on behalf of one of the fastest-growing voting populations, millennials, permit me to pose the questions: Who is Kay Coles James, and why should we care?

In 2003, I attended the funeral of E.V. Hill, the great Baptist pastor, while I was a student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. I remember sitting in the audience at West Angeles Church of God in Christ when it was announced that the White House had sent a representative on behalf of President George W. Bush. Much to my surprise, Kay Coles James, then director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, stepped to the pulpit.

I was awestruck because this lady was someone I greatly respected and admired as a young conservative. Little did I know that I would end up working in the same administration, much less have the honor of Kay’s taking me under her wing as one of the many young African-American conservatives she has mentored along the way.

When Kay founded the Gloucester Institute and restored Holly Knoll, that beautiful house off Virginia’s York River that once belonged to celebrated educator Robert Russa Moton, I visited her home for one of the earliest meetings of what she called the First Saturday Group.

Dozens gathered at Kay’s invitation to foster dialogue about the future of conservative thought in the black community. I distinctly remember her giving everyone a chance to speak on political matters without judgment or ridicule. She created a safe place for us.

As Kay developed programming for her organization, it became clear to me that her intent was to bring back the best of the days of true diversity—diversity of thought, background, life experience, and even race. She would state her mission: “The Gloucester Institute provides an intellectually safe environment where ideas can be discussed and transformed into practical solutions that produce results, and a site to train and nurture emerging leaders.”

Kay at her core is a solutionist, one who believes conservative principles can uplift not tear down, encourage not stifle, and create opportunities not pacify the status quo. She does more than talk about the issues of the day; she wants to find solutions to the problems, and turns to millennials to make them a part of the conversation.

She once told me at dinner: “Paris, I am doing all this for you, for your generation, for the next generation of leaders in our movement. It is not about me.”

The author embraces Kay Coles James after speaking at a Dec. 19 event in her honor. (Photo courtesy Paris Dennard)

The nation and the world need Kay’s voice at this time, in this position, using the prestigious platform at The Heritage Foundation. We need her leadership to fight for and promote the timeless American principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

Kay is uniquely qualified not only because she knows Heritage, having been on its board of trustees since 2005. She also has an impressive resume at least 2 miles long, has advised every modern Republican president, and has even been on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But those things are not as important as the fact that she is a strong woman of faith and a loving mother and grandmother.

Her best quality is that she listens, and seeks understanding. She brings people together, and is honest and unwavering in support of the black community. She has made significant investments in the lives of young college students across this country through her work at Gloucester.

At a time when free speech by conservatives on college campuses is under attack, Kay Coles James has visited campuses to challenge failed liberal ideas and eloquently articulate the heart of a committed conservative.

On several occasions, Kay asked me to be a judge during her “Great Debaters” programs. Students would research a topic then have to debate it on the spot from either the affirmative or negative perspective. The pride she took in seeing healthy intellectual rigor exercised through this competition was inspiring. She challenged these students to dig deeper, anticipate the hard questions, and test their own arguments.

What a beautiful & historic moment ! ?? https://t.co/9LUBKaSsd2

— PARIS (@PARISDENNARD) December 20, 2017

This picture sums up how I feel about @KayColesJames. She is such an inspirational mentor and will do great things while @Heritage! pic.twitter.com/CEmQJr6RGQ

— Leah Victoria (@leah_levell) December 20, 2017

Kay, who as a child lived in public housing in Richmond, Virginia, has challenged the conventional assertions of what it means to be liberal and conservative. She has proved that conservative principles can work for everyone. With faith, opportunity, and hard work, you can sit on corporate boards, serve governors and presidents, and then lead the foremost conservative public policy organization in the world.

In the new year, she will guide a leading think tank’s independent policy research, and her influence and ability to speak truth to power will be of tremendous value to Congress and the Trump administration.

President-elect Donald Trump trusted Kay so much that he asked her to serve as a key figure on his transition team. State governors know her. Leaders on both sides of the aisle, at all levels of government, know her. Thousands of college students, especially at historically black colleges and universities, know her.

For many years, Kay would have students in her Emerging Leaders program participate in personal and professional development training. She was focused on the whole individual, inside and out. All these people, like myself, have come not only to know her but to trust her.

And now many more will come to know and trust Kay’s wisdom through her new work and leadership at The Heritage Foundation.

I have no doubt that Kay will help raise a new generation of conservative, solution-based, independent thinkers. They, like others before them, will come to respect the fact that she, first, listens and, second, acts to make things better—not just for the black community and for millennials, but for the entire nation that she selflessly has devoted her life to improving.

Kay Coles James is nothing less than an unapologetic force for good, and Heritage is blessed to have her as president.