Dayne Walling was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. In addition to winning a Rhodes Scholarship, he is also a recipient of a Truman scholarship. He has worked on the staff of Mayor Anthony Williams in Washington, D.C. and for the Urban Coalition and Ready for K in Minnesota. In 2006, he moved back to Flint. One year later, he ran for mayor. He lost by only 581 votes to the incumbent in the closest Flint mayoral race in 30 years. Despite his loss, he continues to focus on the challenges the city faces. He started a citizens group called Flint’s Future Now. He is also the founder of 21st Century Performance, a management consulting firm. He plans on running for office again.
What were your father’s and mother’s professions?
Both educators. My father was a high school social studies teacher who graduated up the scale and became a school administrator. He retired about four years ago from being a middle school principal. He worked his whole career in the Flint Public Schools.
My mother was a preschool director at YWCA of Greater Flint while I was growing up. She got her elementary teaching certificate when my younger sister started first grade. She joined the Flint Public Schools as an elementary school teacher for a number of years. She just retired this June and her last couple of years were spent as a teacher on special assignment. She did some reform work on the school system and some literacy and math coaching, so she wasn’t in the classroom those last few years.
What wisdom did they try to instill in you through the years?
Certainly, the value of education. My parents have often talked about when I was going to college, not if I was going to college. It didn’t take me long to catch on, once I got to undergraduate school that it wouldn’t be the last degree I would need for the things I hoped to do. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from college. My father’s father was a Free Methodist minister who was something of a self-taught scholar. We are not a Ph.D.-educated family, but certainly an educated family.
How would you describe yourself as a child? What kind of child were you?
I was a very normal child. We grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of young families. Other than school, we spent time playing kickball, baseball and basketball in the driveway, and running to the elementary school to play football on the big field. I enjoyed the friends that I had. I enjoyed school. I did well in school. I was a straight-A student all the way through high school. I enjoyed sports, outdoor activities and adventure types of games. I loved to go camping, fishing and going “up north” during the summer which is where everybody from southeast Michigan drives to the northern part of the lower peninsula with all the lakes and trees.
Did you feel any pressure to get A’s? Is that why you got A’s?
Not so much. Where it was innate or just the gentle guidance of my parents, I had an internal desire not so much to achieve, but to learn. In my case, I was blessed with some basic abilities so that when I worked hard, I not only learned a lot, but I also attained a high level of achievement. Especially in high school it was much more about learning and wanting to read as much as I could and working on my writing. I enjoyed what I was learning through the process. Thankfully I was in an environment where those efforts were rewarded–a meritocratic system. Some people unfortunately end up in situations where good citizenship and hard work don’t end up being rewarded. Throughout my life, in my family and the Flint schools, I was taught that hard work paid off.
How big of an influence do you think your parents were, or did you have other mentors or role models?
My parents had friends who were primarily educators that they had gotten to know through teaching in different buildings over the years, so a lot of my life was guided by educators. I spent two-thirds of my day inside of a school building where I interacted with teachers and then we had neighbors who were teachers. I’m sure without knowing it my parents would have been influencing me throughout my younger years. Then in high school I look back and see teachers who did extraordinary things to teach their students. I was fortunate to be one of them.
Can you cite an example?
One of my favorite classes was in high school. You can begin in tenth grade taking a class called World Politics taught by Dick Ramsdell. It was basically a class at the end of the day where you primarily prepared to participate in Model United Nations conferences, but Mr. Ramsdell brought in all kinds of other political, social and economic issues into the class. Over the course of the year, even though the bulk of the activity was around international affairs, we talked about national affairs, Michigan, Flint, and Genesee County. The first Iraq war took place January 1991 and that was the second semester of my junior year in high school. A combination of the course and the war (when I saw myself approaching the age at which I could be drafted) was a time of really intense learning for me about the political world around us. The class and his teachings certainly shaped that.
What do you think is your best memory from childhood?
It’s not a singular memory. Because both of my parents were educators, every summer we took road trips to different parts of the country. A lot of my fond memories are of my family seeing new places, doing new things-the Black Hills of the Dakotas, walking the streets of New Orleans, or driving around Houston. There are just a lot of memories of learning a lot of new things. My dad has a really great sense of humor and when you’re in the car for so many hours you get quite a lot of funny occasions, too.
How often did you go on road trips, once a year or twice a year?
At least once a year. Always once during the summer we’d go on a two or three week trip. Sometimes there may have been a second shorter trip, a weeklong trip. Except for the one trip to Mexico City for a Model United Nations conference in my senior year in high school and to Canada, I hadn’t done any travel to Europe, Africa or South America. One of the interesting things when I went to college and I met people who had done a lot of travel overseas was that compared to a lot of people, I had traveled a lot within the United States.
So did your parents take you to the East and West Coasts and down South?
Yes, we covered a lot of territory. I’ve been to every state except Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii.
Getting back to your motivation, obviously, you’re intelligent but what do you think drove you to do more than your peers during high school?
I matured and learned more about the opportunities for volunteer service and neighborhood organizing. I found an outlet for the concerns that I came to carry with me growing up in Flint, a city facing economic devastation that had embedded within it racial and class segregation. I went to the world premiere of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me when I was a sophomore in high school. I went to integrated public schools from kindergarten through high school and I knew the range of affluence and impoverishment that existed within the city, so I saw an outlet as I got older for my concerns in those areas through public and community service.
That’s been my focus. I’m not only doing the learning that I described earlier, now I do that with a purpose. That purpose is not only the enjoyment that comes from learning, but it is increasingly about a pragmatic problem-solving endeavor to try to make the different places I’ve lived-Flint, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.-more equitable and just places.
How much did religion influence your upbringing?
It did in a general way. We started attending a Methodist church when I became school age. My wife, kids and I are back as members at the same church on Court Street in Flint where I grew up, the United Methodist Church. The Methodist faith is something that I can more and more identify with as I examined the religion intellectually, theologically. John Wesley’s original idea of faith and works is a source of inspiration, knowledge and motivation for me now, even more so than it would have been when I was younger. When I was in high school, I participated in volunteer home rehabilitation workdays and took two trips with the church down to the mountains of Appalachia and worked on houses in that area. We did a lot of mission work through the church. It certainly had an effect.
It sounds like Flint more than any individual person was a huge influence on you.
That’s accurate. To me, it’s an American tragedy. It’s a national tragedy that we would allow a city to be essentially discarded. It boomed in the twentieth century with the automobile industry and as that industry changed and waned, the city went with it. It’s not the only place that has gone through economic change, because it happened to the steel mills and before that to the mining towns. It’s the story of too many of our cities, but this one I personally lived through. I saw the sense of depression and decline that hangs over a place where people don’t believe there is opportunity for them and how the circumstances affected my friends and their families.
Why did you go to Michigan State?
This is one of those things that I look back on and I can’t exactly say how it happened. I know my parents certainly preferred that I go to undergraduate in state. Now, if I would have had a deep motivation to be somewhere else, I’m sure I would have overridden their preference. When I took a look at colleges all over the place, I was especially impressed by the residential college called James Madison College, which is part of Michigan State University. It had this combination of a small, liberal arts college feel within a big university and an interdisciplinary social science program with a public policy orientation. The curriculum was very attractive and it didn’t hurt that my parents preferred me to go in state anyway. It was my first choice. I applied very early, because James Madison College accepts on a rolling admissions basis. Once they reach their class limit of 250 or 300, then everyone else is wait-listed. I had applied and was accepted to Michigan State before I even started my senior year. So I got to enjoy high school graduation and in the second semester I wasn’t worried about what was next.
When you were graduating from high school, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I have not been on a traditional career path. I knew going into James Madison College that people came out of that program with a liberal arts education degree in social relations, international relations, or political theory. And they went on to do a whole range of things in government and in communities, some in business and a large number in law. I didn’t want to be lawyer and I didn’t see myself being an educator like my parents. I had a vague sense of wanting to be employed through government or another public or non-profit organization, but I didn’t know enough about those sectors to really see myself in a particular position.
Who suggested that you apply for the Rhodes? Where did you get that notion? I know you’re a Truman Scholar, too.
There’s a sequence there. When I was a sophomore at Michigan State I was doing fine with my grades. I had a 3.6-something grade point average. I took a very wide, diverse set of classes like advanced chemistry and advanced honors calculus-things that really challenged me. And I quickly found that there are people at the university level who were much quicker and more natural learners in those particular subjects than I was. I know 3.6 is not a bad grade point average, but many people who apply for the major scholarships are farther up the scale than that.
In any event, I went to see a counselor at the honors college because I wanted to at least understand what it took to get into a good graduate school and I wasn’t sure I would go straight from undergraduate to a second degree. I wanted to understand the pathway and the courses I needed to take and so on. One of my questions was, are there scholarships or programs that I should be paying attention to and she asked me some questions. Then she said, “I think you should take a look at applying for the Truman Scholarship.”
This was the spring semester of my sophomore year. I took the materials and I thought it was a pretty good fit. I did have a long record of community service. I had issues of public concern that I cared about and I had a diverse transcript of courses that I had taken. I applied for the Truman Scholarship. I had never heard of the Truman Scholarship. I didn’t know anybody who was a Truman Scholar. It really started from this counselor suggesting it to me. Then I had the great blessing of winning a Truman Scholarship.
I went to the Truman Scholarship leadership week in Independence, Missouri. It was at that event folks were talking about the Marshall, the Rhodes and other post-undergraduate scholarships. I had the awareness of the scholarships at that point and had that following summer decided that I didn’t want to go straight on to another degree. I didn’t see any reason to apply for a scholarship. You couldn’t defer those scholarships. If you win, you have to go.
So I was walking down one of the hallways of Michigan State and one of the professors who mentored a lot of other honor students (he was in international relations and I did the social relations programs which was more domestic oriented, but I respected him quite a bit and he’s a pretty funny guy) saw me and said, “Mr. Walling, how’s that Rhodes application coming?”
I said, “I decided that I’m not going to apply.” And he said, “I don’t understand that, because I thought you were somebody who liked a good adventure.” I said, “Well, I do.” And he said, “You need to apply for the scholarship, because if you win it, it’ll be the greatest adventure of your life.”
I went home that evening and realized that he was right. I did like a good adventure. He had also gone on to say studying for a couple more years at Oxford or in the UK would be nothing like going to graduate school here and if you can win one of these things, then it’ll be the time of your life.
That was the pivotal time when I decided that I did like a good adventure and should apply for the scholarship. One of the things about me is that once I’ve decided I want to do something, I do it 100 percent. So I worked very, very hard on my application. I worked very hard on my letters of reference. I spent a lot of time getting feedback from the face-to-face Truman interviews I had done, so I could improve my [Rhodes] interview. I was fortunate enough to get to that point. I really went in feeling very comfortable with myself and very prepared for the selection process.
How did that professor know that you loved adventure? In what other ways did you demonstrate that?
He’s a pretty insightful guy. I did do a lot of outdoor kinds of adventures. I was a backpacker. I say was because now with a family of young kids, I don’t do it very often. I did some modest rock climbing and rappelling in the state. I think he knew of those things. He also knew I had the activist streak in me as far as letters to the editor, letters to state newspapers and student organizations advocating for certain privileges for students against some faculty interest or the administration’s interest. He put it to me in the right way by setting it up as an adventure. At that time, I had not done any additional overseas travel while I was a college student. I had continued to just spend time in Michigan and around the US. The idea of going overseas was a really big leap for me, but he put it in the right light.
Once you got to Oxford how much of a shock was it for you?
I didn’t find the culture in general to be awkward or unfamiliar. What I experienced more than anything (that I didn’t like) was the elitism the institution of Oxford surrounds itself with.
Still in the late ‘90s?
Absolutely. I had been a student in Michigan State and grown up in public schools and [Oxford] is like the Harvard of Harvard, right? I found all sorts of friends and intellectual scholarly mentors. But I found those things on an individual basis. There were a lot of attitudes, practices and rituals of the institutions and colleges that were very disagreeable.
What’s an example?
It’s the pervasive sense of people either being members or excluded. Everything is a club. Many of the events are invitation only. I was on the inside. I wasn’t on the outside of it sour grapes. It was just a whole sense of so many divisions, boundaries, closed places, restricted places. My way of thinking is communities are stronger when they are open and transparent and people cross boundaries. Oxford was the antithesis of all that.
Is there anything you’ve taken away from being a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford into your present day life?
Having now experienced graduate education in this country, the education [at Oxford]-the independent learning and tutoring-was phenomenal. And I did something that’s becoming increasingly unusual; I took a second BA in a subject.
So you spent three years there?
I spent two at Oxford studying modern history and then I spent my third year at the University of London supported by the Rhodes Trust studying urban affairs at Goldsmith’s College. It’s a rare occasion, but if there is a particular academic program that you can make a case for needing to fulfill your aspirations and Oxford does not offer it, then the Rhodes Trust will very selectively support a student attending another institution. University of Oxford had a geography program that did involve some urban planning, but a lot was very British planning oriented. I wanted an urban studies styled degree, found a great program in London, applied to the trust for that exception and very, very nicely was granted it. That year was a very, very different experience.
In what way?
For me, London is now my favorite city anywhere. It’s incredible how diverse the city is, all the layers of history by diverse populations. The economy and the arts and cultural scene are diverse. It’s a city you can still virtually walk in every part of it at least as a young man and feel safe. The public transportation network is phenomenal. That was a wonderful year as a social environment.
What are your thoughts on failure? How do you handle it? What’s your perspective on it?
I don’t want it to feel like I’m ducking this question, but I have one more thought about what I took with me from the Rhodes Scholarship that I think you would be interested in. That is receiving such an incredible gift.
It was three years of graduate level education, of course all completely paid for including spending stipends, unlike scholarships in the United States where only your tuition, books and housing are covered. As a Rhodes Scholar all those things are covered. You don’t even see any of those costs and then money shows up in your bank account every month.
How generous are they?
The will states that it’s to be the most generous scholarship in the world, so as other scholarships raise their stipends and make adjustments then the Rhodes Trust will often make a further adjustment to live up to the founder’s wishes. Now with the Gates Scholarship coming online and some other things, there may be a little bit more equality than there would have been ten years ago. It’s actually a stewardship role the trustees undertake to ensure the scholars are given a generous stipend.
As a single person in the United Kingdom with all the educational and basic living expenses covered, the stipends felt like a very generous amount of money. I’m not a person who worries a lot about expensive clothing and I wasn’t trying to go out and finance a car or invest the money from the Rhodes Trust to make me wealthy later. It’s not generous on that scale. It’s on the order of 9,000 British pounds a year or so, which again being deposited every month seemed like a lot of money for basic day-to-day activities and some occasional travel.
The furthest you traveled was to South Africa. Is that right?
Yes, that was the furthest I traveled, which was also supported by the Rhodes Trust. Every summer a group of students are selected to participate in internships in southern Africa. The experience is connecting students at Oxford back to the region Cecil Rhodes had such a personal connection to. I spent a summer in the north (a winter for South Africa) working for an indigenous black African environmental organization in Port Elizabeth, which is an industrial city on the east coast of South Africa between Cape Town and Durban.
What I took away was a sense of obligation. I had been given so incredibly much, particularly through the Rhodes Scholarship that I had an additional responsibility to make sure I took risks and stands with my own professional and political career that would honor the investment made in me.
There was a discussion started by a Marshall Scholar who has gone on to be a well-renowned human rights lawyer-a guy by the name of Harold Koh. He made a statement at one of our evening gatherings at Rhodes House that it’s ironic that often the people given the most privileges and benefits in a society are those who are least likely to take the risks of enacting change. Those most insulated from any adverse affects that may come from working for something that’s unpopular are too often the folks least likely to stand for something different.
That combined with the sense of obligation I have for all the investments made in me very much shape my outlook on myself and the world around me.
It’s wonderful that you express great gratitude for this gift. But did you ever think well, I worked really hard in college, so it was a deserved reward or award.
No, that’s not how I thought. I understood the nature of the competition which was you had to excel to win. I knew the kinds of people who would also be competing. I don’t view it as a reward. It was always seeking an opportunity. So you asked about failure?
I’m wondering about your general perspective on it from even when you were younger to now. Has it changed now especially since last year?
I see this in my oldest son who is now seven that I never enjoyed doing things I wasn’t very good at. I have a real love of basketball and going to Flint Central High School I didn’t have the opportunity to play on the basketball teams. I did get to golf on the varsity team all four years, even though I wasn’t any way near a par golfer. So there are different benefits that come from growing up in different places. I continued to play a lot of basketball in intramural sports, even though it wasn’t something I was particularly good at.
To some degree, over the years I’ve shied away from different activities or arenas that weren’t very fulfilling to me. I don’t have any particular concern for failure in a traditional sense. Going into the election last year as a young, first-time candidate there was a part of me that always knew the real odds of winning were tough, but the competitive spirit also takes over and doesn’t yield that there may not be a chance of anything but winning.
Flint now as a city government is in really bad shape. A lot of the propped up notions of the city having a budget surplus and all that to help the incumbent win the election has since become clear that they were false. The city is facing extreme financial difficulty. There have been dozens of layoffs. So people will now say to me, “Well, aren’t you glad you’re not in there, then all this would be on your plate?” I’m not one of those people to say because I lost, it was better that I lost. I’m honest about the fact that I failed to win the election, so I’d like to think that I’m big enough to handle failure. It doesn’t become a barrier to doing the same thing again.
Can you give an example of when you pushed yourself to do more than you thought you could do?
Even applying for the Rhodes Scholarship was a pretty pivotal decision on my part to undertake, knowing that I didn’t have the classic profile of a Rhodes Scholar. I wasn’t an Olympic athlete. I wasn’t a brilliant scholar in any one particular field. I did have an extensive record of public and community service, but I hadn’t started my own international aid organization or written a book-things that are pretty common to see. Once you win, you realize there’s a really big diversity.
I saw an opportunity to do something and just tried to embrace it. When I see something I want to do or needs to be done, then I just go for it. By a lot of people’s calculations I didn’t have much of a shot of winning the election against a multi-millionaire in this city. We had just moved to Flint in May 2006 and the election was in November 2007. But I just threw myself into it, worked as hard as I could and got pretty far down the road. [He only lost by 581 votes in the closest margin in a Flint mayoral election in more than 30 years.]
When I came back from London, I really wanted to work for the District of Columbia government for the mayor Tony Williams, who was coming in after Marion Berry. I asked myself what’s the toughest job in Washington, D.C. that a young white college-educated kid could take on. The US Capitol is filled with people like that, so there’s nothing novel about that. But I thought why don’t I try to get myself into D.C. government and help turn around the “Chocolate City.”
What do you do now?
I’m now running my own consulting company. I intend to run for mayor again. Doing this work, where I am able to be independent, work on a wide variety of projects and not be tied to any one institutional agenda, has worked really well.
What kind of consulting do you do?
Primarily, management consulting for non-profit organizations. It’s called Twenty-First Century Performance. I’ve also started a local, non-profit advocacy organization called Flint’s Future Now. We’re doing a combination of public policy research in community education and advocacy around the core challenges the city faces regarding jobs, education and public safety.
I have one last question. What would you say to anyone about going beyond living a mediocre life and leading a rich, fulfilling life?
Every person has some part of them or some part of this fascinating world that can ignite their passion and make them experience joy and accomplishment in unique ways. I feel fortunate to have found that for me-working for social change and being involved in politics. For lots of other people, it comes in all kinds of different forms, but the search for something special is incredibly rewarding. I don’t see why anyone would settle for anything less.