Union Institute & University’s historical commitment to ethical and creative leadership and the insights gained over the past 50 years as a leader in adult learning is the inspiration for the monthly series, Union Leaders.
In recognition of MLK Day, January 15, 2018, and Union’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Studies Specialization, alumnus Dr. Owen Cardwell Jr. shares his insights on leadership that started when he was 14 and one of two African-American students to integrate a Lynchburg, Virginia high school in 1962. He was only 15 when he sat at the feet of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Cardwell has been in the ministry for over 45 years and is the founder and pastor of New Canaan International Church. He has worked tirelessly to address the breakdown of the family and increase father involvement as a solution to many social ills including poverty, poor health outcomes, academic underachievement, crime abuse and a growing financial commitment from taxpayers.
In the Q&A below, Dr. Cardwell shares how he has used leadership to improve the lives of families and communities.
Q. How do you define leadership?
A. Leadership is person centered. Leadership is process centered. Leadership is purpose centered. The three have to be in tandem. Leadership must engage the collective wisdom of the community. An individual may have to be a catalyst but a collaborative approach must be taken to lead.
Q. When did you first feel that you were a leader? What was the experience?
A. I was one of two African-American students to integrate a Lynchburg, Virginia high school in 1962. I helped to desegregate local restaurants and other places that would not serve African-Americans. I have been jailed. Dr. King blessed us by coming to Lynchburg in those early days, before motels accepted African-Americans. He stayed at the home of a local dentist and at 15 I sat on the floor at his feet and listened to his message.
Q. Share an example of how you’ve put leadership in action.
A. The twin demons of mass incarceration and the opioid crisis is a scourge in our region and nation. Our church, New Canaan International Church, brings inmates who are on work release to church every Sunday. We pick them up from the local jail and have worship with them, provide a meal and fatherhood training. After four weeks they can invite their families to join us.
We are the only church in the nation that has started this program and we are in the process of replicating the program to other churches nationwide.
The incarcerated have always had a heart in my ministry. I was at the forefront of proposing video conferencing visitation for inmates at one of the Virginia Department of Corrections facilities. The program has expanded to four visitor centers and ten prisons in Virginia, touching the lives of over 2,000 family members and more than 650 inmates.
I reach out to youth and families through the Heroes and Dreams Academy where I serve as executive director. Our mission is to encourage and empower youth to reframe their life narrative to transition into responsible adulthood.
Q. What leader do you admire most and why?
A. Dr. King and my long term mentor Dr. Virgil Wood. Dr. Wood is a young 86 and still a giant in civil rights. Dr. Wood recommended Union to me.
Q. What is your favorite inspiring leadership quote?
A. The impossible is what nobody can do until somebody does it.
*Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch
About Dr. Owen Cardwell Jr.
Dr. Cardwell is a pastor, civil rights activist and social service advocate. He is the founder and pastor of New Canaan International Church in North Richmond, VA. He’s on the leadership team for Reaching Flood Stage and the Executive Director and founder of Heroes and Dreams Academy.
Dr. Cardwell is the author of “Ministry with Prisoners and Families-The Way Forward and Giant Killer.” He proposed a demonstration project to provide video conferencing visitation for inmates at one of the Virginia Department of Corrections facilities (Wallens Ridge State Prison). The program was accepted and launched in April 2006. The program has expanded to four visitor centers and ten prisons in Virginia. In its first four years, this program alone touched the lives of over 2,000 family members and more than 650 inmates and has a successful track record assisting targeted families to maintain connectivity with their incarcerated loved ones.
He is married to Flora S. Cardwell and the father of four children. Dr. Cardwell received a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies concentration is Ethical and Creative Leadership with a specialization in Martin Luther King studies from Union Institute & University.