An article in Sunday's Triangle & State section incorrectly stated the name of the Kappa Alpha Psi program through which Sterling E. Freeman has mentored children. He has mentored through the fraternity's STAR program.
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DURHAM -- In a world cluttered with self-improvement books, life coaches and leadership experts, Sterling E. Freeman hides humbly. He doesn't have an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale or a script about conquering big mountains or climbing back to the top of life after hitting rock bottom, as a motivational speaker might.
The people he deals with probably wouldn't be impressed anyway.
He's constantly in front of up-and-coming leaders who are largely focused on getting ahead. But as executive director of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative, an organization that promotes diversity among emerging leaders in North Carolina, Freeman has managed to change lives.
Freeman, 39, does that not with words but examples. He confronts ordinary struggles, including his own reckoning with prejudices and faith, career and legacy.
"There's a story that I have that's ever evolving," he says. "I try to live it more than I tell it."
His started as a charmed life. He is the youngest of five children, born in Little Rock, Ark., to a chemical-company executive father and dental hygienist mom, who encouraged confidence, perseverance and grace.
He was an honor student and standout athlete. He turned down invitations to attend Dartmouth, Cornell and Yale to accept a basketball scholarship at Davidson College, from which he graduated with an economics degree in 1992. He took a job in Charlotte as a commercial loan officer, managing a $25million portfolio. And he married his high-school sweetheart.
"Whatever he decided to do, particularly when it came to school, it came easily for him," said Michelle Graham-Freeman, who met her future husband in the early 1980s, when friends called him Moochie. He was too good to be true for her mom, who is now chided for skeptically wondering, "We'll see how long it lasts."
His journey since Davidson has been less about what is easy, and more about doing what feels right.
A few years into his banking career, he became jaded. "I felt myself longing to be connected to people in a different way," Freeman said during a recent interview. That led him to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, where he earned a divinity degree in 1999. He ended up back in banking, in need of a paycheck, but still in need of a career change.
In 2001, he learned about Wildacres Leadership Initiative. He was selected for the organization's William C. Friday Fellowship for Human Relations. The two-year program promotes the tenets of integrity, intention and inclusion by encouraging a diverse group of about 20 go-getters to share and reconcile differences to help them become more effective leaders.
"I knew coming out of the program that some change was coming," Freeman said. Indeed, when he finished the program in 2003, WLI was looking for a director. Freeman grabbed it. And he has led fellows since.
Friday Fellows are chosen from all religions, professions, income brackets, political ideology, sexual orientation and race. Sort of like how reality television show guests might be selected.
"We do a whole curriculum around learning to share across those boundaries," Freeman said. "learning to be in discovery across those boundaries, being able to stumble and fumble and be in conflict with those boundaries, and use those things to build relationships with one another."
And Freeman often is in the thick of those conversations, even long after fellows complete the program, offering guidance and perspective.
Christian Friend, a Charlotte consultant who finished his fellowship last year, says Freeman helped him resolve quandaries of race and religion. Friend, 34, now goes out of his way to invite people of other races and cultures to his get-togethers. Friend also left a church where he was a deacon, in part because it shunned gays.
Freeman is "great at listening and being inclusive in terms of ideas and allowing that to shape his vision," Friend said. "We define integrity as not just knowing what you believe, but the willingness to act on that with a public statement."
And as Freeman's vision has changed shape, he has acted.
During his fellowship, classmate Susan Acker-Walsh told him she wanted to marry another woman. "Getting close to someone whose orientation was in conflict with his faith tradition brought up some things for him that he had to start to deal with and to reconcile," she said. "I think a big part of his own journey was figuring that out."
She remembers him saying he couldn't support that. "It was a very powerful and very painful conversation," said Acker-Walsh, who lives in Chapel Hill.
Last year, Freeman invited Acker-Walsh to lunch. She thought they'd talk about fundraising. Instead, he wanted to tell her that he had become more accepting. "I was just blown away by that," she said. "It gives me great hope that people don't forget these conversations and that the world can change. ... I cried on my way home."
Freeman since has stepped back from the church where he had been an associate minister for 11 years, in part because he's looking for something more inclusive. "I'm trying to figure out how I might be a minister in different ways," he said.
He approaches that discovery with the same zeal that won him accolades for hustle as a college basketball player, sometimes revealing a fierce competitive drive.
Last year, during the last leg of a canoe trip, Friend taunted Freeman, commenting on Davidson's lack of a crew team as Friend sailed past. The race was on. "All of the sudden his canoe just starts flying down the river," Friend said. "It wasn't even close." Afterward, Friend recalled, "he didn't say anything. He just went back to being humble Sterling."
Acting on ideas
Freeman keeps an office in a modest brick building in Durham. In the conference room, a dusty dual-cassette stereo sits behind a purple couch. Hanging on the wall is a watercolor painting of a dragonfly with a motto, "Ideas become real at the moment of action."
He speaks broadly about leadership philosophies. But he doesn't mention that he has helped recently released prisoners transition back to the real world. Or that he has helped build houses for the poor. Or that he helped organize a community group that is focused on education, criminal justice and economic development in Durham.
Last month, he was named Man of the Year by Kappa Alpha Psi's Middle Eastern Province. Freeman, chaplain of the Durham chapter, mentors children through the service fraternity's Guide Right program. And he has trained members for leadership. Freeman didn't tell his wife that he was in the running for the award. She learned secondhand from their daughter Joia, 13.
In 2007, he spoke to a group of Kappas on "living for something that will outlive you," said Jeffrey Roberts, chairman of the Guide Right program for the province.
"His life is his sermon," Roberts said. "He's passionate about building, about empowering people to do. That's the social realization of his ministry. It's more than just to the pulpit. It embodies him, his persona, his being."
The humility comes from his knowledge that there's always room for improvement.
"Salvation," Freeman points out, "is an ongoing act."