by Lamar and Ronnie Tyler
During a recent trip to Las Vegas for Steve Harvey’s Hoodie Awards we had the amazing opportunity to conduct a sit-down interview with Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Essence Magazine, Susan L. Taylor. We hope that you’ll enjoy this interview where she discusses her passion for uplifting our community as spokesperson of Feeding Dreams and the Founder and CEO of the National CARES Mentoring Movement.
BMWK: So many people know you as “Susan Taylor of Essence” like the last portion is a part of your name. Do you feel like you’re in the process of reinventing yourself with this important work that you’ve been doing the past few years since leaving the magazine?
SLT: I don’t feel like I’m reinventing myself. I feel like this is an extension of what I’ve done and this is my highest calling because of everything that I’ve learned at Essence. I started when I was 23 years old. I learned how to write, I learned how to present myself, I learned how to create a magazine, I learned how to lead a team, I learned how to speak to our people. Everything that I learned there has come to use in this important initiative. So I can see why I had that experience. It was for this. Because this really is the most important work for all of our lives. We’re talking about the survival of our children. There’s no point to anything that we’re doing if we don’t have a generation of able, stable, young people who are following behind us and who can inherit what you inherited from us and what we inherited from our parents. And we’ve dropped the baton, all of us.
So what I’m saying is, “I apologize to y’all.” That’s why I’m doing this. I apologize for schools that don’t function, for toilets that don’t flush, for teachers who don’t have the support that they need. We allowed this mess to happen. We have to self-correct because as the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks would say, we are each others keeper. You don’t have to live in the neighborhood, but you don’t just keep driving through it on your way to the church. You have to make sure that the children around the corner from the church that we grew up in have books because they don’t. That needs to be acknowledged in the church service. What do we go to church for, to praise his holy name and to listen to the choir while kids are dying outside the sanctuary door? And what churches are really talking about the crisis in our community because it’s too few.
This is what the National CARES Mentoring Movement is doing. We’ve claimed that literacy space. That’s why I left Essence, when I learned that 80% of black fourth graders were reading below grade level. I said in another generation there will be no Essence, we’ll have no one to read it. So we’re losing ground in literacy, and this is something that can be taught.
BMWK: Please tell us about your National CARES Mentoring Program. Numbers show that normally when there is a call to action for mentors, fewer African Americans volunteer than other groups. Why do you think that is?
SLT: You’re right, white women are the first responders, then white men then black women then black men. We need to reverse that order. Even when we’re honoring people who are doing great work in our community through Feeding Dreams, we can see the disproportionate number of young African American males who are in crisis. Why don’t we stand up is such a good question. Is there any race of people on this planet who are more loving and caring than Black people? No. Many African Americans have bought into the American Dream which is about self and acquisition, just about how we can have more, more, more, more. And as long as my children are okay, I’m fine. The most needed mentors are the most difficult to get, so what we are doing is creating group mentoring opportunities.
BMWK: Are the group mentoring opportunities a strategy that you use to get more mentors?
SLT: It is. There are three million young people being mentored and fifteen million waiting and when I look at the mentoring organizations throughout the nation, there are thousands of them we send mentors to. Since we’re having problems finding mentors, we need to create another model. We’ve got to come up with models that we can build to scale and are replicable.
The other piece is, black men and women love community. You see what we do with our fraternity organizations. We want to get together, we want to party together””well, come on, brothers. We need for you to go into this group home where there are fifty young men who need your support and then after, you stay with them for a time, go out and have your fun. Take them with you to the ball game. You can go to Caresmentoring.org to see what we’re piloting in Oakland to find a new way forward and to transform a city.
BMWK: Tell us about your role as spokesperson of the General Mills Feeding Dreams program.
SLT: What I love about the Feeding Dreams initiative is that it’s an absolute synergy for what I’m living for today. That is to hold up those people and lift them high, the people who do the healing work in our community. The people who are the counter weight to the unfolding tragedies. The bad behavior that we see in communities, the homelessness, the loss, the heart-wrenching stories.
I love being part of the Feeding Dreams family because what we are doing is holding up, lifting up, honoring people who are really abating those tragedies that are so unnecessary, and that’s parallel to what I do with the National CARES mentoring movement. Someone who’s homeless, hungry, failing in school, or part of a flash mob””they aren’t bad people. These people have lost their way. There are things that we must do as a society to correct the problem. This is really “heart work” for me, and I love when a corporation adopts a program that really does good in our community and has deep meaning. I’d love to see the Feeding Dreams program really grow and become well-known in our community. The honorees show that each one of us has a responsibility and the power to make a difference.
BMWK: As a New York resident, what are your thoughts on Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to provide job training and skills to urban youth in the city?
SLT: I’ve said this to Mayor Bloomberg’s people: This must work. We can’t fail. Lots of money has been thrown at the problem, but we have to be brave enough to look deeply. Are you going to be brave enough to tell black men what has happened to them in this society and why so many of them are unemployed in NYC? Are you going to be brave enough to talk about the impact of racism in the lives of black men and women so black men don’t feel like, “Something must be wrong with me because I see white men succeeding.” This program has to be transformational. Whatever we do has to transform our consciousness, our thinking, our fear.
BMWK: You’ve been to Steve Harvey’s Hoodie Awards multiple times. What brings you back year after year?
SLT: I love Steve because he loves black people. He loves normal black people, not just those who are high end. So for him to identify barbers and shoemakers and people who get no recognition in our community and bring people together to honor that? It is so inspiring. And to see how they turn out””the brothers are going to be so clean with long jackets and hats, and the sisters are as fly as they want to be. He has a good time. I’m glad to be here every year.
BMWK family please take the time to visit the National CARES Mentoring Movement website and register to become a mentor in your city. It is important that you answer this call to commitment, our community needs you!