Tavis Smiley and his assistants – Photo by Malcolm Ali for Sentinel

Tavis Smiley and the 100 youth leaders – Photo by Malcolm Ali for Sentinel

Tavis Smiley, Chris Spencer and the celebrity presenters – Photo by Malcolm Ali for Sentinel

Tavis Smiley: Celebrating 10 year Salute to Youth Leadership

The Tavis Smiley Foundation believes that preparation is the key to success and it has spent the last decade providing opportunities to the youth preparing them to be future leaders

By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor

Last Saturday evening, the Tavis Smiley Foundation celebrated its tenth anniversary while honoring 100 youth leaders for their outstanding leadership–a prelude to their future. Listening to Tavis Smiley narrate the foundation’s story, how it got started and its goals and objectives, clearly illustrated its ten-year success.

Smiley said, ” Leadership is all about love and service; you can’t lead if you don’t love and you can’t save [people] if you don’t serve.” And this fits in appropriately with the mission of the foundation: ‘To enlighten, encourage and empower youth by developing leadership training that will promote and enhance the quality of life for themselves, their communities and our world.’

The Sentinel spoke with Smiley who spoke admiringly about the foundation’s genesis. He said, “Eleven years ago, a young lady, Judy Williams (who was present at the event), wrote me a letter saying that her son, Will, was at the age where we all have to navigate through the quagmire of the gangs and the unruly parts of the community pulling at you on one hand and on the other hand, your mother, a single mother, trying to keep you focus on your studies while keeping you out of trouble. The streets were calling him basically.”

While relating the story, Smiley seemed very concerned about all the “going-ons” as he sat in the midst of the ballroom where 100 youth leaders were soon to be honored. “The letter said, I watched you, I know your work and for some reason I believe if my son could spend a few days following you around … just shadowing you, it might make a difference in his life,” he continued, “I told her, ‘send your son.’ He came for three or four days and followed me around. He spent a few days with me, and the rest is history.”

At that point, the story seemed so incredible that Smiley sounded as if he was versed in relating it to people. “He got his act together; he got into his books, graduated from high school, went on to the University of Michigan, got an Engineering degree and now he owns his own business in Atlanta.” The story seemed like a fairy tale but looking at the activities that were about to take place–honoring 100 young leaders of the future–it was easy to grasp the reality of the story.

Comedian and co-host, Chris Spencer along with several young celebrities participated in the program and assisted in handing out the awards. They included Jake Smollett (ABC’s Middleman); Tahj Mowry (Smart Guy, Are We Done Yet); Karimah Westbrook (American Violet, Moesha, Save the Last Dance); DeMario “Raz” Thornton (B2K and You Got Served); and Erica Hubbard (Lincoln Heights).

In addition to dinner and the youth honors, there was also an auction pending. Meanwhile, a young violinist entertained the crowd with some classical musical renditions. Several of the honorees received extra bonuses for special projects that they had undertaken including:

— A student who started a non-profit focused on literacy and collected more than 1,000 books for needy children.

— A 13-year-old so concerned about abandoned animals that he started teaching a class on Saturdays on animal rescue.

— A Girl Scout who collected 118 oxygen masks designed for animals and donated them to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

— A 15-year-old pilot who flew solo from California to Virginia in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Some of the sponsors of the event were on hand to represent their companies: Anheuser-Busch, Inc., Coca-Cola, American Honda Motor Co., Prudential, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Toyota, Siempra Energy, Southern California Edison and United Health Foundation. Some of them also gave financial scholarships directly to the honorees.

In turning over the microphone to Spencer, Smiley gave a pragmatic explanation for the auction that he (Spencer) was about to conduct. Smiley said, “The Tavis Smiley Foundation is broke after giving away all this money.”

The scope of the foundation’s work can be understood more clearly by the more than 220 youths from 28 states that attended the 2009 conference that was held in August at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). And plans are underway for the registration for the 2010 Institute to open in February.

Since its inception, more than 6,000 youth have participated in the foundation’s leadership workshops and conferences. The Tavis Smiley Foundation is based in Los Angeles. Kimberly McFarland and Leshelle Sargeant, two of Smiley’s staff members, were most diligent in their efforts in assisting the Sentinel during the event.