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Tavis Smiley: Follow the need of your people

Television personality, radio host and author Tavis Smiley is celebrating 20 years in broadcasting. He will be appearing in Memphis on March 5.
 Myron Mays

Television personality, radio host and author Tavis Smiley is celebrating 20 years in broadcasting. He will be appearing in Memphis on March 5 at Christian Brothers University for “An Evening with Tavis Smiley.” I got the opportunity to speak to him regarding his appearance as well as the challenges that face Black America.

Myron Mays: “The Tavis Smiley Show” on PBS has been around since 2004. How’s the show coming along?

Tavis Smiley: The show is doing very well. We’re in our eighth season on PBS and we are celebrating our 20th year in the broadcasting business. Were very excited. Our new season started January 11, and its hard to believe we’re already into our eighth season. The show is doing remarkably well.

PBS is a network that is watched by movers and shakers and by people who run the country, power players and other influencers. It’s a great platform for us to try to empower them and try to enlighten them and quite frankly try to expand their inventory of ideas.  It’s a great platform to try to get them to reexamine the assumptions they hold. I think we’re doing the Lord’s work.

M.M.: What would you say are the top three principles that are responsible for your success?

 Tavis Smiley

One is Passion. For one who wants to be successful in what you do, you must have passion for what you do. I love what I do, so passion first and foremost. Secondly, a lot of hard work. I’ve discovered in my 20 years of doing this that there no way around it. You have to do the work.

Thirdly, a great team. I do so many different things. I do two radio shows, my PBS show, I have a book publishing company, a speakers bureau. I have the Tavis Smiley Foundation, there’s the art exhibition traveling the country right now called “America I Am”. There’s no way I can do all of those things successfully over the past 20 years without a great team. Passion, hard work and a great team are the things that have helped me to arrive at this point some 20 years later.

M.M.: Let’s talk about the State of the Black Union Symposium. What inspired you to do that project?

T.S.: The short answer is I have always believed that if you follow the needs of your people, there is always something to do. So throughout the course of my career and broadcasting background, I have always tried to follow the need. It occurred to me that there was no platform on television. Even though I was on B.E.T. there was no platform that allowed for the best and brightest minds in Black America to come together and have a conversation on how to make Black America better.

I believe that when you make Black America better, you make America better, which means that in Black America we have to engage in some discourse and some dialogue. It means we have to have conversations about the issues that challenge us.

The idea came to me in part when I was at a funeral. I was sitting there looking around the room and it occurred to me that everyone in Black America who was in a leadership position was at this funeral. It’s interesting that we can get all of these leaders together when one of the leaders die and everyone comes to pay their respects. We have to figure out a way to get everyone together in a proactive way as opposed to a reactive way. How do we get all of these people together to talk about the things that challenge our community? We started back in 2000 and for the past 10 or 11 years we have conducted the State of The Black America Symposium and it has been a beautiful thing for all those years.

M.M.: As a result of the State of the Black Union Symposium, what do you feel we are solving right now?

T.S.: I think there are a number of things to come out of those conversations. I believe that knowledge is power and there were a lot of people who were empowered by those conversations. There was a lot of people who were inspired by those conversations and motivated to do things. There was a trilogy of best-selling books to come out of those conversations that documented what we believe that Black folks can do to make Black America better.

M.M.: What do you think is the number one challenge that Black America faces right now?

T.S.: Black folks don’t have the luxury of focusing on just one thing at the moment.  The thing that is obviously important in Black America right now is jobs. We’re being left behind in this economy and I have been very vocal in the fact that I don’t believe the president is doing enough to focus on the poor, to focus on the weak working class and to focus on African Americans that are triple and in some cases quadruple the national unemployment average. So the first thing is full employment.

From employment flows everything else. If you don’t have a job, there are some things you cant do, one is send your kids to college. So we suffer from an uneducated class. So if you don’t have a job, you don’t have much of anything.

M.M.: This question is for the average person going to work everyday, trying to send their children to school and make it day to day. What are some of the things they can do right now to make a significant impact in the next 180 days?

T.S.: First of all, anyone who is unemployed has to keep the faith and hold on and stay diligent in getting themselves employed. If they have children, they should make sure those children are getting educated. And by being educated I mean making sure that there is nothing more important to them than their children receiving a high quality education.  Even beyond that, we all have to find something that interests us and unsettles us that we want to spend some of our time focusing on.

M.M.: Lastly, what can we expect when you come to Memphis on March 5th.

T.S.: This is our 20th year in broadcasting and when I started I never would have imagined that I would be on B.E.T. for 5 years and along the way on CNN, ABC, NPR and PBS. It’s just a blessing to still be at this some 20 years later. And as a part of our 20 years in the business there are a number of things happening.

In November, PBS is doing a primetime special celebrating our 20 years in the business and also in August they are doing another primetime special to celebrate my 8 years on PBS. We have a new book coming out in May that talks about my 20 years in the business. The book is called “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success From Failure.” The book is centered around my 20 biggest mistakes I made in my career and how I learned from those mistakes. I argue the point that everyone has the potential to “fail up”. We all make mistakes and we all fail at times but it is possible to fail up.

In addition to the book, were doing a seven city tour connecting to public television and radio stations around the country for “An Evening With Tavis Smiley.” On everyone of these tour stops, the tables get turned on me so that I am the one being interviewed. One of the local television or radio personalities will be interviewing me about my book and about my career. Then there will be some audience Q&A and a reception before or after the event where I get a chance to meet some of the people in attendance.

It’s basically me on the road doing what I do, talking to people, answering questions signing books and getting to say thanks to people who have supported my career over the years.

(“Changing the World One Conversation at a Time” with Tavis Smiley takes place Saturday March 5th at Christian Brothers University, 650 East Parkway South at 11 a.m. For more information, contact Sally Stover at WKNO at 901-729-8719.)

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