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Reflect positively on the end of another year

The end of the year is upon us and what do you know? You’re still here. Despite all of the many tragedies we see in the world today, you still woke up today, blessed to breathe a new day. Have you ever stopped to really ponder what that means? What better time than now to do just that. Even though your day may not be going great, are you still grate-ful?

I am learning more and more how to appreciate each day, each moment with my family, and each moment with you. This holiday season, I really suggest you make an effort to do the same because each year that passes is one you will never see again. Oprah once said that when her time is done on earth she wants to look down and say “I knocked that earth thing out!” You can’t accomplish that if you do not focus on being present and enjoying each moment while you have it to enjoy. Don’t let anyone take your peace and potential happiness away…not even YOU! Happy holidays to you and yours!

Teachable Leadership Moments from the Rachel Dolezal Story

So by now you have most likely heard the story of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of The NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. Dolezal was born white but started telling people she was a black woman over the past few years. At the time of this writing, she has appeared on national television and is in talks to have her own reality show. We can debate ad nauseam the ramifications of her actions, but there are certain aspects of this controversy that you as a leader must pay attention to. If you miss the key teachable moments from this story, you can hurt yourself in the future.

Teachable Moment #1: Be honest to yourself first and foremost

Dolezal apparently told her brother to not blow her cover as her appearance started to change over the years. A statement like this shows a clear aspect of deception on her part. As a leader, you have to come to terms with your identity before you engage the masses for two reasons: 1) You will have more clarity of mind, which is crucial for a leader; and 2) You won’t have to worry about being exposed as a fraud and losing credibility to the people that mattered most—your original constituency. As the African proverb goes, “When you tell the truth, you don’t need a good memory.” Be honest now to save yourself from unnecessary drama later.

Teachable Moment #2: Your diversity is an asset so don’t try to blend in

I work in the area of social justice. On a daily basis, I work to end serious issues like child trafficking, slavery, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and more. In this work, I have met people of all races and backgrounds all dedicated to a common cause. The leaders who were the most ineffective were the ones who believe they have to shun who they are in order to better contribute to a movement. I am reminded of a recent example of Ben Affleck who tried to hide a story about his ancestors possibly owning slaves. Everyone knows that Affleck is a humanitarian and committed to human rights so why does he need to hide “his” history? If anything, his story shows that we do not have to inherit the prejudices of our ancestors. It’s a story to be told! We’re stronger as a community when we embrace our background and use it as a place of reference, not residence.

Teachable Moment #3: Do you want to be Kim Kardashian or a Dr. King?

Wow, tough comparison right? Both are public figures right? Both are talked about throughout the world right? The question becomes: what are people saying when they talk about Kardashian and King? Note: I am not judging or condemning Kardashian. I’m just using her story for comparison purposes. Dr. King’s claim to fame despite any flaws he had was being a servant to humanity. Kardashian will be remembered by many as someone who rose to fame from her recorded sexual encounter with singer Ray-J. Decades from now as we ignore more and more history, Kardashian may be remembered as a great humanitarian on her chosen causes. After all, there are many illegal and nefarious activities behind some of the greatest names and corporations in history but we have selective memories right? Dolezal is about to cash in with reality shows and book deals not based on her commendable work as a civil rights leader, but as someone who turned out to be a fraud. What do you want to be remembered for? A leader is only as good as her legacy.

At the end of the day, you have to decide what type of leader you want to be. We live in a pop-culture world that celebrates the worst of us. Don’t be so hungry for fame and exposure that you’re willing to sell your soul to the highest bidder. Don’t compromise your integrity for a paycheck. You may argue that Kim Kardashian is ultra-rich and can do whatever she wants right now. Yes, that is true. There is great benefit to having wealth but I believe there is a greater benefit to service to others, especially public service if you are a leader. Be honest with yourself, respect the diversity you bring to the table, and do your best to choose a positive legacy to be remembered for despite what others may say about you. The rise, fall, and rise again of Rachel Dolezal is a cautionary story for us all, but only if you read the story!

Reflections on giving birth, fear, and faith

Last week, Kendra gave birth to our third child and first son. Having not gone through the process in 6 years, it was indeed a surreal experience. All of us have experiences in our lives that cause us to develop an extra sense of motivation: a new job, new relationship, etc. For me, the birth of a child tops the list. But with a new child, new job, new relationship or anything else new, there is also fear that comes along with the excitement. I have decided that with any new event that comes my way, I am just going to embrace the fear and then replace it with faith.

Zig Ziglar once said that fear is nothing but F.E.A.R: False Evidence Appearing Real. He reminded us that most of what we worry about never happens so we should focus on what DOES happen as well as what is in our control. My anxiety over whether I will be able to do all I hope for this child (and my other children) was a challenge for the first two days but then I had to remember that every second I spend on that anxiety is a second I could be spending productively working so what I fear does not become a reality and the same is true for you.

This is how you must live your life. The thought of not accomplishing something in my life because I was too scared to try it sickens me and keeps me up at night. It should sicken you too. If I do not reach my goals, I will proudly be able to tell my children that I fearlessly worked as hard as possible on my goals and my hopes will be that they will be inspired to work hard on their dreams as well as hard, if not harder (and smarter) than me. Having this mentality will do more to help them than telling them I was just too scared to try and indirectly validate their own fears. Life is meant to be lived boldly so get out there and live it to the fullest! The world will be a better place for it and you will set a shining example for generations to come!

 

So you call yourself a leader?

The chosen few are the few who chose

To step up to open doors tightly closed

So you call yourself a leader, but what does that mean?

Getting green, turning green, badly running your team?

Sadly killing the dream of hopeful teen?

Madly willing your ideas not even listening?

Does it mean you celebrate on election day

Cause you can add your new position to your resume?

Can you handle criticism when your peers dis’ you?

Cause you don’t care about theirs but only your issue?

Pass the tissue, makes me sad how some leaders let

Power get to their heads, constituents they forget

You’re just a leader in name if you’re just searchin for fame

For acclaim, it’s a shame why some get in the game

Leadership ain’t for the lame, don’t take it in vein

Time to rethink your position understand why you came

See a leader is someone who listens first then speaks

Someone focused on being the change we seek

Someone who understands they represent all people

Don’t get that your leadership will never have a sequel

Do you seek to understand before being understood?

Do you take time to visit other neighborhoods?

A leader builds coalitions, builds community

Builds unity, ain’t subject to impunity

We need real leaders to step up to the plate

To take a swing at racism, other types of hate

To stomp out bullying, help end genocide

Do your best to help others hold their heads with pride

A leader builds a team, can’t do it all by yourself

A leader remembers to practice good health

Cause you’re no good to no one if you’re not good to you

So let me ask you again, is leadership in you?

Before you commit suicide, read this…

…I’ve been there. I’ve been suicidal and I can tell you without a doubt that it gets better if you just hold on. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was growing up in inner city Boston at the height of what was called the “Crack Epidemic.” Across America, inner city neighborhoods in particular were being ravaged by crack cocaine. As a teenager, so many young black men were dying or being incarcerated, that some of us took to wearing shirts saying “Young Black Men: endangered species.” There was not an expectation that I would even make it to my 18th birthday so part of me thought: “Why try?” Those circumstances alone were enough to make me feel like I had no reason to live but in the case of anyone thinking of taking their lives, there’s always more going on.

In addition to living in a crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhood and being bullied at school, I also did not grow up in the best economic situation. My self-esteem took a hit in middle and high school because I did not have the nicest clothes. We also fell on tough times at home, often having to go without electricity, heat, or even hot water. So outside of my home I felt like I could just be killed at any moment and at home, I didn’t always feel comfortable given that a rat could run by my cold feet at any given moment. These two issues would be more than enough to make me feel worthless but of course, there’s always more.

In retrospect, the biggest challenge I faced that drove me close to suicide was the absence of my father during my seventh grade year. My parents have spent their entire lives fighting for the liberation of oppressed people, especially in the Congo, their place of birth. In the late 1980s, my dad was attacked in a central African country and left for dead after his head was bashed in with a crowbar. He spent much of my 7th grade year overseas in a coma. My hero was gone and now I was ready to be too. I just got tired of being broke, fatherless, and having to fear for my life everyday. I looked at the knives in my kitchen on a daily basis and knew I could just end it all right there. Two things happened during this time that changed my thinking and life forever.

The first life-saving event occurred at a youth conference I attended. A speaker said: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” What? Are you kidding me? It’s not going to be like THIS forever? I don’t know if I truly believed her words then, but the seeds had already been planted subconsciously by her words. The second event occurred when my sister actually confronted me about my suicidal thoughts. I had mentioned my thoughts to a youth counselor and he told my sister. She tearfully told me how much I would be missed by our family if I took my own life. Being that I never wanted to be one to disappoint anybody (especially my family), I decided to stick around a little longer. Prolonging my life was the best decision I ever made in my life. If you are thinking of committing suicide, I need you to please finish reading this blog post in hopes of changing your mind.

Let me tell you about my life now. I am writing this post from a hotel in upstate New York where I am getting ready to provide a motivational talk to 400 students at a high school. Motivational speaking is my passion. I am actually even getting paid nowadays to share my passion. When I finish speaking, I will get in my car and drive back to my house in Washington, DC where I will then kiss my wife who has been with me since we were junior prom dates 20 years ago, and then I will hug and kiss my two beautiful daughters and talk to them about their day. After that I’ll take another look in shock at the article I had published in O Magazine, the picture of myself on the cover of a national magazine, and think about how I am going organize my 8th album before I do some reading for my doctoral studies. Am I saying these things to impress you? Absolutely not. I am saying these things to impress upon you that if you give yourself a chance; if you just hold on for a little longer, your life will turn around.

If anyone told me as a teen that I would be living the life I’m living now, I would have told them to go do something not too nice to themselves. The fact of the matter is that someone believed in me. Someone right now believes in you and, as Les Brown said, sometimes you have to let someone else’s belief in you hold you together until you develop the ability to believe in yourself. If someone is telling you to hold on or to wait another day, do them a favor and play along with them. You will eventually outlast your bully. You will outlast the teasing. You will outlast the racist, homophobic, classist, and sexist slurs as well as the ignorance directed towards you because of your religion. It does get better and if no one told you they believe in you then let me be the first. The only reason I am writing this blog is because I believe in you.

You may be the next president of something or the next Superbowl halftime star. You might invent a phone that makes the iPhone look like a Lego set with earphones. More important than all of that, you may just have a normal life that you cannot imagine because you live in so much turmoil now. Trust me, it gets better. Life can be good to you if you let it be good to you. Let the people in who care for you. I let my family in and they saved my life. You may not have a strong family that has your back like I did but there has to be someone: a teacher, mailman, store clerk, or a friend in class who believes and sees good in you. Someone you know and maybe someone you do not know, believes in you and if you think hard enough about it, you can identify that person. As it has been said, we can find a thousand reasons why we cannot accomplish our goals when all we need is one reason why we can. Find that one reason and hold on to it for dear life. Brown says you were picked out to be picked on, which basically means you are not given anything that you cannot handle. Your work here is simply not done.

Don’t short change yourself by taking your life. Don’t let the bullies win. They may be working for you one day since they spend no time building their own dream, just trying to destroy yours. Don’t short change the world of the good that you may do for humanity. Let the good in. Let the bad out. Find that one person who believes in you. Find that one reason to keep going. Get counseling at school or elsewhere. Maybe you have a sibling who needs you and you hold on for that sibling until you can do it for yourself. Use your survival as an example for others to follow. I’ve spoken to almost 100,000 youth across the globe. Some have said that they stopped thinking of suicide after they heard me. Imagine that. You can actually go from wanting to take your own life to saving the lives of other people. How’s that for a turn around? You have a lot of life to live so get busy living! You were not born to die. You were born to thrive. If you just stay the course, it will get better. Don’t kill yourself. Just give yourself a chance by deciding to live.

The future of youth: 3 things I learned from youth in Mali

 

            Last week, my organization UPstander International partnered with the State Department to provide leadership training for youth workers in Mali, West Africa. This country has been labeled as being “in crisis” due to its battle with northern Islamic extremists. During the evenings, I trained more than 30 leaders of organizations that work with youth. During the day, I would travel to middle schools, high schools, and universities and deliver my inspirational message “G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness!” If you didn’t know, Mali is a French speaking country so all of my presentations had to be in French. Pas de problème (no problem)! I relearned 3 main things from this Mali experience:

 

  1. Youth around the globe want inspiration. The enthusiasm with which these youth and youth leaders received my message was truly moving. I was reminded that, no matter what language you are speaking with youth, they will listen to you if they believe you are genuine in your professed care for them. In order to connect with youth you must understand your real motivations in wanting to work with them.

 

  1. Malian (like most African youth I encounter) place a serious value on education. Many Africans with whom I come across on the continent see education as the primary way to obtain success. In the United States, many students believe the same thing but mainstream media is so ubiquitous that too many youth here succumb to the false notion that their chances of success are greater by obtaining YouTube stardom, getting a record deal or landing on a reality show.

 

  1. Whether in America or abroad, youth respond to music that is uplifting. One of the travesties of our global entertainment culture is the manner in which our youth mainly see and hear music that degrades women, and celebrates drug abuse and violence. Many of us have been convinced that this is all the type of music our youth want to hear. In all of the 19 countries I have visited and performed in, I have found student after student who said they did not believe it was even possible to make music with an uplifting message. The entertainment industry is wrong in thinking uplifting music won’t sell. Our low opinion on what youth value perpetuates a continued arrogance and ignorance towards youth and we must change that.

 

While I was originally nervous about speaking to an audience of French speakers, I quickly forgot my nervousness as they continually nodded their heads in agreement with my 4 strategies for achieving greatness: giving, releasing (friends and letting hurt go), overcoming fear, and having a winning mentality. Even though these were performances blended in with motivational messages, students were studiously taking notes and posing very thought-provoking questions.

I have returned to States more committed to the idea that youth across the globe are in need of motivation whether they are in an economically developing country or the most powerful nation in the world. We have our differences, but at the end of the day, we all laugh and cry in the same language. I am going to continue to travel and speak the universal language of hope for a better day into our youth. Every day, if you think about it, you can also impact a young person. Just take time and communicate to them in the same way you needed to be talked to by an adult when you were younger and you will quickly see that you have an attentive audience. So what are you waiting for?

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The future of youth: 3 things I learned from youth in Mali

 

            Last week, my organization UPstander International partnered with the State Department to provide leadership training for youth workers in Mali, West Africa. This country has been labeled as being “in crisis” due to its battle with northern Islamic extremists. During the evenings, I trained more than 30 leaders of organizations that work with youth. During the day, I would travel to middle schools, high schools, and universities and deliver my inspirational message “G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness!” If you didn’t know, Mali is a French speaking country so all of my presentations had to be in French. Pas de problème (no problem)! I relearned 3 main things from this Mali experience:

 

  1. Youth around the globe want inspiration. The enthusiasm with which these youth and youth leaders received my message was truly moving. I was reminded that, no matter what language you are speaking with youth, they will listen to you if they believe you are genuine in your professed care for them. In order to connect with youth you must understand your real motivations in wanting to work with them.

 

  1. Malian (like most African youth I encounter) place a serious value on education. Many Africans with whom I come across on the continent see education as the primary way to obtain success. In the United States, many students believe the same thing but mainstream media is so ubiquitous that too many youth here succumb to the false notion that their chances of success are greater by obtaining YouTube stardom, getting a record deal or landing on a reality show.

 

  1. Whether in America or abroad, youth respond to music that is uplifting. One of the travesties of our global entertainment culture is the manner in which our youth mainly see and hear music that degrades women, and celebrates drug abuse and violence. Many of us have been convinced that this is all the type of music our youth want to hear. In all of the 19 countries I have visited and performed in, I have found student after student who said they did not believe it was even possible to make music with an uplifting message. The entertainment industry is wrong in thinking uplifting music won’t sell. Our low opinion on what youth value perpetuates a continued arrogance and ignorance towards youth and we must change that.

 

While I was originally nervous about speaking to an audience of French speakers, I quickly forgot my nervousness as they continually nodded their heads in agreement with my 4 strategies for achieving greatness: giving, releasing (friends and letting hurt go), overcoming fear, and having a winning mentality. Even though these were performances blended in with motivational messages, students were studiously taking notes and posing very thought-provoking questions.

I have returned to States more committed to the idea that youth across the globe are in need of motivation whether they are in an economically developing country or the most powerful nation in the world. We have our differences, but at the end of the day, we all laugh and cry in the same language. I am going to continue to travel and speak the universal language of hope for a better day into our youth. Every day, if you think about it, you can also impact a young person. Just take time and communicate to them in the same way you needed to be talked to by an adult when you were younger and you will quickly see that you have an attentive audience. So what are you waiting for?

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Dark Girls (a poem)

 

Dark girls, the center of the world

Wish you knew how precious you are, a black pearl

Insults they hurl, your heart in whirl

Hatin’ on your hair straightened or curled

Hatin’ on your skin while they wear tannin lotion

Hard to see you pretty face on television

Your own people hatin’ cause they don’t understand

You get more appreciation in foreign lands

My eyes pourin’ man, want you to overstand

You perfect as you are sister don’t give a damn

About the people who think that your lips too big

Rock that natural you don’t need no wig

Your hips birthed nations yet you face discrimination

People dissin’ you just don’t have the motivation

To get their lives together so they’re pickin’ on you

Don’t let ignorance distract you from doin’ you

 

See they don’t put you on TV cause they scared of your features

Lovely chocolate-coated body, no need to bleach ya

Skin you’ll never win changing your complexion

Your darkness is a gift, a true reflection

Of the original woman who gave birth to us all

The world starts and ends with you so you need to stand tall

Dark woman in the White House, see your time is now

Shinin’ brighter than a lighthouse, when I see you I bow

To your greatness hope you take this as a gesture of love

Forget the jesters out there clownin’ you because

Hurt people hurt people, they don’t love themselves

Even your parents couldn’t see the beauty that they held

But it’s all good sister, we’ll make this right

The only person I know who shines in day AND night

So let me be your knight just protectin’ my queen

Dark girl, the brightest thing that the world has ever seen

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Navy Yard shooting should make you value life more

Whether it's the tragic shootings at the Navy Yard; the innocent bystanders shot by police in New York; the bombing that may happen in the city you live in right now in your own country or anything else; the phrase "You're still here" should mean more to you every single day you wake up. In this often volatile world that we live in, you never know when your number is going to be called. That is not a reason to live in fear. It is a reason celebrate life each day! Count every day you are here as a blessing and you will see a difference in your daily attitude. We were all put here to enjoy life, not suffer through it. Make each day your best and then make it better for someone else. You never know, your kind actions may even prevent someone from committing the next atrocity. Spread love and the world will follow your lead!

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The future of youth: what 6,000 students just taught me

             The absolute best thing about being a motivational youth speaker hands down is travelling this country and globe and meeting incredible young people. I look forward to the start of every school year because I relaunch our national “Be An UPstander, Not A Bystander” tour. The goal is simple: travel to as many schools and organizations across the globe as possible and build with a community of like-minded young people focused on doing nothing short of changing the world one person, one school, one city, one state, one country at a time. Whether it's ending bullying or celebrating cultural differences, our goal at UPstander International is to build better communities. This fall so far has exceeded my expectations and more importantly, reminded me of the great work our youth are doing across the globe and proved to me again that our youth are greater than the negative images of them portrayed in mass media.

            In October, I spoke to over 6,000 students across Washington DC, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New York. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I partnered with NFL player Aaron Rodgers, actor Emmanuelle Chriqui, and the Enough! Project’sRaise Hope for Congo” campaign to create a rally for Congo. It was phenomenal event that brought the sports, acting, and music community together along with great students and called on the leaders at the University of Wisconsin to pledge to have their campus be conflict mineral free. In New York I spoke at 5 different colleges as part of the Price of Life’s campaign to end global slavery.  In Boston, I watched perfomed at one of the best showcases of youth artistic talent—the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center 19th annual benefit entitled “Twist & Shout.” In DC, I launched year two of the UPstander Leadership Training Institute at the Upper School Washington International School. Everywhere I went, I was more and more inspired about the future of youth.

            Anyone who believes that our youth are a lost cause needs a vision adjustment. Whether I am speaking at the poorest school in the most crime-ridden city in America or a top Ivy League institution, I see a bright future in the eyes of every young person I am fortunate enough to interact with. Some may have their brightness blocked by the cloud of low teacher expectations or a society that views them as a suspect before a prospect, but I can still see it. If we as adults could work a little harder to extract that brightness like we extract gold and diamonds from mines, we would find those diamonds in the rough and refine them until they shine. Most youth I encounter are passionate about something and just want to make a positive contribution to the world. It would be so amazing if we adults simply met them half way.

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