How student leaders can respond to controversial topics in the news

It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.

It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.

  1. Educate yourself on the issue

We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.

  1. Survey your community

It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.

  1. Actively reach out to the affected community

The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.

Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!

Finishing what you start

Today I want to talk about completion. Les Brown said that in order to become someone you have never been, you have to be willing to do things you have never done. Completing my dissertation was a challenge unlike nothing else I have ever done and I have emerged from it a stronger person. The question is: what have YOU not completed? What vision are you allowing to wither away because of fear of failure, fear of success, lack of financial or emotional support, etc.?

It took me 10 years to complete my PhD. I had no children when I started and now I have 3. I could have used each child as an excuse to not continue but I let them inspire me to push on. Too many times, I hear people say “Life happened” as a reason that they did not pursue a dream. Don’t let that be you. Just because you have to go a different path than others does not mean you should stop driving. No. Find detours in the road, stop for gas, sleep at the hotel. Do whatever you have to do but don’t stop driving until you reach your destination and when you get there, find somewhere else to go! You’re not dust. You weren’t put on this earth to settle. You are here to find your calling and pursue it all costs and let no one stop you, especially YOU!


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 working with Bahamian youth upstanders

Last week I had the incredible pleasure of working with 50 high school students in The Bahamas at C.R. Walker high school on how to use the arts, specifically poetry, for effective expression. The poet-in-residence (PIR) project was organized by the United States Embassy in Nassau. The goal of the PIR program is to build cultural and community pride through the use of poetry and the spoken word. While most people know The Bahamas as a top vacation destination, there are serious challenges facing the Bahamian community from crime and drug abuse to xenophobia towards Haitians and alarming rates of breast cancer. The PIR project was brought to The Bahamas to not only provide an outlet for these students to speak on these issues, but also to speak about what makes them proud—their culture.

The youth in this program really taught me a great deal more than I could have ever taught them. The most important lesson I learned is that there are youth who in the most challenging circumstances, still manage to keep their priorities in order. Whereas some people (youth included) I have met across the globe have an obsession with obtaining material items as proof that they have “made it” in life, the youth in this program had their priorities in order. Their goals were to keep their faith, get an education, and have a family. It was after they attained these things that the talk turned towards fancy cars and huge houses.

The students of the Bahamas are as passionate about creating a better future for their island and planet as any youth I have encountered in the 21 countries I have visited to date as a youth speaker and UPstander. On the night of the final performance, these teenagers shared powerful songs, raps, and poems that spoke to Bahamian multicultural unity, a passion for faith, women’s rights, animal rights, and so much more. While I know that most of us will only think of The Bahamas as a tropical vacation island (as I did when I first visited it over a decade ago), I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone while you are there or anywhere you vacation, and step into the heart of the city, which is the heart of the youth. You will indeed learn a valuable lesson.

The youth of Wisconsin keep my hope strong

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of speaking the Wisconsin Association of Student Councils (WASC) leadership conference. The goal of my  presentations to the middle and high school students as well as their advisors was to talk about not just being a leader, but being an upstanding leader. As a youth speaker, speaking on this issue is one of the topics I am most passionate about. I talked about the importance of not being a leader in name only who is just a bystander, but an upstanding leader who remembers to truly serve others. Speaking to these incredible students showed me that there was not much convincing that I had to do keep them motivated on this topic.

The WASC students came into the conference already motivated and excited to take themselves to the next level as leaders as well as individuals. Their dedication to improving their leadership skills for the betterment of their school and community was truly inspiring. I wish that they could livestream their entire 2-day conference so that America could see the positivity that exudes from our youth. Most of what we see of youth on television is overwhelmingly negative. If we as adults could be fed a daily dose of what youth like the WASC students are doing, we would be as optimistic about the future of this country as I am. Simply put, WASC students rock!

I encourage you today to intentionally look for something positive in the youth around you or in your community in general. It is too easy to be pessimistic about the future of our youth. If you look for negativity on the news from flashmob robbings to school shootings, you will find it. On the flip side, if you look for youth serving their communities by volunteering to help the homeless, tutoring after school, or helping to keep their community clean and safe, you will find that too. If you believe it and seek it, you will find it. Don’t stereotype our youth. They deserve better. They deserve our best. I am fortunate in my career to get to see them give their best everyday. I thank the WASC students for giving me that opportunity this past weekend.

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!


Our society accepts domestic violence (unless there’s a camera)

In this video I posted on, I speak about how, for many of us, accepting domestic violence starts in very small ways like the language we use on a daily basis. We need to make small challenges on domestic violence before we see the ultimate manifestations of it such as with this Ray Rice assault on Janay Rice.

How student leaders can respond to Ferguson or other tense issues

For the past few weeks, many people across the nation as well as across the globe have been caught in discussion, debate, or even serious violent protests over the death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. If you took a step back to analyze this tragedy like I have, you probably saw how many media outlets and activists were using their camera or blogging opportunities to shout at one another without much listening. I found myself wondering how you as student leaders could take the lead on generating discussions on this issue when you have received such poor examples from adults. Below are some steps that you should take as a student leader to address issues such as Mike Brown’s killing, or any other incident in your school that may bring about tension.

  1. Check the pulse of your community. Whenever an issue that has great potential for controversy occurs in your school, you should conduct surveys of your student colleagues to see how they feel about the situation. Just because you were voted into your leadership role, it does not mean that you should expect everyone to agree with your stance on the issue. Once you know where your community lies on the issue pro, con, or somewhere in between, you can move on to step #2.
  2. Engage those who think differently from you. There are two types of people who may take opposing views to your own: those who will be very vocal in their opposition and those who will not say a word. It is important to engage both because you will be more likely to find common ground on the issue, which is important for maintaining a positive community environment.
  3. Talk to your teachers and advisors about the issue. It is sad that many student leaders do not look to their teachers for counsel. Too often, I come across issues in schools of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. where the students think these issues are happening for the first time because it is the first time they are experiencing it. It is very likely that teachers in your school have had similar experiences, maybe even more severe given the tumultuous times different groups have had to endure on the path towards equality. Find teachers of varying opinions on the issue to help foster a conversation. If no one can be found at the school, find someone outside of your school.
  4. Organize a speakout session. Students want an opportunity to be heard so provide the space for them. Sometimes leadership is all about listening. If it is a school-based problem, students may have valid suggestions about how to move forward. If it’s an external issue like the Mike Brown killing or something internal such as bullying, let students vent about their concerns and serve as a facilitator as opposed to a decider. Let them help in the formation of next steps, if next steps are indeed necessary, so that your school can move on together.

At the end of the day, a leader needs to provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard. It is easy for the loudest voice to be heard but not necessary listened to. As a leader, you should be a conduit for others to channel their energy. If you do this, you will be able to maintain an active constituency that will support you because you support and respect them, which was the reason you ran for your leadership position in the first place. Don’t shy away from controversy, no matter how small or large. Embrace the challenge and your colleagues will embrace you!

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.