Thursday, February 26, 2009

Interview: Tavis Smiley - State of the Black Union

Tavis SmileyHello, I'm Daood and my very special guest is Tavis Smiley who will be hosting the State of the Black Union. The first symposium for this event was held here in Los Angeles, CA and returns to Los Angeles for the 10th Anniversary at the LA Convention Center February 28th. Currently, Tavis Smiley is the host of the late night television talk show "Tavis Smiley on PBS" and the Tavis Malle show distributed by public radio international. Tavis Smiley has been profiled by Newsweek as one of the 20 people changing how Americans get their news. Mr. Smiley is with us today to talk about the State of the Black Union.

Daood: Greetings, Tavis Smiley and thank you for being with us.

Tavis Smiley: Hi Daood, nice to be on the program with you. How are you?

Daood: I'm good! [Let's me start by asking you to] characterize the state of the Black Union['s] initial concept?

Tavis Smiley: When I started 10 years ago, it was really a forum where at least once a year we could bring together some of the best thinkers, thought meters, opinion makers, influencers, policy makers - just really some of the best of everybody's minds in Black America to have a dialogue about the issues that matter to Black folks and how we could advance on these causes that we care so much about. So we started the first conversations in Los Angeles on the eve of the Democratic Convention at which Al Gore was nominated to represent the Democratic Party, and here we are now 10 years later in February of this year, February 28th, and we're celebrating the 10th anniversary of these conversations that have really taken us to places all across the country.

We do this every February at Black History Month. We call it the State of the Black Union because it always follows the president's State of the Union address in January and we find that there are always issues that we need to address that go unaddressed in the president's state of the union address. So for 10 years now we've had these conversations and as a person who lives and works for many years now, twenty-five basically in Los Angeles, it's always an honor for me to bring any program that we do back to the City of Los Angeles that will benefit the residents there so we're excited about this 10th Anniversary being in Los Angeles.

Daood: It sounds very good. Making America as good as is promised is the state of the Black Union theme for this year, taken from one of your titled books co-written by Stephanie Robinson. Particularize this year's theme in correlation to the State of the Black Union.

Tavis: You're right, Daood. Every year we conduct the conversations we always have a theme so we can kind of draw in the minds of the audience and kind of focus what the conversation is. There are so many challenges that face Black Americans and when you have two or three panels made up of 12 people on each panel and you're going all day on C-Span for eight or nine hours, it's important to at least focus the conversation -- so this year our theme is "making America as good as is promised". There are a lot of issues that are going to be discussed but the major gist of the conversation is going to be as we continue to make progress now that we've arrived at this historic moment when we have an African American president. We want to revel in this moment because we want to celebrate this moment, but we do not yet live in what the [mainstream] media likes to call the post-racial American. We still have challenges in this country. We still have challenges more of the fact that we are Black and now is a wonderful time to advance the causes and the concerns that hold and keep Black people down.

But the real question is now that we have arrived at this place where there's so much celebration around this historic moment and yet at the same time, the challenges that Black America continues to face – How do we know that we have an ally in the White House after 8 years of what we endured at the Bush Administration? How do we make the most of this moment? How do we do [the] part we've always done when there was no Black president? How do we do our part to make America a nation that will one day be as good as is promised? The gap between the promise and the reality is still too wide and what can we do now to recommit ourselves with all this energy and all this talk about change and all this excitement and all this engagement that people are interested in offering? How do we make the most of that and make American advance? How do we make America as good as is promised? That's what we're really gonna be getting at.

Daood: OK. Subsequently of discussions, exchanging of ideas from the State of the Black Union, the Covenant Movement was created and would you take us on a journey of its beginning to its current success.

Tavis: The short answer to that is that the Covenant was the result of these symposiums, these conversations we've had for now 10 years. The code of the Black America was an outgrowth of the conversations that essentially laid out an agenda of what Black folks could do to make America better. The argument was and is that when you make Black America better you make all of America better so the "Code of Black America" was the first book that laid out an agenda, an aggressive and ambitious agenda and 10 issues, all of which we want to see progress starting with us. What we can do as Black folks about these issues and how we hold the government accountable on these issues, but it was a wonderful book that went to #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. We followed that up with a book called "The Covenant in Action".

The first book, "The Code of Black America", was the "what". The second book "The Covenant in Action" was the "How". In other words, how do we take this agenda and put it into action? So the Covenant in action really highlighted examples of everyday people all across the country who had taken the principles of the Covenant and put them into action. So the second book really becomes the central answer to your question. As to the success of the Covenant, it can be found "In the Covenant in Action" which laid all of that out. The third and final book in this trilogy is called "Accountable", making America as good as is promised so there's a tie-in obviously to this conversation at the Symposium February 28th in Los Angeles. But the book "Accountable", the last book again in this Covenant trilogy is the "Whether". We have what the agenda was...the Covenant, how to put it into practice with covenant in action and now the whether - whether or not the agenda that we have laid out has been met. And to the extent that we are serious about the issues that we raised in the very first book, the last book "Accountable" helps us to calibrate, if you will, what kind of success we are making and going forward in this new era of Obama. How we get all elected officials. Howe we make all of them accountable to what we laid out over the trilogy of these 3 books.

And so the "Accountable" book has done a couple of things. When it comes out February 19th, one it detracts all the things that Mr. Obama has said, quite frankly didn't say on the campaign trail about these 10 issues first laid out of the Covenant. So what does our new President have to say about these issues? What is his agenda? It is important for the American citizens to know that so we can exactly know what it is he is doing, what he said he was going to do. But equally as important is this question of what we can do to hold him accountable which means being responsible first. Barack Obama is not going to get into office and wave some black magic wand and make all your troubles and travails go away, there's work that we have to do. We cannot abandon him right now. We've gotta do our part - not just to get him elected but to help make him a great President. I believe that Barack Obama can be a great President. I want him to be a great President, but he can only be a great president, Daood, if we help make him a great president. Great presidents are not born - great presidents are made. So what are we prepared to do to help him become a great president? Abraham Lincoln didn’t become a great president like Abraham Lincoln was if there is no Fredrick Douglass. What are we prepared to do [is] to be the Fredrick Douglass to help Barack Obama become a Lincoln wide statesman. That's what the book does. The "Accountable" book basically [says], "Here's what he said he was going to do; let's hold him accountable to it and here's how we can do our part to help usher him into his greatness as the president."

Daood: OK. Well, Friday, February 27th at the University of Southern California, subject matters pertinent not only to college students but selected high school students will be discussed. Is this the first year of topics being dialogued by college and high school students and define the objective and goals of their interaction?

Tavis: Every year we have a state of the Black Union Symposium which we've been talking about, which really features adults and there's always is youth voices represented in those conversations. This year for the 10th Anniversary, we decided that on Friday we would have a young scholars conversations. So we're bringing together a number of young scholars and this one is uniquely different because it's multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic where the State of the Black Union is all African American every year for the obvious reasons.

The Friday conversations, the young scholars conversation that you're referring on the campus at USC is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic conversation that will feature a number of young scholars engaging in some deep dialogue and some rich dialogue with HS students and college students about the role that young people can and must play to hold the president accountable, to be responsible themselves and to understand that the excitement around electing Barak Obama was important but it was the beginning - it is not the end. I don't want people to think that the goal was accomplished by getting a Black president and now we can sit back and just chill. That's not the way this has to work and that the conversations that we're going to have with these young people, with these young scholars engaging young minds, HS students and college students on the Friday, the day before the Symposium on February 27th. For the young scholars at the Convention Center downtown on Saturday, February 28th.

Daood: Yes. Will any of your students from the Tavis
Smiley Foundation be a part of this course?

Tavis: One of the persons on the stage, I believe, is a person who has matriculated to our Leadership Program at the Foundation so we always try to involve somebody (some bodies) from our Foundation but this is not about the Foundation. It's really about the voices of young people represented in this conversations, but we wanted to make sure that we include young people of every race, ethnicity and culture that we have represented basically in the City of Los Angeles.

Daood: OK. Could you highlight for us a few of the interesting and dynamic stories that made these symposiums unforgettable events?

Tavis: Wow, there are so many. The short answer to that question is really every year a thing of beauty to see the people assemble for this conversation. I said any number of times that the only time we come together is at somebody's funeral. When somebody important dies we all get together for that home going service and, of course, with the election of Barack Obama it means that everybody's gonna be in Washington. But other than in special numbers like those, you don't see this...caliber of people together in this kind of dialogue, and when we do get together at somebody's funeral, it's not a time for dialogue except to celebrate the life of the person who passed away. So this conversation every year becomes the only time of the year when we can get all the minds in some deep dialogue. And so for me to answer your question, it's always moving for me just to see these people together. I treasure every year the photo of all these persons gathered together because its pretty unlikely that each year the group of high quality Black thinkers that we assembled would ever be assembled together in the specific matrix and so for me the highlight of my day is the launching between the morning panel and the afternoon panel when both panels come together for a photo shoot. For me just being in the midst of all that Black brilliance is a thing of beauty and something to behold every year. That's always the highlight of the day and that, of course, doesn't do justice to the good information and the rich dialogue that happens on the stage. But on a personal level I just love that photo album of all the brilliant minds together in one place.

Daood: As a host and moderator - what mental preparations and challenges entail for such an event of great magnitude?

Tavis: I do a lot of reading and the good news about moderating this conversation is that I'm reading for my TV show on PBS and my radio show on Public Radio and for the lectures I'm giving on the lecture circuit all the time. I'm joining you on the phone now on route to a lecture that I'm giving. So I'm always on the road studying and reading every day for TV and radio. So these things are always issues that I'm wrestling with every day. I do a lot of reading in preparation for these conversations in the days leading up to it. But the honest answer is I stay on top of these issues most days anyway so it doesn't require an inordinate amount of preparation because these are issues I'm discussing of the time anyway.

For me as a moderator it's about getting out of the way. It's not about me offering my opinions but about trying to conduct a train, if you will - to be the conductor of this train to make sure it arrives safety where its supposed to be 3 1/2 hours later, 4 hours into the conversation. This allows an opportunity for me to not get into my own point of view and expression but really giving an opportunity for these people to express themselves. So in that regard it's kind of like my TV and radio show anyway, which is asking questions, trying to ask some probing questions and staying out of the way.

Daood: At this point I would like to thank you for taking the time out to conduct the interview and I have one final question. With millions of people viewing in attendance the State of the Black Union, [are there any] promising thoughts that you're [hoping] people will embark upon coming away from this event?

Tavis: Oh, a beautiful question. It's a great place to close. It's the same as it is every year. The narrative I hope will be written after this conversation every year is that #1, people will be enlightened, encouraged and empowered - indeed - inspired by the conversation. There are always some voices every year always laughing. I've gotten to the point now where I expect it. But it's always laughable, quite frankly, a bit humorous for me because it's predictable that somebody's going to write a column. Some commentator is going to say something about that all we do is talk every year. And the truth of the matter is when don't [we] just talk? We have two N.Y. Times best sellers, and "Accountable" book coming out so this Symposium every year has produced three texts to #1. #2, there are all kinds of back thinkers who have been brought to the attention of the mainstream every year. I revel in the number of interviews and other appearances that people end up making on mainstream media after they have appeared in our Symposium, because now they're being exposed [as] the brilliant thinkers that they are to the nation.

So one, we're putting out text, two, we're inspiring other people who are in the media to interview and include their dialogue some of the brilliant people they [have] seen on this stage every single year, and third, the most important, we inspire everyday people who watch the program to understand that there's a role for them to play to help make America a nation as good as is promised.

I mentioned early in this conversation we profile some of those successes, some of the efforts of those people have been profiled in this conversation in the Covenant and action text that the work that they've been doing. But every year there are always people who I know, cause I run into them in the street, they send me postal letters, people who have been inspired by the conversations who are doing all kinds of wonderful work that would never ever be showcased necessarily on a national TV show.

But to answer your question in short is we want to inspire people and I know every single year that that happens and we are pleased to be coming back to Los Angeles again February 28th for the 10th Anniversary of the State of the Black Union Conversation. We had no idea 10 years ago when we started this it would last this long. We had no idea that this would become the pre-imminent conversation. The most watched conversation every year in America where you get all these Black minds together. Ten years after doing this, it is still the only conversation every year. If I had one regret, it would be that we haven't seen more of these conversations kick up but 10 years later it's still the only conversation where you can turn on television all day and see Black brilliance on display.

I thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and look forward to seeing you and all of Los Angeles join us at the Convention Center February 28th in Los Angeles.

Daood: Yes sir, once again I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us and I look forward to seeing you. Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you Daood for the opportunity and take care now.

For more information on the State of the Black Union event, visit

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