Interview with Kam Williams
From his celebrated conversations with world figures, to his work to inspire the next generation of leaders, as a broadcaster, author, advocate and philanthropist, Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change. He is currently the host of the late night television talk show Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show on Public Radio International (PRI).
Time Magazine honored Mr. Smiley in 2009 as one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.” The Smiley Group, Inc. (TSG) is a communications corporation established in support of human rights and related empowerment issues. TSG serves as the holding company for various enterprises encompassing broadcast and print media, lectures, symposiums and the Internet.
Here, Tavis talks about Been in the Storm Too Long, a special report on the City of New Orleans airing on PBS on July 21st ET/PT. He also speaks about the On Your Side Tour with Tavis Smiley, a series of free financial empowerment workshops he’s staging in various cities around the country between now and the end of 2010.
Kam Williams: Hey, what’s happening, Tavis? How’re you doing?
Tavis Smiley: I’m doing the best I can, brother. How about you?
KW: Things are hectic, as usual, but all is well.
TS: Oh, man, we’re both just trying to make our own contribution, brother.
KW: Thanks for the time, again.
TS: Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s a blessing to talk to you again.
KW: Since you were born in Gulfport, Mississippi, I have to first ask you what you think about the Gulf oil spill?
TS: I was just down there for about a week. We’re working on the third installment of Tavis Smiley Reports.
KW: “Been in the Storm too Long.”
TS: Yeah, exactly. In addition to my late night show, we’re doing four primetime specials this year, one every quarter. And it seemed obvious that in the third quarter it needed to be about the fifth anniversary of Katrina. I’m doing this one in conjunction with Academy Award-winner Jonathan Demme who is actually directing it.
KW: So, how’re things down there?
TS: It’s hard to find the language to describe what it’s like when you see it in person. It is horrific, and there are a lot of questions we’re going to have to address once we get on the other side of this crisis. I recently had the former President of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, as a guest on my TV show. He has a powerful, new book out called, “Why We Hate the Oil Companies.” We had a really, really serious dialogue navigating through the politics of what happened, what President Obama ought to be doing, what BP ought to be doing, and how we can insure that this never happens again. It was a fascinating conversation. Still, when you see it in person, it’s horrific, for lack of a better term. It’s a major, major crisis, and I’m just sorry that the White House was a little slow moving on this, initially. But now, it seems like they’re fully engaged. So, I hope we can turn the corner on this disaster. We’ll see.
KW: There are some people who are secretly happy about the President’s delayed response to the Gulf oil spill, given Bush’s failure in the wake of Katrina. Let me read you part of an email I received recently from a brother from the South: “I say a pox on the racist whites of South Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida… Let the Gulf be a cesspool, a dead zone. Let the crackers and the rednecks be dispersed to find other places and other jobs.” He goes on to point out that after Hurricane Katrina, “a quarter million blacks were dispersed across the country and not allowed to return to New Orleans and their homes, even though public housing was unaffected by the flooding. The white middle class racial oppression of the blacks was exposed, and the racial conspiracy was a foot with no substantial sympathy from them.” So, he obviously feels that blacks were abandoned, uprooted and disenfranchised after Katrina, so whites deserve the same treatment now.
TS: I hear what he’s saying. My response to that would be that two wrongs don’t make a right. We ought to live in a country where we will not abide the contestation of anyone’s humanity. That’s what’s wrong with America. Too many people’s humanity is being contested. The humanity of black folk was contested during Hurricane Katrina. The humanity of these fishermen and others who live or make their living off the Gulf coast is being contested now. In Arizona, the humanity of our Hispanic brothers and sisters is being contested. Whether it’s racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia or some other form of intolerance, I call all of these slights the contestation of humanity. The way forward is not playing tit for tat, and saying, “You killed my dog, so I’m gonna kill your cat.” It’s about celebrating, reveling in, and protecting the humanity of every American. I don’t think any group should be allowed to suffer because another one did. We have to rise to the occasion by recognizing everyone’s humanity. So, I hope that his opinion is rare.
KW: I see that you’re going around the country conducting these free financial literacy workshops. But with the real black unemployment numbers way over 20%, of what value is financial literacy to people if they can’t even get a job?
TS: That’s a challenge, and one of the things I’m going to be talking about. I’m not naïve about this. I recognize that unemployment is triple and, in some cities, quadruple the national average. We have to find jobs, and we have to pressure the powers that be. One thing’s for certain: jobs won’t become available to the unemployed unless people start screaming, jumping up and down, and demanding that the powers that be do more to get the economy jumpstarted. Politics is not a spectator sport. Election season tends to be a good time to get the attention of leaders. So, I think that makes this a good time, Kam, to be having this conversation because people have questions, they have concerns, they have fears, they have anxieties and they want information about how to navigate through this, including those persons who might still be employed but are just holding on. Some folks have a job, but their retirement is exhausted, or maybe the cash saved for their kids’ college education has been shot or they’ve lost their home and had to downsize. So, there’s a lot to address, even though I can’t just show up and start handing out jobs. It’s really about getting people the type of information that will help them navigate their way through this crisis so they can come out of these challenging times prepared to put themselves on sure financial footing.
KW: Illness and lack of health insurance is hurting a lot of people, too.
TS: Healthcare is the number one reason for bankruptcy in this country. People will spend everything they have trying to hold onto their lives. In that regard, President Obama deserves credit for getting the healthcare bill passed, even though it was watered way down, and isn’t nearly what I think it should have been.
KW: You mentioned elections. What do you think of that unknown candidate Alvin Greene winning the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in South Carolina when he had no budget and never campaigned? That’s a real head-scratcher.
TS: I can’t figure it out, either. That’s the most bizarre story I’ve ever seen. There’s something going on down there. What, I do not know. I get the sense that the Democrats were asleep at the wheel. Who this guy is and how he got on the ballot, they’re only raising all these questions now, when they should’ve been raised before the primary, if the Democrats had done their due diligence.
KW: I wonder why nobody’s talking about the possibility that there was vote fraud, since South Carolina uses paperless electronic voting.
TS: They ARE looking into the question of whether or not it might have had to do with the machines. If it turns out that he’s a Republican plant, it’s so unheard of and so very, very bizarre, that it deserves to have a book written about it. But I don’t think either party is that well organized to pull something like that off. We’ll get to the bottom of it eventually.
KW: “Your career has taken many turns. What are your future goals?”
TS: That’s a good question. For me, the answer has always been the same. It’s about trying to love and serve people. I operate off of a very simple, but I think poignant definition of leadership. It’s this: you can’t lead people unless you love people. And you can’t save people, if you don’t serve people. Love to me means that everybody is worthy, just because all life has equal value, and everybody is worthy of a quality education, worthy of a good job, and worthy of living in a crime and pollution-free environment. Serving to me means trying to give people information that can help them live better lives. That’s always been my goal. It’s never changed, although it’s taken on a variety of forms, whether TV, radio, print, philanthropy or any of the other things that I do. But the real substance is trying to love people, trying to serve people.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
TS: That’s a powerful question, Kam. To be honest with you, I see someone who’s struggling every day to get it right. What I mean by that is sometimes you work really hard, and you look at everything you’re up against in the culture, in the society, in the economy, and in the body politic, and sometimes it feels like you’re just spinning your wheels. So, I wake up every day, not depressed, but burdened by something, yet excited about making a contribution. It’s a struggle.
I’m a very introspective person, but usually not this public about my introspection.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
TS: The end of poverty, because with that there are so many issues that we struggle with that would immediately disappear. If we could eradicate poverty, the world would be a whole lot better place to live.
KW: One last question. As the consummate interviewer, are you willing to share with me a couple of questions I can ask everybody I interview?
TS: That’s a very, very good question. Yeah, let me think of questions that might work universally for a lot of different people… [Pauses] Because life is so short, I’m always fascinated by what people want their legacy to be and how they are doing in relation to creating that legacy. Some questions that could come out of that are: “What do you want your legacy to be?” and “As we sit for this conversation, where do you think you are in the process of creating that legacy?” That leads to these other questions that I love asking in some shape or form: “How introspective are you?” and “How do you engage in that introspection?” The point I’m making is that, typically, the questions we ask are about external things, because nobody wants to talk about the internal. However, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I’ve discovered that, however you phrase it, if you can get people to be introspective, you’re in for a very deep conversation. Introspection enables you to get to the heart of the matter. For me, the sweet spot is getting them to open up about their introspective process, how they see their lives, how they see their contribution. Once they start opening up, “Whew!” you’re off and running.
KW: Those are some great questions, Tavis. You sure you don’t mind if I start using them?
TS: No, take whatever you want, Kam.
KW: Much appreciated. I promise to call them the Tavis Smiley questions. Thanks for another great interview.
TS: It’s always great speaking with you. Take care of yourself, brother.
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