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 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 21. 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.

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 to 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: Larry Greenberg says, “I’ve seen you bring together forces that I could never imagine at the same table. Is it the power of love or diplomacy that you have harnessed?” I think he might be referring to the Black Agenda Summit you convened in Chicago this Spring.
TS: Yeah, I hope it’s both. I love people, and I believe that diplomacy is a valuable tool in one’s arsenal. But beyond me, it’s about the people I invite. The people who are interested in engaging in discourse about making America better. In that regard, it’s not like I did something magical, you ask the right people, and they tend to show up. So, it’s about outreach. I can honestly say that while those forums are monumental and take a lot of work and energy to organize and pull off, I’d be lying if I said I had to twist anybody’s arm to be there.

KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls says, “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: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
TS: A book by Tim Wise called Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equality. It’s a great book.

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.


Kam Williams

Special to the AFRO