And so, last Wednesday, AT&T concluded its 28 Days Black History Month campaign at the Millennium Centre in Southfield, Michigan. During the entire month of February, AT&T sponsors a campaign that aims to motivate consumers to take a forward look at Black History Month as they create history of their own. Hosted by comedian and radio personality Rickey Smiley, the AT&T 28 Days campaign celebrated its fifth anniversary as it commenced its schedule in Washington D.C. with acclaimed speaker and writer, Kevin Powell, delivering the keynote address. From there, the campaign visited Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta, and lastly Southfield. Other speakers included social media expert Corvida Raven and hip hop artist MC Lyte.
As noted in a previous entry, I was cordially invited to cover the event in Southfield where journalist, author, and political commentator Jeff Johnson would be speaking. And as an added bonus, R&B sensation Elle Varner would be closing out the evening with a live musical performance. I anticipated an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening – I would not be disappointed.
I arrived at the venue at approximately 5:15 pm, as I was instructed to be present at 5:45 pm for the media meet and greet. Yes, I was there very early. I inherited my mother’s strict sense punctuality – not a bad thing. I was soon met by my AT&T PR contact, Malizy, and briefed on the particulars of the evening. Side-note: Malizy was awesome – professional, informative, and energetic. After some mingling and light appetizers, I was escorted to my seat as the event was drawing close to a start.
Rickey Smiley kicked off the show with some light humor as there was definitely some positive energy abound inside the building. Introducing Jennifer L. Jones, Vice President of Diversity Markets for AT&T Mobility, Smiley informed crowd that we would be treated to a special night. Emphasizing AT&T’s commitment to education, especially in the urban theater, Jones spoke to the audience about the AT&T Aspire Program. Aspire is quarter-billion-dollar campaign to help more students graduate from high school, ready for careers and college, and to ensure the country is better prepared to meet global competition. Aspire strives to cultivate high school success as well as college & career readiness for students at risk of dropping out of high school through a much larger, “socially innovative” approach.
Many jobs that involve science, technology, engineering and math remain vacant as the number of qualified candidates gradually dwindle in the inner city. And instead of looking for talent outside of the U.S., AT&T has chosen to cultivate and curate talent right here. With a financial commitment of $250 million dollars allocated for the next 5 years, the Aspire Program plans to instill empowerment and a growth mindset within the African-American community. And speaking of empowerment – that brings us to the keynote address.
Jeff Johnson wants you to understand a truth. And if you are familiar with truth, you understand that it is sometimes uncomfortable, unsettling, and uncompromising. Jeff Johnson wants you to understand a truth. And that truth is people of color don’t have time to play. Because, in these certainly uncertain times, the benefit of time is a luxury we do not possess. We don’t have time to be politically disengaged. We don’t have time to be politically ignorant. We don’t have time to sit idly on the sidelines as our communities deteriorate and someone else pens our narrative. No, in the year 2013, we cannot afford to look toward the future through a 1960’s lens as we celebrate another Black History Month.
With an unflinching and unrelenting tone, Johnson laid down the gauntlet for anyone willing to take the challenge. Our narrative should not be relegated to one month out of the year. And our narrative should not be relegated to slavery, Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights, and President Barack Obama – in that order, the end. Our heritage is richer than that. Johnson implored us to take the time to educate ourselves about our history, especially with attention to subjects that interest you the most. He implored us to take control of our communities and push for positive change. “There is no reason why AT&T should be doing more for Black History Month than you,” scolded Johnson. “Racism is no excuse for not being excellent.” No group was left unscathed, from the quietly autonomous black church to disengaged parents to the seemingly misguided, entitled youth. Sure, the message was fiery and in some spots biting, but the best medicine is sometimes the nastiest medicine. And we all had our prescription filled and digested that night, and we will be better for it.
So, after that speech had as many people squirming as many others were clapping, we were treated by a musical set from Elle Varner, whose stark beauty is only surpassed by her extraordinary talent. Seriously, Varner fits the mold of your classic neighborhood homegirl. You know, the one that execute a flawless running-man, spit a couple of hip hop verses, jam out on the guitar, and sing like an exquisite angel. Oh, and she’s totally down to earth too. One could assume that being that multi-talented, she would possess an air of vanity around her. Not true. And the fact that she understands that reaching a certain level of celebrity brings responsibility is not lost on her. “Once I have reached a level where I want to be at, I would like to use my influence to be a role model for little girls that look up to me,” says Varner. Yes, she was really cool.
All in all, it was a fantastic night. For one evening, I got a chance to rub elbows with a few celebrities, hear a great message, hear some great music, meet some new people, and learn a little more about AT&T – they are definitely doing great work in the community. Now, it’s your turn – what are you going to do to enrich your community?