Tavis Smiley brought a powerful message of love and service to the 1,600 attending Clemson University’s Men of Color National Summit in a rousing Thursday luncheon keynote that brought the gathering to their feet.
With 400 African American and Hispanic high school students dressed in orange t-shirts and carrying Tiger Alliance backpacks seated at various tables, Smiley offered them a simple definition of leadership.
“If you wrestle with this, it will fundamentally change your life,” said the host of The Tavis Smiley Show. “You can’t lead folk unless you love folk. And you can’t save folk unless you serve folk.”
Smiley praised Clemson’s Chief Diversity Officer, Lee Gill, for his leadership in establishing the conference in Greenville just one year after arriving at Clemson., Smiley said he previously spoke at a similar conference called the Black Male Summit that Gill oversaw while at the University of Akron in Ohio. “This isn’t just lip service, this is a real commitment,” he said of Clemson’s work holding the inaugural conference.
The author of 21 books, including multiple New York Times best sellers, said he wanted to leave the young men with five key points.
While saying that education is no longer the great equalizer for African Americans and Hispanics that it once was, Smiley said it remains vitally important to get as much education as they have the capacity to handle.
“You will never have too much of it. You can have too little, but you can never have too much,” he said. “Get all the degrees you can handle. Get all the experience you can get and handle.”
He then encouraged them to start a journey toward their chosen profession by finding their purpose in the world. “I believe that everyone of us is born with a calling on our lives,” he said.
“You are here for a purpose. You did not come into this world just to take up space,” he said. “I believe, frankly, that our love and service to others is the rent that we pay for that space we occupy.”
Smiley told them that nobody is self-made. “We are who we are because somebody loved us,” he said, adding that whatever your calling you cannot get their on your own. He stressed that it is especially important for young men of color to respect the traditions of those who paved the path to create the opportunity, whether their profession is sports, the law, broadcast, music, etc.
“Never lose sight to your responsibility to honor the tradition,” he said.
For those struggling to find their passion or purpose, Smiley had this simple advice: “Ask yourself what is the one thing that if I had to do it for free for the rest of my life, I’d still do it.”
“Pursue the profession, honor the tradition. Follow your passion, not a paycheck,” he said.
“Live a life thoroughly of conviction not cowardice,” he said. “The thing that will get you tripped you up faster than anything else is trying to live a life of no conviction, of no courage, of no character, of no commitment, of no conscious. And then you end up being a coward.”
But first, Smiley said, one has to figure out what they believe – to have a personal mission statement.
“When you convince young men of color to wrestle with the mission statement of their own lives, it fundamentally makes a difference,” he said.
Recounting a song he sang as a child growing up in a Pentecostal church, Smiley spoke of coming storms and the need to anchor yourself. “The trick to life is to seek the truth, speak the truth, stand on the truth, and stay with the truth,” he said.
Smiley drew a distinction between success and greatness. It’s possible, he said, to be successful but not great. Don’t just go out chasing empty success. “Too many folk are chasing success and ain’t nobody chasing greatness,” he said.
“Anybody can be great, said a great writer, because anybody can serve,” he said. “All it takes is a heart of grace and a soul that’s generated by love.”
In closing, Smiley returned to his theme of love and service by defining love.
“Love just means that everybody you meet, everybody in your life, everybody in the world is worthy just because,” he said, posing a question of how that definition of love could fundamentally change the world.
“If love means everybody is worthy just because, then that means everyone ought to have access to an equal high-quality education. If everybody is worthy just because, then nobody should be forced to live just because of their color in an environmentally racist neighborhood. If everybody is worthy just because then we would all have access to high-quality healthcare. If everybody is worthy just because then I shouldn’t get pulled over just because of the way I look,” he said.
“If everybody is worthy just because, it changes the world. You have the power. You have the authority. You have the agency. You have the control, right now. From this day forward, to treat every other person you meet with love.
“Your creation will outlive you if you take the gift and the skill and the talent you have and use it to love and serve others,” he said. “So in the end … life’s most persistent and urgent question is really what are you doing for others?”
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