With her signature cornrows and velvety-smooth voice, Susan L. Taylor is best known as the striking editor-in-chief of Essence magazine who inspired countless African-American women with words of hope, encouragement and self-love through her In the Spirit columns.
But now, Taylor is giving a voice to the National Cares Mentoring Movement, a campaign she initially founded as Essence Cares to increase the number of black mentors for at-risk youth in communities across the country. Having recently stepped down as the magazine's editorial director, Taylor is working to make the faith community part of the outreach effort that includes the National Urban League, 100 Black Men of America Inc., The Links Inc. and the YWCA.
The local chapter, Baltimore Cares, has already launched under the leadership of J. Howard Henderson, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, and Sandra Baxter, director of the National Institute of Literacy. Taylor recently talked about her new venture while on tour for her latest book, All About Love, which is a compilation of essays based on her In the Spirit columns.
You've reached the heights of the masthead at Essence. Why leave now to focus on Essence Cares?
Our community needs me a lot more than I ever imagined it would. It needs me to bring my energy, my passion and the fact that I've been seasoned so well at Essence over these 37 years. It needs me to bring all those things - my connection to celebrities, to politicians, to our community activists - to create a network of support for young people who are losing on our watch. And so at Essence, I couldn't take the program Essence Cares or the National Cares Mentoring Movement any further than I've taken it because it's corporate America. And to really institutionalize this movement and make it effective, I really have to be able to devote the fullness of my time to it.
What makes this project personal to you?
What makes it personal to me is that I care deeply about my community, and what I've been doing for the last 20 years is writing about the crisis and speaking about it. I'm mentoring - I have six mentees - but I can do so much more. I realized that until we make the conditions of our people personal, what we'll do is continue to have conferences and pray about it, but not lift our feet to make some actual traction around it and make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling. This is personal, because you know why? It could have been me.
What personal experiences have you drawn from in your life that inspired you to start mentoring young people?
Growing up in Harlem and having my father present but not really emotionally present, and being the love bug that I am and not having parents who were really embracing or loving or demonstrative, I looked for that affection in the arms of the neighborhood boys; this is as a little girl. And I got caught on the roof, you know, when I was about 11 years old with a boy in the building. Mr. Bailey came up there to walk his dog.
It was a rainy October day, and it was the worst day and - as I look back on it - the best day of my life. Because when he came down to tell my mother he had seen me on the roof with Melvin ... I knew my father was going to kill me. And when my father came in that night, he gave me a beating that I can remember today. And not too long after that, we moved to Queens, where kids were riding their bikes. It was very unlike the Harlem I grew up in. There was all kinds of programs for the kids - Little League and piano lessons for the girls and cooking lessons. The community had put programs and activities in place for the youngsters.
What is your ultimate goal for this effort?
The ultimate goal is to end the over-incarceration of African- Americans, to ensure that every year we are graduating 10 percent more African-American youngsters from high school and that we're sending them to two-year, four-year colleges, industrial/technical training schools so that they can earn a fair family wage.
How is your effort different from those offered at many schools and learning centers like the Boys and Girls Clubs in which you are partnering?
It's distinctively different because what we're doing is working for them. They don't have the needed mentors. Ours is only recruitment, that's what we're doing. What we're doing is enlisting the mentors and pushing them into the pipelines of the Girl Scouts and the Boys and Girls Clubs in all the places at which all our children are being mentored.
You've mentored troubled youth who've been in juvenile detention centers, helping those who have been in less than ideal situations by getting them into and putting them through college. Can you share a couple of those stories?
I didn't do any big thing, I really didn't. I met one young woman, who I won't name. She was incarcerated when I met her. Most of them, I want to tell you, turned out by our brothers in the community as prostitutes, these little girls. So I said, "When you come out of detention, if you want to get your life on course, call me." I'm not the easiest person to connect with, but two of them were persistent. So I brought them into Essence, got them in school - after school, you come here - and then we get you through the GED program, and did that. If you call my office today, you're going to speak to Julia McClure, who was my mentee when she was like 15 or 16. She runs my office today.
Will these young people be involved in this campaign?
Absolutely. They will be mentors themselves. There is no more forceful mentor than young people who really speak the language of, know the music of, and understand the crisis that young people are in. We're really out here fishing for mentors, and we want college students and we want high school students who are doing well to mentor the young kids right in their schools who are not doing well.
To find mentoring opportunities in your area, visit essencecares.com.