Youth leaders at Tavis Smiley summit initiate action agenda
WASHINGTON ( – On its surface, it may have appeared to be yet another corporate-sponsored, feel-good field trip to Washington for a group of teenagers. But, in fact, it was a much deeper, possibly “life-changing” experience for hundreds of Black youth leaders.

There were 600 of them, teenagers mostly, and they attended a week-long national youth summit Aug. 5-11, organized by radio host Tavis Smiley. When the week was over, they left the campus of Catholic University here, pledging to be a part of a national network to combat crime in their communities, racial profiling, teen pregnancy, and drugs and violence.

Already identified as “leaders” in their schools and neighbor-hoods through a three-year-long grassroots organizing campaign, participants in the National Youth Leaders Summit participated in a variety of workshops and educational sessions designed to enhance their leadership skills and knowledge of key issues.


The future national leaders were exposed to dozens of the current generation’s most prominent Black leaders: politicians, intellectuals and corporate decision-makers.

“It’s unbelievable. It is historic to bring together young people who are concerned about vision, analysis and determination to change the world. And we thank brother Tavis Smiley for having this kind of vision,” Dr. Cornel West, professor of Religion at Princeton University, told The Final Call.

Prominent participants included young national leaders like Kwame Kilpatrick, the youngest mayor ever elected in the city of Detroit, and Aaron McGruder, creator of “The Boondocks” syndicated comic strip.

Other keynote speakers included Donna Brazille, Al Gore-for-President 2000 Campaign Manager, DePaul University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and author Iyanla Vanzant.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and members Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) returned to Washington from their home districts during the Congressional recess to join host CBC member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in order to participate in the event.

“This is a great day for youth leaders,” Chris McKee, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, and spokesman for the youth, said at the event’s closing press conference Aug. 11. “We are proud of what we have accomplished here and look forward to hearing the youth report back on what actions they will take when they return home.”

The young people from 29 states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, and from the Caribbean island nation of Barbados, were organized into 10 regions for the difficult follow-up mission of working as teams and individually to address their agreed-upon agenda.

“With this conference we hope to launch a new way of encouraging and empowering young people to take an active interest in their communities,” said Andrea Foggy-Paxton, executive director of the Tavis Smiley Foundation. “We’ve already witnessed some success at the local levels; we’re now looking to ignite a national movement.”

Participants expressed enthusiasm and pledged to make a difference in their schools, and their neighborhoods. “The Youth-2-Leaders program has helped me to understand how to get mobilized to tackle issues in my community,” said 19-year-old Blake E. Green from Houston, who helped organize a teen health fair after attending a Smiley Foundation organizing conference in that city.

“We think Black youth are often considered lazy, ignorant and apathetic. This is our chance to create a more accurate, complimentary depiction of Black American youth, who we know care about the world we live in,” said 19-year-old Nicholas Sneed, a member of the conference planning committee from Springfield, Mass.

Iyanla Vanzant “made me think twice about some of the things we do as youth all the time,” said another organizing committee member at the closing press conference. “We talk about being leaders. But when she spoke, she said, ‘Do you really know what you’re doing? Do you think twice about the mistakes that you’ve made and the things that you’ve done and the choices you’ve made?’ Because everything you do comes down to a choice,” he continued.

“I was humbled by some of the achievements of the youth,” Leonard James, an executive at one of the sponsoring corporations, told reporters. “Many have demonstrated leadership traits, dedication, levels of a sense of understanding and appreciation that far exceeds those things when I was in that age range.”

The exhaustive schedule of workshop sessions included discussions of gang wars, HIV/AIDS, U.S. foreign policy, teen pregnancy, defining public policy, and democracy–asking the provocative question “Who’s stronger–you or the electoral college?” There were also innovative sessions, such as eight-hour “lock-ins” where groups of 50 strangers from the same region were locked in a room together in order for them to get to know one another and bond.

“I think the networking was really good,” both with their peers, and with potential mentors who are already successful in the worlds of business and public affairs, an organizing committee member told reporters at the closing press conference.

Organizer Tavis Smiley is host of The Tavis Smiley Show on National Public Radio (NPR) and author of six books.