This week’s Melissa Harris-Perry ”Foot Soldier” is Tonya Lewis-Taylor, a singer and former Roc-A-Fella Records publicist who co-founded the non-profit organization Entertainers 4 Education Alliance. After learning of America’s startling high school dropout statistics, she successfully used her celebrity resources and natural passion for youth to create programs that encourage kids to stay in school.
I spoke with Tonya this week.
What caused you to co-found Entertainers 4 Education Alliance?
I founded the organization seven years ago really based on a need to do something to encourage our kids. I was working on several celebrity projects, one of which was with Kanye West and he just released his College Dropout album. We started doing school tours and taking celebrities from Roc-A-Fella records to support us. We first went to a school in Brooklyn and the principal told us the attendance rate was only 50%! We were mortified and he asked us to work with the school and help them to get them get more excited about attendance and participation. He said that when the kids find out Roc-A-Fella will be in their school building they will come!
I was a successful publicist with clients like Bow-Wow, singer Tyrese, and Jay-Z, but something in me wanted to do something more to help out…so we started this organization.
What else besides the alarming dropout statistics makes you want to help your community?
These kids are me! I’m from a similar community. I understand the challenges they face. I understand things don’t always go well in certain communities. I have been very fortunate to experience more than most in a lifetime. I wanted to let young people know that you can be successful!
I grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Down the block from my home people were selling drugs. I understand the challenges these communities face and I need to do something to help these kids stay focused and not get deterred.
How did you get started?
It was really simple. I made calls to a bunch of friends in the industry, political arena, entertainers, and local politicians and asked them to meet me for a discussion about this. I wanted to bring politics, entertainment and education together to see how we all could help better these kids’ lives. I launched a forum at CUNY graduate center and we talked about what we all can do to help our young people.
Seven years later, I don’t believe how far we’ve come! Now Entertainers 4 Education Alliance has become my life’s mission and I’m so fortunate God has given me this opportunity.
What careers did you have before starting this non-profit and for how long?
Right out of high school my goal was to become a world-famous artist–the next Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey.
I was in college and pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. I did backups for Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey and toured the country with them. During the years of touring I met lots of people in the music industry. It was my last tour and I just came from Japan and I found out I was pregnant. I was married about a year and it was time to figure out another career option. As a mom I couldn’t travel the world with a newborn.
I ran into Bobby Dash–brother of (Rock-A-Fella Records co-founder)Damon Dash. He told me about Roc-A-Fella Records and asked me to come on board. I saw it as an opportunity to have a rest and possibly become an artist on the label.
In 1999, I started my own publicity firm. I worked with many of the artists I worked with in at Roc-A-Fella and beyond. In 2006, I co-founded Entertainers 4 Education Alliance and the rest is history.
What is your motivation to encourage these students?
My whole thing is that you can be whatever it is that you want to be. If you believe in yourself and have good people around to push you forward, you can go where you want. I want to show young people I have and still am living my dreams. You really can be whatever you want to be that’s what E4E is about. Our goal is to encourage and inspire kids so they see people who look like them that made it. That’s why we use celebrities they look up to. When they hear the backstories of these celebrities they understand that through hard work and determination they’ve become what they’ve become.
After ten years of not doing any music I was encouraged to move toward my first love and I made my first album and titled it Delayed But Not Denied. The single, “Thank You,” is out now–and the album will be out in the fall. We want everyone to know that your dreams never die. If you go after your dreams you can do whatever you want to do… I am a living testimony of that.
Where did you get this sense of responsibility for these New York City kids that are not your own?
It’s about paying it forward. All of us! We all see that there’s an issue with the number of dropouts. You never would think in one of the richest cities in the world–New York City–we would have a dropout crisis. We have to be responsible for each other! These are the kids that will take care of us in 30 to 40 years. There are so many different ideals of how we can do it. Let’s not lose this generation that is in high school and allow them to get stuck. We cannot afford to lose those kids. Our system is failing this generation of kids. It can’t just be at 2nd and 3rd grade level. We have to do it at a high school level as well. I have a really strong passion about us making sure that we all pay it forward. If we have life and health we have got to help someone else.
What is the future for Entertainers 4 Education Alliance?
Wow! I’m so excited! We are really looking to rev up our programs. We are in schools all around New York City. We have a clothing line and T-shirt line to bring revenue to our organization and bring more work in the community. Proceeds from my first single are going to the program to help move the program forward. We want I WILL GRADUATE DAY to become a nationally recognized day where schools all across the country will recognize the power that we all have and use it to become great.
Right now we have programs in all the NYC boroughs, from mentoring, journalism, chorus, marching band, and even dance programs. I’m telling you we have a lot of programs! We want the students to have fun but most importantly be motivated to graduate.
Read more here.