A Child, a Singer, a Comic Top Philanthropy List

Whether they’re celebrities writing large checks or activists working at the grass roots, African Americans are continuing the tradition of giving back.

Joshua Williams, Miami middle schooler
Joshua Williams, Miami middle schooler Photo Courtesy of Joshua Williams
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    Joshua Legend (Lisa Lake/Getty Images); Joshua Williams (courtesy of Joshua Williams); Steve Harvey (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

    ’Tis the season for giving—and some folks give a lot more than others. Some are celebrities wielding big checkbooks, while others are working behind the scenes, donating their time and talent. But whoever they are, they’re all about uplifting the race, one cause at a time. The Root checked in with some of black philanthropy’s most enthusiastic do-gooders to see what inspires them to be the gifts that keep on giving.

    Also, who is your favorite celebrity philanthropist of 2013? BlackGivesBack.com and the Admiral Center want to know! Tell them your choice for their annual list of top black celebrity philanthropists, which will be unveiled next month. Visit here to get started, and in the meantime, check out last year’s list for inspiration. Be sure to use Twitter and Facebook to submit nominations and to get the conversation started using the hashtag #blackgivesback—nominations will be collected until Tuesday, Dec. 10, at 11:59 p.m. EST!

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    Jason Kempin/Getty Images

    Sheila Johnson

    Who: Sheila Johnson, BET co-founder, film activist and owner of Salamander Resorts

    Her cause: The Sheila C. Johnson Fellowships at the Harvard Kennedy School

    Why she gives: Social responsibility was drilled into Johnson at an early age, she has said in interviews. After her divorce from BET founder Robert Johnson, she dedicated herself to uplifting the lives of women: “I really believe that if we don’t empower women and start supporting one another, you’re going to see a crumbling of civilization. Because we really are the backbones and the fabric of every community.”

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    Courtesy of Sharon Content

    Sharon Content

    Who: Sharon Content, former Wall Street exec

    Her cause: Children of Promise, a not-for-profit organization she founded to help children of prisoners

    Why she gives: “After years of working on Wall Street, I really wanted to use my skills, talents and energies working toward underserved communities. I wanted to work toward something more meaningful. I’m inspired by the children I work with, by the tenacity and the resilience they have to survive, regardless of the challenges they have to deal with. They give me the passion and the commitment to come here every day and to give it my all.”

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    Courtesy of Joshua Williams

    Joshua Williams

    Who: Joshua Williams, Miami middle schooler

    His cause: Joshua’s Heart, a foundation he started when he was 5 years old to combat hunger

    Why he gives: “My grandmother gave me $20. On my way to church, I passed a homeless man. I wanted to help him out. I decided to give him my $20. I knew I was doing the right thing; it felt good in my heart. I never really knew that there was a need, that people were hungry. I wanted to do something about it. So I did.”

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    Lisa Lake/Getty Images

    John Legend

    Who: John Legend, singer-songwriter

    His cause: The Show Me Campaign

    Why he gives: “I firmly believe that the single best way to help individuals break the cycle of poverty is through education,” he said in an interview. “We have a fundamentally unequal education system in the U.S.—just 10 percent of our schools are responsible for 40 percent of dropout students, and those schools are concentrated in our poorest communities … This is why the Show Me Campaign fights for every child to have access to a quality education, regardless of race, income or zip code.”

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    Courtesy of Binta Niambi Brown

    Binta Niambi Brown

    Who: Binta Niambi Brown, corporate lawyer, start-up adviser, human rights advocate and bass player

    Her causes: Barnard College, New York City Parks Foundation, American Theatre Wing, Human Rights First

    Why she gives: “I come from a very long tradition of service and giving. I’m not someone who will have a huge amount of inherited money. It becomes a driving purpose for me in the career choices that I make. I always want to put myself in the situation where I can give. It’s a very profound form of gratitude and community building. I’ve been blessed with so much.” 

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    Craig Barritt/Getty Images

    Alicia Keys

    Who: Alicia Keys, singer-songwriter, actress

    Her cause: Keep a Child Alive

    Why she gives: “No matter who you are, we can all agree that we want an AIDS-free generation,” Keys told ABC. “We can actually invest in our future and create the possibility that there would not be AIDS anymore … When we disassociate ourselves with it and think that’s the problem over there … you’re in big, big trouble. We have to own the fact that we absolutely are the ones that push forward our governments. When they hear our voices, that we are discouraged about something … they must change it.”

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    Courtesy of Tiffany Bender and Alize Beal

    Tiffany Bender and Alize Beal

    Who: Tiffany Bender and Alize Beal, founders of a not-for-profit organization

    Their cause: Y.U.N.G. Harlem, aimed at arming Harlem youths with leadership skills

    Why they give: “We grew up with our families instilling in us, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’” Beal says. “It’s something we’ve been doing since we were 12. When we realized there was something missing in our community, instead of complaining about it, we became the solution.”

    Adds Bender, “When we first started this, what we did was not cool. We couldn’t get our peers to buy into this. So we spent our own money.”

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    Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith

    Who: Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, entertainers

    Their causes: The Will and Jada Smith Foundation, Don’t Sell Bodies

    Why she gives: “I just get obsessed with things,” Jada said in a 2012 interview with Essence magazine. “It doesn’t take much for me to get on a crusade once something hits my passion chord, you know what I’m saying? I’m here to assist all—whoever needs me, I’m there. [Celebrity and power], that’s my resource. You want to be able to use your voice to bring awareness to an issue. So why wouldn’t you use someone who has a loud voice?”

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    Mark Davis/Getty Images

    Beverly Bonds

    Who: Beverly Bonds, DJ and former model

    Her cause: Black Girls Rock!

    Why she gives: “I was inspired because to me the message to women of color was imbalanced,” she told The Root DC last year. “There weren’t enough role models for women to look up to. It was something that I felt was long overdue, for black women, women of all backgrounds, to have something promoting positivity. When you start something and you really believe in your mission, there is no obstacle too great for you to overcome.”

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    Jason Kempin/Getty Images

    Steve Harvey

    Who: Steve Harvey, comic and talk-show host

    His cause: The Steve Harvey Mentoring Program for Young Men

    Why he gives: “I have the skill set to convince anybody to do anything, so I take advantage of it,” he said in an interview. “When you make mistakes and you recover from them … then you’ve got something to share … When I got with [my wife] Marjorie, she made a conscious effort to constantly talk to me about the philanthropic side. I was doing stuff, but I wasn’t going all in. She said, ‘Steve, it’s important for us to be out there and all in.’”

Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.