Susan Taylor is legend. But the term “legend” is nowhere near adequate enough for this woman, whose tenure as editor-in-chief of Essence magazine transformed both of their names into global powerhouse brands followed by 8 million readers. Living in the now, at 71-fighting-years strong, Taylor founded the nonprofit National Cares Mentoring Movement in 2005; to date, the organization has deployed more than 140,000 mentors into 58 cities across America to deliver educational health and wellness services to 200,000 of our most-at-risk youths.
This year’s gala for her charity is Friday, Jan. 29, honoring the Rev. William Barber II, Miss Cicely Tyson and Tarana Burke, with a performance by honorary chairperson and Grammy Award winner Maxwell.
In the spirit of women rising up, and the current momentum of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, The Glow Up asked the mighty Susan Taylor: What can we do now as women of color to ensure social justice and deliver our girls a better future?
“Mothers and fathers have to tell their boys that you are not supposed to try to have sex with a girl at all, ever—even if she is willing. Hands off,” says Taylor, explaining that children should be taught that moral responsibility always lies within oneself even if another is willing to behave in a compromised manner. “You are not supposed to try to have sex with or touch women inappropriately.”
This is a message Taylor says has to come from the pulpit and be embedded in the global political conversation, a message that could very well die on the vine before bearing fruit in our community. “We cannot back away from the women’s movement like we did in the ’70s, and let the issues be appropriated by white women,” adds Taylor.
We’re seeing this now as Tarana Burke struggles not to fade to black in the sea of white faces riding the tide of the #MeToo movement she founded.
And as women of color, what can we do to ensure social justice for our girls, and for ourselves as women?
“Because the face of poverty has been painted black,” says Taylor, “poverty causes us to prey on each other. It’s happening in Appalachia, where the cameras aren’t on, and in our urban centers, where that’s all we’re shown.”
It is this perception that allows people to care less when poverty comes up in political discussions. This, even though more whites are dependent on public assistance and living at or below the poverty line—defined by the U.S. government as an income of “$12,195.00 for a family of four” (a figure I’m urged by Taylor to both memorize and write down).
Taylor’s belief is that the root of poverty is education inequality. “I left Essence when I found out that some 8 percent of black fourth-graders were reading below grade level,” she says.
It’s a tragic reality that affects our community in ways we wouldn’t expect. “You get an all-white police force when the schools are broken—there’s no pool to recruit officers from,” she says. “We have to dismantle poverty by making sure that everyone who wants to work can be paid a living wage. That, and making sure that education is not directly tied to property taxes.”
Voting rights present another major issue: “Redistricting and closing down voting sites by not allowing people to vote in their churches after service on Sundays. And putting up barriers so that young people, older people, people of color will not be able to vote—and they’ve done it successfully,” Taylor explains.
“Gerrymandering has worked,” she adds. “The Moral Mondays Movement led by our honoree Dr. William Barber II, the former head of the NAACP who stepped down, and now he’s leading the Poor People’s [Campaign] in North Carolina, which is a model for what needs to happen around the country.”
Taylor also reminds me that as black women, we have to continue to use our power at the polls.
Taylor says we also need to buy products and services from companies that have women on their boards and women in leadership positions within the corporation. The recent sale of Essence to Liberian entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis grants the publication’s top employees—most of whom are women—equity in the company.
“I’m thrilled,” Taylor says. “I want to see this not just at Essence magazine; I would like to see this happening across the board. We don’t own anything in our communities.”
Regarding the nonprofit world, while we often give to major charities like the Red Cross, Taylor cautions, “Don’t forget the sisters and brothers who are boots on the ground in our community; who are really doing work.”
We all have money and skills that are sorely needed right on our own corner.
One in 6 Americans is food-insecure, a statistic that this children’s-rights activist finds stunning, given that, she says, “there are invitations to eat everywhere you look in this country—yet our children grow hungry.”
Hunger is a major impediment to learning, and in a country as resource-rich as America, it’s a sin for any of us to let that go unremedied.
Harry Belafonte—a part of Taylor’s “brain trust”—told her: “We’re not going to be able to fix what our children are contending with unless we are aware.”
Turning her efforts toward the parents of our at-risk children, Taylor has developed a framework in her book A New Way Forward: Healing What’s Hurting Black America. The 32-week curriculum wrestles with the impact of centuries of enslavement on our psyches, like indoctrinated hatred of our blackness, our Motherland, our hair textures, our lips and our hips.
“There is a depression that we all have; a self-denial that’s rarely named or recognized,” Taylor says, with a sadness in her voice that quickly gives way to protest. “Health disparities are stunning when you look at how unhealthy African Americans are—not just poor black folk. It’s across the board ... African Americans need to build ourselves up so that we can stand strong in love and unity; repair our own lives, so we can repair our villages.”