Tavis Smiley grew up sharing a three-bedroom trailer in rural Indiana with nine younger siblings, his parents and his grandmother. His neighbors were white and so were most of his schoolmates, and the only other African Americans young Tavis knew were those at his church. The neighbor kids were quick to point out how he was different, not only because of his race, but his poverty; it wasn’t unusual for him to line his hand-me-down shoes with cardboard to cover the holes in the soles.
Although he grew up an outsider, or maybe because of it, Smiley gained a fierce sense of self-confidence that would carry him far. Today he is head of his own media conglomerate, The Smiley Group Inc., which not only produces public radio and TV shows but also has a publishing house, a film production company and a speaker’s bureau that represents such people as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and psychologist and television personality Robin Smith.
“I use these platforms to inspire and uplift,” Smiley says. “Nobody values the public trust more than I do.”
Throughout his career of some two decades, 47-year-old Smiley has used these platforms to empower people with concrete tools to effect positive change in their own lives, to get involved in their own communities, to hold elected officials accountable, to take responsibility for their own actions and to practice self-reliance. These themes resonate in many of the books he has authored, including Doing What's Right: How to Fight for What You Believe–And Make a Difference and Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise.
Those themes also play out in his philanthropy, especially the Tavis Smiley Foundation, which promotes and mentors young leaders through scholarships, lectures and an annual Leadership Institute on the UCLA campus each summer.
Smiley’s most recent book, Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure , pinpoints his own personal and professional failures and how he has learned from them. Indeed, Smiley says he’s able to think big because he’s failed enough times to know it’s not going to kill him. His favorite quote is from Irish writer and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett, who wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Pushing Up Against Barriers
Hard-won victories certainly line the pages of Smiley’s life. In his New York Times best-selling autobiography, What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America , Smiley writes about being the product of a working-class, Pentecostal environment, where family and church were valued but higher education was not. He was stubborn, however, pushing up against barriers until knocking them down. He literally talked his way into the University of Indiana (he had been accepted but his parents refused to sign the admission papers) and then into a job working as an aide to Mayor Tom Bradley in Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles that the trajectory of his very public life took off, beginning as a commentator for a local radio station.
Seated on a plush couch in his well-appointed South Central L.A. office, Smiley says his ability to accomplish myriad projects comes from being hyper-focused and well-organized. He compartmentalizes so well that when he’s doing one project, he says that’s all he thinks about, something that is clear during the interview for this story. For close to two hours, Smiley speaks passionately about his life and goals without interruption from staff or any electronic device. He gets up only once to describe a beautiful bronze sculpture in his office of a black man kneeling before his God with one hand open and the other fisted in resolution.
“The piece is called Icon,” he says, pointing to the statue. There are only a few like it, he adds, including one the artist, the late Tina Allen, did for Nelson Mandela.
In discussing his ability to stay on task, Smiley is quick to point out he does not make New Year’s resolutions nor does he have a five-year-plan. Instead, he carves out space every year on his birthday to write down his goals, both professional and personal, for the next 12 months. The list “stays in my bag wherever I go around the world,” says Smiley, nodding toward his briefcase on the floor.
Checking off a to-do list is certainly an achiever’s activity, although Smiley’s lists are far from rote. Return to China to film a week’s worth of segments for his PBS talk show, Tavis Smiley. Dig deeper into his philanthropy. Create a new Public Radio International (PRI) show where Smiley and his longtime friend and Princeton professor Cornel West discuss issues relevant to the day (Smiley & West took off immediately and entered every top-10 market in the country).
Introducing Americans to Each Other
Smiley is known for raising issues that other people in the media either don’t raise or don’t cover in depth. Just look at some of the recent topics on his PBS show. The trip to China gave viewers a deeper look at the country’s economy, its environmental and human rights records, its treatment of women and its achievements in education. Last summer, Smiley also produced a two-part television series in Chicago called Innocence Project Panel, which discussed the social cost of wrongful incarceration. The panel included four wrongfully convicted men, who collectively had spent more than 50 years behind bars.
“Information is power,” says Smiley of his media group. “I want to re-examine the assumptions people hold, expand their inventory of ideas. I want to introduce Americans to each other.”
He says he takes his responsibility seriously as host of both national television and radio shows. His activism and his advocacy journalism, particularly with regard to African-Americans, led Time magazine to include him in the World’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009. “Unapologetically, I carry my blackness with me,” Smiley says. “My job is to talk about equity and social justice. My mission in life is to try to make the world safe for the legacy of Martin Luther King: justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people.”
How does he fulfill that mission? “You tackle it by taking small steps, by booking the right people.”
Smiley says he books guests based on what they have to say, not how popular or well-known they are. Still, he has interviewed scores of famous actors, athletes and politicians, including Bill Clinton, Jamie Foxx, Ashley Judd and Serena and Venus Williams. Some of Smiley’s favorite guests are writer Maya Angelou and Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander, who has written a book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness . “I give her a platform every chance I get,” he says. But he says he also holds people accountable, including President Obama, whom he has interviewed several times and has criticized for not adequately addressing issues in the black community, including high unemployment.
America I AM
Smiley’s mission to make the world safe for King’s legacy is the catalyst in part for yet another project: a traveling museum exhibit called America I AM: the African American Imprint. Smiley was the creative force behind this 15,000-square-foot multimedia exhibit that tells the story of the contributions of African-Americans to this country. The theme, says Smiley, revolves around the question scholar W.E.B. Du Bois once asked: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” In other words, says Smiley, “extract all those people and see what you’re left with.” Among the items in the exhibit are the door key and stool from the cell where in 1963 Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Smiley often references his hero, Martin Luther King. When he was about 13, a member of his church bequeathed to him a big crate of King’s recordings. King’s work taught him about leadership and being a public servant. Smiley says that leading is really about addressing the needs of other people; it’s what makes any business work.
The gift of the King recordings came on the heels of a horrific family incident that was sparked by an accusation by their church pastor that Smiley and his sister had been unruly in Sunday school. The pastor singled them out in front of the entire congregation without giving them a chance to rebut the accusations, which had no basis in fact. When the Smiley family got home from church, Smiley’s father completely lost control. He used an electrical cord to beat the two youngsters so brutally that they were hospitalized for days. Afterward, Smiley and his sister were put in separate foster homes, and Smiley didn’t return to his family for about a year.
Smiley’s father was a hard-working family man and not a chronic abuser. He grew up in the South, black and poor, enduring the humiliation of segregation and Jim Crow. “Oftentimes the only dignity was family and church,” Smiley recalls. “If anything was going to make him snap, that [the preacher singling his children out for wrongdoing] was it.”
The incident stays with Smiley every time he goes home to Indiana and sees the church where it all began. But the beating also gave him a desire for a life of purpose and empowerment. “It was an ugly incident that everyone in the town knew about,” says Smiley, who after a long time reconciled with his father. “So much of my drive came from that humiliation.”
A Stark Realization
But he also had anger, anger that at times leapt out in the form of a fiery temper. In his recent book Fail Up , Smiley says he doesn’t regret most of his failures, but he wishes he didn’t have to own the few that resulted from character flaws.
Still, Smiley makes no bones about admitting these flaws, even when the anecdotes are gut-wrenching. Take the day that Smiley lost it when he was still hosting his show on National Public Radio. A recurring technical glitch in the studio sparked his anger. He yelled at his producer, cursed and pounded the desk. Unbeknownst to him, an engineer recorded his diatribe, made copies and distributed it around the office. Smiley says he didn’t listen to it right away, initially viewing the whole event as just another fight between two creative perfectionists who always made up by the end of the day.
When he finally put the headphones on to hear himself, he was completely and utterly shocked. He hadn’t realized how angry he sounded, and when he really listened to himself, he realized he needed to change. He apologized to his producer and promised that his words would be less aggressive. As he writes in his book, “Listening to my raging, vulgar voice on that CD set me straight. It’s been seven years and I’ve kept my promise.” The lesson? “Success becomes failure when you lose your civility and your dignity,” Smiley writes.
Fail Up was inspired, in part, by an experience Smiley had when he was turning 40. He had already accomplished a lot for a young man, including hosting his own show on NPR. But on the eve of that milestone, in a hotel in Houston, he had a panic attack, a full-fledged existential crisis. He was terrified that, like his hero King, he wasn’t going to live to see his fifth decade, and therefore he wouldn’t accomplish his numerous personal and professional goals.
It was a night of hell, Smiley says, but later a conversation with Cornel West gave him perspective. West told Smiley that no one can accomplish everything, and to that degree, we all die failures. The advice gave Smiley some breathing room and made him feel freer to tackle bigger projects, including leaving NPR to produce The Tavis Smiley Show, distributed by PRI. He also edited and published The Covenant with Black America , a paperback collection of essays by black scholars and professionals, which was the first nonfiction book by a black publisher to be a No. 1 New York Times best seller. And he moderated and produced the first prime-time television presidential debates in 2007 with panels made up solely of journalists of color.
The advice he got from West also made him think more about how best to define success. “For me it’s internal,” he says. “The highest reward is who we become, not what we achieve or have.”