Friday, May 01, 2009

Susan Taylor: Essence Icon in Transition

The irrepressible Susan Taylor

It was a great honor and pleasure to meet Susan Taylor. She is something of an enigma – a bold, driven, ambitious “type A” personality, and yet very down-to-earth, soft-spoken and easy to talk to. Maybe this is partly a function of walking away from Essence magazine and all its ventures after 37 years, and her decision to focus on changing the African American community through her National Cares mentoring movement. I got the distinct sense that she made everyone and everything around her slow down and move gracefully; she is definitely not an executive in the fervent style of Donald Trump and "The Apprentice"... I believe much of what we can learn from Susan Taylor comes from her character and presence – that a person can be a leader and care about people around them, and that women can move up in their chosen careers and fields and not feel like they have to be cold, hard, calculating martinets. Susan is a visionary, and hopefully more and more people will answer her call for understanding the power of mentoring relationships.

There's no real direct connection between Susan Taylor, the National Cares Mentoring Movement, this article and Africa, except that Susan had her epiphany on Pemba island, off the coast of Zanzibar and Tanzania. (Some people believe Africa inspires such moments, especially for African Americans who touch the Motherland and return to their Source.) I took the opportunity to write this article because I felt it was important to talk to Susan. More and more African Americans are traveling to Africa and living in Africa, especially celebrities and folks with financial means. The involvement of African Americans - and particulary prominent Black cultural leaders, activists and media personalities - in the Motherland, will be one of the defining trends of Africa's future. More brothers and sisters will discover the vast beauty of Africa and what it has to offer, and will have their own moments of inspired revelation.

Susan Taylor: Essence Icon and Mentoring Motivator
Susan Taylor, builder of the legendary Essence magazine empire, is virtually the embodiment of Black womanhood in full force.

She has a small frame, but is stunning in her physical presence – she is graceful and elegant, perhaps all that you would expect from a woman who was the driving force behind the most successful Black woman’s magazine on the planet. Moving into its 39th year, Essence has evolved from a small monthly magazine into an icon of African American culture, including the Essence Music Festival, the Essence Literary Awards, Essence hosiery, Essence eyewear and a vast array of topical conferences and forums.

Taylor herself is ever active, always searching the horizon to anticipate changes in society that effect Black women and African Americans as a whole. Her visionary leadership has inspired Essence’s extraordinary growth and influence, and has transformed her into one of the most recognized and admired African Americans of our contemporary era.

Yet in person, what is perhaps most striking about Taylor is her gentleness, her warmth and accessibility. As we sat down for our interview at Loews Hotel in Denver, she spoke softly, in an unassuming and direct manner. Her friendliness and charm caught me off guard, as she seemed completely unrushed by the outside world. One has the sense that Taylor focuses on her goals, yet is also sensitive and responsive to everyone around her. It is hard to imagine that this diminutive, easygoing woman is also the same dynamic publishing and media mogul whose name has become synonymous with an industry powerhouse. But Taylor moves with a natural smile and grace that does not relay impatience, haughtiness, detachment or ego-driven ambition.

At the apex of her career and personal achievements, when others might be considering retirement, Taylor has other things on her mind. With all that her wealth, status and fame can bring her, she is not preoccupied with quietly easing into a life of comfort from the well-deserved fruits of her 37 years at Essence. She is concerned that “the situation in Black America is continuing to decline” and has devoted all her time and energy to building the National Cares Mentoring Movement, which has now taken root in 55 cities throughout the country.

Taylor was in Denver with National Cares Chairman Tommy Dortch and President Rustin Lewis to launch the Greater Denver Mentoring Movement at Infinity Park last month. Seeing a profound need for guidance and wisdom in the growth of African American youth, particularly in urban and inner-city communities, Taylor’s new passion and mission emerged from the aftermath of the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. But it took time for her ideas to evolve and her vision to take form.
While Taylor started at Essence as a fashion and beauty editor, while editor-in-chief she always made sure Essence covered a wide range of social issues from changing stereotypes of Black women to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Given that the three-day Essence Music Festival – one of America’s premier festivals of Black music – takes place in New Orleans, it was inevitable that Hurricane Katrina would evoke a response from Taylor and Essence.

The Essence Music Festival temporarily moved to Houston that year, and Taylor felt an urgent need to bring artists, celebrities and political leaders together to address the audience and talk about the impact of Hurricane Katrina. The energy and spirit of the festival was forward-looking, as people like Danny Glover, Mary J. Blige, Monique, Common, Run DMC, Terrence Howard, civil rights activist Marian Wright-Edelman and Urban League President Mark Morial all spoke about volunteerism and getting engaged in the lives of the disenfranchised, disconnected young people. After the festival, Taylor took a sabbatical to Africa, and while on Pemba Island, off the coast of Zanzibar, she had an epiphany.

“Giving it critical thought and taking quiet time, the Holy Spirit just said, ‘Mentor.’ Mentoring creates miracles and transforms lives,” Taylor explained, with great feeling and emotion. Months of grappling with the issue led to her revelation on Pemba Island. “You don’t need lots of money. I had looked at the Urban League’s programs and the NAACP’s and a whole host of others to see the work that they were doing in communities. Looking at Boys and Girls Clubs and Job Corps, we’re talking about billions of dollars it would take to serve young people and those who are most vulnerable. So I thought mentoring is what we need.”

After returning to the United States, Taylor organized a meeting with many national activists and organizations, hosting them for lunch with Essence, as part of the “Essence Cares” initiative, and in turn she learned about the nonprofit sector. Eventually Essence Cares became the National Cares Mentoring Movement, based in Atlanta, and they relied on Tommy Dortch –an author, entrepreneur and prominent leader in the Georgia Democratic Party – to develop a template for mentoring. Dortch, who is the chairman of the 100 Black Men mentoring organization, also became chairman of National Cares Mentoring Movement. Along with National Cares President Justin Lewis, Dortch and Taylor travel to various cities across the country, drawing crowds, speaking at launches and galvanizing communities into action.

Taylor believes mentors are essential to help bridge a growing class separation that is having a destructive impact on the African-American community.

“There’s a complete divide between middle-class Black people and poor Black people that didn’t exist 30, 40 or 50 years ago and that gulf is widening and deepening. And so that was the original idea for the Essence Cares movement,” Taylor said, becoming more animated as she talks about the implications of these changes.

“We got into the American dream of having more – more of anything. We want a bigger house, a bigger car, more clothing, more, more, more – and there’s no ceiling to the more. And that more has focused us on getting and not giving,” Taylor pointed out, saying these changes are reflected in our church communities, which have now become preoccupied with a “prosperity gospel” rather than the “social gospel.” “When you look back and see what we did with what we had during the civil rights movement – people who had resources always took care of others.”

Beyond the class issue, Taylor expressed concerns that some people are unwilling to work with ex-cons and felons, while she feels the institutions of American society and the Black community have actually failed these individuals. Taylor acknowledged that some individuals are completely out of control and need to be kept behind bars, yet she is passionate about taking collective responsibility for young people who have poor reading skills and have not been given the proper tools for success.

“There’s nobody with a gun in his hand, who’s out there mugging someone, who has a high school diploma or who has a job and is capable of taking care of himself and his family. There’s nobody out there who’s gang-banging, who has those things,” Taylor said emphatically. “The challenge in this country and in our community is public education. Failed schools are pipelines to prisons. And when you have youngsters who are 17 or 18 years old reading at a third-grade level, when you’re handed a broom to do a lot of sweeping, you don’t want to do that – you feel like your grandfathers did that and that’s not what you want to do.”

According to Taylor, the National Cares Mentoring Movement intends to identify and recruit as many “able and stable” Black men and women as possible, and then channel them into local mentoring organizations that are already vetted and prepared to establish mentor relationships. When local organizers have done enough groundwork and are ready, they setup a launch for a local mentoring organization, and Taylor, Dortch and Lewis work to motivate and draw as many people as possible.

Taylor spoke highly of Denver organizers Gerri Howard and Rhonda Jackson, who have “gathered an amazing circle of people who care about community – politicians, business people, people who work for nonprofits and people who do mentoring things.” Taylor said that the launch of the Greater Denver Cares Movement at Infinity Park, which drew an estimated 500 people, was the National Cares Movement’s most successful launch in any of its current 55 cities. People who are interested in the program can log on to the Movement’s web site at and be directed to specific organizations in their home communities.

Taylor believes that effective mentoring can be essential for young people who are “falling through the cracks” and at risk. For a short time commitment, mentors can have a very real and immediate influence in turning someone’s life around.

“All we’re asking for is an hour a week to speak life into a young person,” she said, pointing out that a mentor can talk to a young person in need and make options and opportunities real for them. “Oh, you dropped out of high school – don’t worry, you can fix it. There’s a GED program over here; let’s get you in it. Come on, you can go to community college – you can do it! And even if they don’t go to college, maybe you need some kind of industrial training. You can become a bricklayer, you can become a nurse’s aide or you can become a plumber. Unions are now opening their ranks to people who have come out of incarceration. You can make $50 or $60 an hour as plumber or a carpenter.”

At 61, Taylor has been on a remarkable journey, and she realized late last year that she had to leave Essence to devote herself full time for the National Cares Mentoring Movement to succeed. When she started at Essence in the early ‘70s she was a single mother, earning a salary of $500 a month. Her rent was $368, and the magazine had a circulation of 50,000. Today, Essence has a monthly readership of 1.1 million, not to mention the reach of the Essence brand’s subsidiary ventures.

While new editors have stepped up to fill her shoes, for several years Taylor has maintained a “long arm” on the publishing empire she created. Then, last year, it was clear the time had come to devote herself completely to her mentoring movement. In December, Taylor sent an emotional e-mail to all her professional colleagues, informing them that she would be stepping down, in effect formalizing the end of an era and the changing of the guard at Essence.

“I couldn’t grow the National Cares Movement. It is an answer – it is THE answer. And it needs galvanizing force – it needs pushing. It needs somebody who can be in Denver today, and Atlanta yesterday and Greensboro next week. It needed that, and I realized my tentacles – that I am connected to a lot of people in the political world, I’m connected on the grassroots level and I have the respect of my community,” Taylor said. “People who know me know that I’m not about being in another photograph, or being on television, or anything like that. I belong to my community. And that’s the conversation I was having with myself.”

But if you ask Susan Taylor and push a little deeper, you’ll find that there are aspects of her life that remain unfulfilled. At some point in the future, perhaps Taylor will feel that the National Cares Mentoring Movement is well established and enough change is occurring that she may withdraw into a more introspective and personal phase of her long and storied life.

“I want to build my house in St. Croix. I want to put my feet up and have a peppermint tea in one hand and a book in the other hand. That’s what I really want to do, but the level of suffering I see in our community is too high,” she said, with a touch of sadness. “I’m a high-energy person, but I also want to read, I want to be still, I want to be quiet, I want to think… That’s what I want, but I’m doing this now. I’m putting everything I have into it – financial resources, and of course, my energy and the ideas that I have. Anybody who knows me knows that when you’re with me we’re going to talk about our children.”


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