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Authors: Tavis Smiley

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BOOK: Fail Up
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Kelvin Boston, author and host of the financial affairs show
, was a co-host with me on the Wells Fargo seminars. In a 2009 interview with the
Washington Independent
, Boston added needed perspective on the roles we actually played in the seminars' orchestration.

“We all thought at the time that we were doing a positive thing,” Boston recalls. After so many years of redlining and restricted access to credit, partnering with a major bank interested in outreach to the Black community was considered an encouraging development.

“Were we probably used? We probably were. If I had the chance to do it over again, would I do it in a different manner? Probably.”

But the damning allegations against Wells Fargo made it impossible for me to stay affiliated with the company. So in 2009 I dropped Wells Fargo as a partner, even though the company was a major sponsor of my “State of the Black Union” symposia.

However, that didn't stop the Internet-instigated campaign that had thousands of Black folks asking how much I got paid to play a role in the scam or saying things like: “Tavis Smiley is evil!” or “Smiley led Black folk to hell!” or “Tavis had to know about this!”

I suppose it's easier to demonize a personality than an organization. For example, in February 2009, Wells Fargo and the National Urban League co-sponsored
The Foreclosure Workbook: The
Complete Guide to Understanding Foreclosure and Saving Your Home
. In March 2009, the NAACP filed lawsuits against Wells Fargo and a number of suspected predatory lenders, alleging racial bias in their subprime lending businesses. By April 2010, the NAACP and Wells Fargo had reached an agreement that allowed the NAACP to review its lending practices. The NAACP did not seek monetary damages in its suit, but said it sought to change behavior in the mortgage-lending industry. Wells Fargo served as the lead sponsor of the NAACP's 101st annual convention in July 2010.

Starting in 2011, a new alliance with Wells Fargo & Company and the Citizenship Education Fund—an affiliate of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.'s Rainbow PUSH Coalition—is kicking off a new initiative, the “One Thousand Churches Connected Save Our Homes Financial Literacy Program.” This is an unprecedented collaboration between a major civil rights organization and an institution accused of targeting Black people for its own gain.

I believe the Urban League, the NAACP, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition are just as sincere as I am about providing educational resources that may improve the financial success of African Americans. As I said, it's much easier to target an individual than it is an organization.

I remain committed to spreading a message of self-determination through financial literacy to African Americans and to all who will listen. In an attempt to get up and fail up, I devote significant time on my radio and television platforms trying to thoroughly dissect the subprime mess and its exploitation of Black and brown people, which, if we're honest, caught a whole lot of people much savvier than me by surprise. The “Road to Wealth” segments on my PBS show features folks like Maria Bartiromo, host of CNBC's
Closing Bell
; Ken Wade, CEO of NeighborWorks America; and Katty Kay, BBC correspondent and co-author of
Womenomics: Write Your
Own Rules for Success
. The segments are designed to deliver information about building personal wealth, finding affordable housing and suitable loans, and other needed information.

The financially illiterate are most often shut out of the mainstream borrowing or credit processes. They find themselves victims of predatory lenders like payday loan companies, where they borrow money using their next paycheck as collateral. According to the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization, minority and low-income consumers often end up paying 400 percent to 600 percent in interest and fees on these caustic loans and this last-resort system of credit.

As long as I have a public voice, I will use my platforms to help people get their money right and their financial houses in order. The Wells Fargo fiasco only made me wiser. And more determined. I'm doing the same free financial literacy seminar; this time it's called “The Nationwide On Your Side® Tour with Tavis Smiley,” sponsored by Nationwide Insurance. The seminars backed by surveys provide valuable information—financial basics, retirement planning, employment opportunities, and more.

Why? Because fiscal accountability is an individual responsibility, and I believe that information is power. Knowledge is power. But getting that knowledge to the proper source is challenging. There's no excuse these days for being financially illiterate. Comprehensive data about how to prepare for a secure financial future are abundant. But in environments with 50 percent high school dropout rates, where parents have had little experience with proper money management—“comprehensive data” aren't enough.

With the proper weaponry, we can win this battle. When we arm ourselves with good information, we can make better financial choices. When we make better choices, we live better lives. And when we live better lives, we leave greater legacies. And if one of your primary goals is not to ensure that your children and grandchildren have more opportunity than you, then what's it all about?

All I know is that I'm just a former check-kiter trying to help others fly right.



awrence Harvey Zeiger was doing all right for himself: He had hosted local radio and TV shows and by 1971, he had a gig as a weekly columnist for the
Miami Beach Sun
and served as the color commentator for the Miami Dolphins on WIOD radio in Miami.

Not bad for the son of Jewish immigrants and who barely graduated high school. The impoverished Brooklyn, New York, kid had a serendipitous entrée into radio. In 1957, he worked as a janitor at a small Miami radio station. When an announcer suddenly quit one night, the station's manager instantaneously—desperately—decided to put the janitor on the air. After his impromptu but apparently impressive debut, Zeiger was hired as a news and sports commentator at $55 a week.

Today, Lawrence Harvey Zeiger goes by the name of Larry King.

After a steady ascent, King's world crashed in December 1971. A former business partner sued him, and King was arrested and charged with grand larceny. Even before his day in court, he was fired from his radio, television, and newspaper jobs.

King was acquitted of larceny but pled guilty to passing a bad check.

Four years later he was rehired by WIOD to host an evening interview show. By 1978, his career had recovered to the point that he was offered a late-night talk show,
The Larry King
. It was a stepping-stone to a 25-year legacy,
Larry King Live
, which premiered on the Cable News Network (CNN) in 1985.

A dream deferred, disgraced, and deep in debt, King must have carried an unimaginable extra burden in the early 1970s when not one but three jobs disappeared at once.

Yet there's a lesson in King's depressing tale. Sometimes in order to fulfill our destinies, either we're pushed or we force ourselves to jump into the unknown. Getting to your designated place in life often boils down to constant motion versus forward motion. The difference is as distinct as my running ten miles on my treadmill inside my house or going outside and running ten miles through the streets of Los Angeles. The first is an example of constant motion; the second, of course, forward motion. Many of us don't make the distinction. We think just because we're moving in life that we're moving forward.

If you're going to truly advance, sometimes the jump, the push, or the pink slip is a prerequisite.

By the end of 2008, 2.6 million Americans had lost their jobs. The country's recession, which began in 2007, resulted in the highest percentage of annual job loss since the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands more jobs disappeared in the succeeding two years, with an unemployment rate at a staggering 9.6 percent in September 2010.

What does all this mean? It means a whole lot of people were pushed into the unknown.

King lost three jobs at once. But he didn't stay stagnant once he was cleared of the larceny charge. He wrote articles and took on radio gigs in smaller markets, all the while inching toward his destiny—defining the real Larry King.

His story is one of many that reinforce the need to get yourself in forward motion.

Mine is but another.

Thank You, Bob

Not a year goes by where one or two of my close friends don't fail to suggest that I send Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), a gift for firing me.

In my memoir,
What I Know For Sure
, I detail some of my beginning and ending with BET. At the time of its writing, what I did not know was the profound impact it would have on my forward motion. I do now.

To recap briefly, I went to work for BET in 1996. When it hired me, I was still doing national weekly commentaries on the
Tom Joyner Morning Show
, which I continued. My contract also allowed me to form my own production company. In that respect, I produced a number of programs on my own; the most familiar was the “State of the Black Union” symposia, which I also hosted every year. Ironically, in all the years I was at BET, conducting those conversations with high-profile Black Americans, BET had no interest in airing them. It already had its poster boy for serious Black dialogue on five nights a week. It was perfectly content with the 99-to-1 entertainment/ information ratio on the network. Consequently, C-SPAN was happy to carry the gatherings live each year.

Don't misunderstand me. Because of the dearth of critical and enlightening commentary on BET, my program became an oasis for viewers thirsty for uplifting and challenging information. My status rose exponentially at BET. I became a household name in Black America and the go-to guy when politicians, actors and movie directors, and Black leaders needed to touch base with Black audiences. The position helped me develop a strong and mutually trustworthy relationship with then President Bill Clinton and other folks of national and international renown. I conducted interviews with everyone from Fidel Castro to Pope John Paul II. In fact, it was a rare and coveted interview that motivated Johnson's decision to fire me.

America's Most Wanted

Sara Jane Olson—formerly known as Kathleen Ann Soliah, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)—had been a fugitive for 23 years. She and several other SLA members were accused of trying to blow up two Los Angeles police cars. Soliah went underground, changed her name, married a doctor, and settled down in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, where she raised three daughters and became an active and involved community member. After her arrest in 1999 following a routine traffic stop, reporters were clawing each other's backs for an exclusive interview with her. Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Larry King—everybody was chasing the story.

Now, I'm not so full of myself that I believe Olson surveyed the media requests and picked me because, in her mind, I was the best interviewer. A number of factors played into her decision. First, her trial was scheduled to be held in Los Angeles, in the same courthouse where O.J. Simpson was tried. More than likely, Olson realized, she would probably have a significant number of African Americans on her jury. Second, her attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, was a friend of mine. Third, and probably most importantly, Olson's daughters—like a whole lot of white kids in the country—watched BET every day. The girls were fans of my show. According to Chapman Holley, they were the ones who told their mom about this guy by the name of Tavis Smiley “who is really, really good. You should consider talking to him.”

I really hadn't been following the story, so I was unimpressed when Chapman Holley offered the interview to me. Finally, she asked me: “Do you know who this woman is, Tavis? Everybody and their mama is chasing this story, and she wants to talk to you.”

BOOK: Fail Up
11.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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