As a little girl growing up on the west side of Detroit, Michigan, I remember my grandmother and I walking around the block to the bus stop and taking a 30-minute ride to a tall building on, what seemed like, the other side of the world.
I remember sitting on the floor of the hallway, sun shining through the windows, playing with whatever toy I brought with me that day, while Grandma sat in a chair against the wall with a red tube poking into her arm – the other end attached to a plastic bag hung on a tall, skinny pole. She would sit there, with other grown-up people I had never seen, also with red tubes coming out of their arms – all of them squeezing these blue rubber balls. Grandma and the strangers would smile and make small talk with each other. As the minutes ticked by, the bags would go from see-through to filling up with a red liquid. I would play quietly (even though this was not my idea of a fun summer vacation day), not daring to be unruly or else Grandma would shoot me a look that I knew would mean unpleasantries when we got home.
A lady dressed in all white – from her folded white hat on her head all the way down to her white stockings and shoes – would come out and adjust the bags and tell Grandma and the other nice strangers, “You’re doing great” and then disappear back through the door. In the brief seconds that the lady was tending to Grandma, I could see, attached to her all-whiteness, was a sticker that said, “Red Cross”.
Grandma was a philanthropist.
Not the kind with a lot of money in the bank – she cleaned houses for well-to-do people and her husband, my step-grandfather, drove a truck for the post office. But, no dictionary defines philanthropist as a “wealthy person”. Instead, it reads, “one who has an altruistic concern for human welfare manifested by one’s generosity to needy persons”. There was a call by the Red Cross for people to help and Grandma answered that call with her life’s blood.
My mom and dad always told me that, “If God gives you a platform, use it to give back.” Philanthropy wasn’t an option, it was a requirement. Our family’s unspoken motto was, “Even if I have only a little, you can have a little bit of my little.”
My college years were spent at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia – an all women’s HBCU (Historically Black College and University) founded in 1881. The first class of Spelman consisted of 10 women and one girl – some of whom had been born into slavery. It was at Spelman that I learned about the strength and pride of my ancestors and the women who came before me. It was where I learned about the value of sisterhood and, when you invest in a girl, she can change the world. It was there that I saw, firsthand, how young women of color, many from underserved and disadvantaged backgrounds could go on to be lawyers, doctors, actresses, businesswomen, COO’s of Fortune 500 companies, and talk show hosts.
My career led me to Hollywood as host of the entertainment show, ‘Access Hollywood’. It was 1999 – before social media – before Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. At the time, it was one of the only national entertainment shows around and the go-to place for news on your favorite celebrities. Not long after that, I began getting letters from girls asking about the stars – “Is so-and-so as beautiful as she looks on the magazine covers? “What about so-and-so? Is she as skinny and perfect as she looks in the movies?”.
I knew I had a duty. So, I wrote a book to teens girls called, “Exactly As I Am: Celebrated Women Share Candid Advice with Today’s Girls on What it Takes to Believe in Yourself”.
I interviewed girls around the country to find out what they felt were the images and messages that destroyed their self-esteem. I interviewed celebrity women about what they would tell girls if they could speak directly to them. And, the message was clear: True beauty comes from within. No amount of money, fame, or looks can bring you real happiness. The quote that Oprah gave me for “Exactly As I Am” was this…“You are valuable because you were born.”
One of the chapters in my book is called, “Giving Back”. I already was serving on the National Board of ‘Girls, Inc.’ whose motto is, “Teaching girls to be Strong, Smart, and Bold.” I currently serve on the Advisory Council of the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up organization which gives girls the resources and platform to start a movement of social change.
When I left Access Hollywood after 16 years, I started my passion project – the S.H.A.U.N. Foundation for Girls. We are a 501(c)(3) that supports small, grassroots non-profits that empower underserved and underrepresented girls in 5 key areas: (S)TEM, (H)EALTH, (A)RTS, (U)NITY and (N)EIGHBORHOODS.
There are so many small nonprofits that are impacting girls in meaningful ways. We find them, vet them, and if their work is in alignment with our principles, then we use our platform to help them with their mission. We focus on IMPACT over numbers. If you change the life of ONE girl, that ONE girl can change the world.
At the intersection of Philanthropy and Women, you will find Women Moving Millions. Although I am still a “newbie”, I feel energized when I am around the women in this organization who are using their platform to help others. Just as Grandma sat in that chair to do her part, I think we all have a responsibility to use whatever resources we have been blessed with to reach back and help others who need us.