CHAMPION OF CHANGE: Thabiti Boone gave up a promising basketball career to be the kind of father he never had.
On June 13, the White House Office of Public Engagement and Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships honored ten new “Champions of Change” who do outstanding work in the field of fatherhood. They join Thabiti Boone, a previous Champion and supporter of President Obama’s White House Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative.
Boone is a college basketball hall of famer who gave up a promising career when he took responsibility for his newborn daughter as a college student. He is the International Representative for Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, a fatherhood adviser to the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation and the Fathers and Men of Professional Basketball Players, and a former New York Theological Seminary adjunct professor. UrbanFaith talked to Boone about his work with fathers and his own experience and legacy as a father. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: You work with various organizations on the issue of fatherhood. What are the key principles that you share with men about being a good father?
Thabiti Boone: I’ve always shared from my own personal background that being a father is one of the greatest joys that any man can have. I tell fathers, “The first principle is that principle of love and connection, knowing that this child who came from you and who you helped create, will always be a part of who you are and the legacy of what you stand for.” A lot of times fathers get caught up in being defined as providers, but the greatest principle is that it’s almost like a spiritual gift from God that allows a man to become a father, and so when he has a child, it’s the most beautiful blessing that a man can have.
You became a father unexpectedly in college and took your daughter to school with you. What motivated you to give up your basketball dreams to care for her?
That was life changing for me. My mom got pregnant at 13 and my dad was an older guy who wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be a father or not, so my circumstances could have come at the hands of a judge who decided that these two parents were not in a position to parent me. But my grandmother took responsibility for me. Knowing my fate could have been different because my dad questioned whether or not he wanted to be a father made me never want to be in a position to question my fatherhood of a child I produced. My dad was physically there, but I never really had the kind of father/son relationship that I felt would have benefited both of us. And so, I knew that if I ever became a father, no matter what age, I was going to be the kind of father that I know my dad wanted to be, but just couldn’t be. I wanted to be the kind of father that so many young black males growing up in my neighborhood didn’t have. I wanted to break that cycle and be the best father that I could be.
Growing up in a neighborhood where I didn’t see many hopes, dreams, aspirations, or male role models, I also knew that if I ever made it out of the streets of Brooklyn, I would not only raise a daughter and family, but I would become a mentor and role model of what it is to be a man. That was another motivating force, because even when my father wasn’t around, I was still searching, trying to identify who can take the place of my father. I didn’t have much success with that until I met my high school coach.
The last piece that was very, very motivating is when I almost lost my mother through her attempted suicide. At the age of 12, I watched my mother jump off the rooftop of a tenement building where we lived. I knew my father had something to do with that. My mother lost self-esteem, faced depression, had a nervous breakdown, and had to head a single-parent family, and she reached the breaking point. So I knew I wanted to be the kind of son and father that would never bring that kind of pain into a woman’s life. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. I didn’t want to disappoint my grandmother, and I didn’t want disappoint myself.
EASTER AT THE WHITE HOUSE: Thabiti Boone revels in his fatherhood legacy with his daughter and grandsons.
When I did become a teenage father, I didn’t want to start making excuses like other dads make, or whatever the reasons that prevent them from being fathers. Enough had occurred in my life for me to say, “You know what? I can be inspired and motivated to really, really conquer this thing and hit this thing head on.” And so, every time I looked at and dealt with my daughter Kim, I knew that nothing was more important to me than being the greatest dad I could be. Nothing was more important to me than trying to live up to that principle of God giving me a gift to confront me with everything I’d gone through and everything that was against me. This was actually related back into fatherhood. God said, “Okay here’s your turn. Now are you going to choose basketball as your reason like a lot of fathers have chosen different reasons why they’re not in their child’s life, or are you going to step up like a true basketball player, like a true champion, and take on this thing and make whatever sacrifices you need to make to make this thing happen?” In my spirit, in my little teenage mind, I said, “I have to turn this paradigm around.” I think the way I’m living now would not have occurred if I would have denied my daughter. Becoming a dad closed the gap.
What keeps men from being the kind of dads that their children need them to be?
Several things are barriers. So many fathers are coming from this cycle of father absence in their own lives that you have generations of fathers who don’t have fathers. They become fathers and there’s no compass and action plan. By the time they become dads, they don’t have the proper tools or the emotional wherewithal to be able to come into fatherhood the right way.
As we’ve been going around the country talking to dads, a lot of them deep down really want to be dads, emotionally, but they’re stuck with their own hurt of fathers who have rejected them and have not been in their lives. They bring that pain into their relationship as they become fathers to their own children and this cycle just keeps viciously going. And so, one of things we’re trying to do is assist fathers with how to overcome their own personal challenges around fatherhood in their own lives.
The second barrier comes from employment. One of the biggest responsibilities a father has to his family and children is economic. You have to provide for them and make sure they have the things that they need to prosper. A lot of fathers, especially in the African American and Hispanic communities, don’t have a proper job and background, and it really presents a serious challenge for them in meeting that financial responsibility. That’s why a lot of father programs and government programs are geared around helping fathers get jobs. If we can continue to help dads with skill development and education, it will allow them to meet the financial responsibility of their children.
I know what it feels like when you can’t provide. When I was in college as a basketball player, I saw that my daughter needed Pampers and milk, so I started to develop a little low self-esteem because I couldn’t give her those things. I felt better when I took my scholarship money and income from part-time jobs to give her things that she needed. If fathers can get that kind of assistance, it would be a great self-esteem boost for them in terms of that barrier.
The last thing is how fathers are received. We have to start asking: How do we define fathers and what is that definition based on? Do we continue to beat up on them and call them “dead-beats” and irresponsible, or do we do more to analyze and understand what is making our fathers who they are and what is causing father absence? Having that conversation really helps dads to know that there is some common ground and that society is not saying to them, “You’re worthless and inconsequential,” but instead, “You’re needed.”
What we’re finding in this fatherhood movement, whether it’s in my work with Allan Houston or with President Obama, is that celebrating dads and giving them the benefit of the doubt that they can do it if they step up does a lot to help them in their overall commitment to their children.
Do you think President Obama would be as passionate about fatherhood if hadn’t had an absentee father himself?
One of the things he has shared at the White House both publicly and with us that work with him is that if he was not the president, he still would feel the importance of this issue based on his personal challenge with his own dad. And so, I think he would still be as passionate about this issue and would do all that he can to support it even if he wasn’t the president. With all the things that he has going on as president, the fact that he still feels the need to have this initiative says a lot about what he thinks about this issue.
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports last year, your daughter, who is a married nurse with two sons of her own, said you are a “real man who stepped up to the plate.” In that same interview, you said that the fact that your grandsons have not know poverty or tragedy is your legacy. You traded the potential to have a professional basketball career for this legacy. How do they compare?
People like Allan Houston, who was one of the greatest players in the NBA and has a wonderful foundation that addresses the issue of fatherhood, would have no interest in having me advise and assist him on the issue of fatherhood if he didn’t respect what I did with my own daughter. The same thing is true of the president, other NBA players, and people that I work with in other walks of life. We can be remembered for how great we were on the court, but basketball is only going to be in our lives for a certain amount of time. What we do to impact our families as fathers and to impact society as fathers and men, that’s the lasting legacy.
My choice was: Do I want Kim to say, “My dad used to be a pretty good ball player,” or do I want her to say, “My dad will always be remembered for the fact that I was more important that anything in this world.” And so, when I see my grandsons, who are growing up in a two-parent home, never having experienced what I’ve experienced, with two loving parents, I cannot beat that kind of legacy. Going back to what I said earlier about the generational challenge around father absence, God forbid my two grandsons ever know what that feels like, because their grandfather took on the challenge to eliminate and then bring into their life a legacy of father presence through my son-in-law.
I’m proud to have been in the basketball hall of fame as a college player, and I’m proud of my success and all my accomplishments, but nothing compares to the feedback that I get from what I’ve done in terms of being a father. I would not trade all that other stuff in for the world. I will forever be known as the guy who stood up and stepped up when fatherhood really wasn’t that popular back in 1984.
HOLDING HER OWN: Tara Wall, a conservative pundit and strategist for Mitt Romney, is a CNN panelist, a columnist for the Washington Times, and a defender of traditional values. She has debated a variety of progressive leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton (left) at a 2007 National Urban League convention. (Photo: Robert Cohen/Newscom)
Last month, when Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign hired veteran GOP operative and conservative pundit Tara Wall as its senior communications adviser, many assumed the former Massachusetts governor was preparing to get serious about his outreach to the black community. But Wall, one of the most high-profile black conservatives on the media circuit, says her primary job will be to shape the presumptive GOP nominee’s overall communication strategy — her ability to appeal to blacks, women, and other groups will presumably be a side benefit for the Romney team.
Still, as Gov. Romney takes on the nation’s first black president, it would be silly to think he wasn’t making a play for the black vote by bringing Ms. Wall onboard. As reported in The Washington Post, Romney’s plan is not so much to battle Democrats for the Black vote (he knows that would be a losing game), but to demonstrate to independent and swing voters that he “can be inclusive and tolerant in his thinking and approach.”
Ms. Wall will have her work cut out for her. Romney’s infamous quote that he’s “not concerned about the very poor” and his lack of clarity on the immigration issue have left him looking out of touch on social justice matters. And then a recent visit to a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia to talk about education was greeted by unfriendly crowds — and some harsh criticism from Philly Mayor Michael Nutter. But, as Ms. Wall observes, Romney did show up, and he’s eager to demonstrate his willingness to interact with diverse communities.
If Philadelphia is any indication, it’s going to be a long, brutal road for Gov. Romney if he’s serious about breaking down the walls between the GOP and non-white communities. But Wall likes their chances. She recently spoke to UrbanFaith’s news and religion editor Christine Scheller about the challenge of being a black Republican, why Barack Obama is a likable guy, and how Mitt Romney’s policies will be good for the African American community. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Can you tell us about your journey from television journalist to columnist to CNN contributor, to adviser to the GOP, and now adviser to Governor Mitt Romney?
TARA WALL: Politics and journalism have been a part of my life since I was a kid. I always knew I wanted to be a reporter, and I always knew I wanted to be civically engaged, so I always did things in that vein to bridge the gap between people of different cultures and backgrounds. I told my pastor I wanted to do both and he said, “You can’t do politics and reporting. You have to pick one or the other.” At the time, you really couldn’t. Now it’s a little different. The worlds do meld. Throughout my career, my interest always went politically. I had been covering Governor Engler as an education reporter and literally got recruited by someone who worked in his administration to come work as a liason in his Detroit office. I loved it, and by virtue of doing that, I also worked on the first Bush campaign. I really believed President Bush’s message and wanted to support him. My story about becoming a conservative Republican is a whole other tier, but I always knew that I had conservative values. I was raised that way.
But you didn’t always identify as a Republican?
When I first went away to college at Florida A & M, I joined the school newspaper and I joined a political organization. The only political organization there was the Florida Young Democrats. Somebody asked me why I was a Democrat. I didn’t know that I was; I didn’t know I was anything at that point. I didn’t like that I didn’t know the answer to that question. So it wasn’t until I started examining both sides that I knew I was more aligned conservatively. I also credit the fact that I had the benefit of hearing people’s full speeches when I covered political events. At the time school choice was huge and I covered that extensively. I found myself agreeing with education reform, welfare reform, and less government.
ON MESSAGE: As Mitt Romney senior communications adviser, Tara Wall will shape the campaign's overall communication strategy.
In the 1950s, when it was perfectly acceptable and expected that some people would need welfare, my grandmother had to raise five kids on her own after my grandfather left her. She didn’t want welfare. She wanted to raise her kids on her own and she did. She went back to school because she didn’t want the government taking care of her kids. I grew up with that mentality. My parents worked very hard. I am middle class and worked from the time I was 14 years old. We were people of faith. We went to church. Those are some of the things that shaped me.
I never thought I would be a mouthpiece for the party, because as a reporter, I liked being independent. I liked having the ability to disagree, but I remember being at a rally with President Bush and it struck me how humble he was and how he spoke so highly of his mother and her impact on his life and his faith. That struck a chord with me, and so I definitely wanted to help the campaign after that. I did that for a year and then I got right back into TV in St. Louis. Then 9/11 happened, and everyone got laid off, including me. I thought maybe God was trying to tell me something, that maybe this business wasn’t for me anymore. I decided to go back to Detroit because 9/11 was devastating for everyone, including me, and I just wanted to go home. I had my own TV show in Detroit, which I loved, and had no plans to leave. Then I got recruited by the Republican National Committee to help get President Bush reelected. Had I not had Ed Gillespie on my show, I probably would not have gone. But I grilled him. I asked him, “What are you going to do to be inclusive and build the party?” I was so struck and so awed by his response. I just felt like, “This guy really gets it. He really understands what’s needed and how to communicate on this level.” About a month later I got the call from the RNC. It was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make, but I kept telling myself that someone has to deliver this message and maybe I’m the person they need help do it.
Is your public service grounded in your faith?
It’s grounded in a lot things. It’s grounded in faith and family. A lot of what continued to develop from a civic standpoint was born out of my faith and the principles we were taught in that regard in church, but I fell in love with civics when I was in fifth grade. I was one of those kids who watched cartoons and the news. In high school, I watched C-span. I always felt a moral responsibility and a moral obligation to be the underdog and tell peoples’ stories. I know what it feels like to be bullied. People always say, “How can you do this? How do you take on so much? You’re anomaly.” But my dad raised to have a thick skin. I think we’re all here for a purpose. Not to sound too cheesy, but I feel like this is what my life destiny is. God gave me the ability to be in front of a lot of people, to have a great career doing TV, and then to use those abilities to help others articulate their messages.
I hope to help do that with the campaign. The issues that are presented to us cross racial barriers. There are racial disparities that exist, but there is more than a one-party solution to those issues. I just want folks that look like me to know that there are other options. There are more ways to address these issues and I’d like them to give us a chance. As Governor Romney goes out and speaks about some of these issues in our communities, I think he’s very sensitive to listening and I think that’s very important. I’m here to assist in that area.
What will your strategy be for helping to make Governor Romney appealing to communities of color?
I think we all know that 90 percent, if not more, of blacks are Democrats and will vote for President Obama. So, people need to know that we do have a message and that the Obama campaign doesn’t have a lock on the black vote. Our goal is not to take any vote for granted. We also have to make sure that we’re continuing to reach out broadly to our base, our base of black conservatives, Republicans, moderates, those who have supported us in the past and those who may have voted for Obama, but are looking for us to say, “Come back home.”
Do you think Governor Romney’s recent visit to a Philadelphia charter school was a mistake, or was his visit to that predominantly African American school reported inaccurately?
PHILADELPHIA STORY: On May 24, Gov. Romney greeted students in a computer class at Universal Bluford ES, a charter school in West Philadelphia. His visit to the neighborhood sparked criticism and debate. (Clem Murray/Newscom)
It was unfortunate how it was characterized. That an elected official [Mayor Michael Nutter] decided to come and bracket an educational event was a little absurd. He certainly has that right, but Governor Romney was welcomed at the school. Parents and teachers who want choice absolutely welcomed his message. They were happy he was there. I think that this goes a long way in showing that Governor Romney is open to listen to and from those folks who know what’s best for their schools and for their kids. He has a great message about closing the gap between minority and non-minority students. What has President Obama done to help bridge that gap? We see one-in-three young black kids right now have no work. We see the unemployment rate in the black community at a staggering 13 percent and we’ve had 40 months of unemployment. Those are things that need to be the focus, not these distractions.
Why are Romney’s ideas good for the black community? For example, how will his ideas and policies impact the high unemployment rate in the black community?
He has outlined a number of things he would do his first day in office. Some of the things we have to look at are the reasons people are out of work. It’s harder to find jobs because job-killing regulations are costing this economy billions of dollars. President Obama wants to raise taxes on Americans, particularly small start-up businesses that employ half of all private-sector workers. They’re not able to do that. They’ve been hindered from [hiring new workers] because of the tax burden and regulations. Mitt Romney thinks reforming the tax code is fundamental. Lowering the tax rate to 25 percent, making the R&D tax credit permanent. That in itself fosters innovation. Working with congress to lower individual tax rates by 20 percent across the board. That helps the small business, because a lot of times, these small business folks are being lumped in with corporations and it’s not right. I run my own small business, so I know what it’s like. It’s stifling. I’ve heard from small business owners who say in 40 years, they haven’t not been able to hire this way. They can’t do anything because they feel so hindered by all of this.
That’s one part. The other part Governor Romney has talked about is repealing regulations on day one and capping annual increases and regulatory costs at zero dollars. That also adds thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the economy. This is his number one focus as opposed to President Obama, who doesn’t seem to be able to focus on the economy right now. He’s focusing on everything else, visiting celebrities and going on shows. If we could just focus on getting the economy back, it’s going to help African Americans and those who have been disproportionately hurt by this entire economic situation.
Why aren’t we talking more about black unemployment? Black joblessness? We are, but I have yet to hear anything substantive from this administration. And, God knows, I’m sure President Obama means well. He’s absolutely a likable person. I’m sure folks feel compelled every time they hear him speak, but what has the soaring rhetoric resulted in? When you have 40 straight months of job loss, what has that done to the black community? What has that done for black job growth and entrepreneurship?
Is there any hope of shaking up the traditional alignment of Black Christians with the Democratic party and white evangelicals with the Republican party?
Black conservatives, particularly in the South, will cross party lines to vote on certain initiatives. While they overwhelming still vote Democrat, they’re more conservative from a faith perspective. I don’t know how that will translate this election. I suspect that, at least from the folks that I’ve heard from, there are those who are disappointed from a faith perspective in some decisions that the president has made, but some of them will probably still vote for him. There are others that say, “I’m not sure. I’m still pondering how much that means to me.” I don’t know that it’s going to cause people of faith in the black community to overwhelmingly come to our side. I think black conservatives, yes; black moderates who are on the fence, maybe yes; but black Democrats who may disagree with him, I don’t know that that’s necessarily going to be a game changer for them. That would be just me pontificating, and that doesn’t mean we won’t speak out and court all those who value the platform that the party and the candidate stands for. Hopefully we’ll reach those that we might be able to find some bridges with.
Can the GOP leverage politicians of color like Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Nikki Haley to attract a more diverse constituency or will it always appear that these politicians are tokens?
LISTENING TO THE PEOPLE: During his Philadelphia trip, Romney participated in a roundtable discussion on education issues with Kenneth Gamble (glasses and hat), chairman of Universal Companies, the non-profit that runs the charter school Romney visited. (Clem Murray/Newsocm)
I think [Gov. Romney] already is attracting a more diverse constituency, and I reject the notion of tokenism. It’s long been discounted. These are sitting elected officials who are Republicans. So that’s absurd. There are many in the black and Latino community who have voluntarily come out and supported Governor Romney: Condoleezza Rice, former Education Secretary Rod Paige, who is on his education advisory panel, Representative Tim Scott, Marco Rubio. These are folks who support the ideals and the leadership that Governor Romney represents and that’s what’s important. You don’t have to go that far to find many others like them, despite the narrative the media puts out there.
It was ironic at the Philadelphia event that it was the same day or the day after Secretary Rod Paige was announced as an education advisor and no one even picked it up. No one interviewed him or talked to him about his support for Governor Romney and why he was helping him to craft some positive solutions relative to schools and school choice.
What is the biggest misconception that women and people of color have about Mitt Romney?
The problem with perceptions is that they change day-to-day. One day he’s up; one day he’s down. Right now he seems to be up. His numbers have gone up a little among women. Obviously you never want to fuel perception any further if it’s completely inaccurate and you definitely want to correct mistruths. It’s up to pundits to decide about perceptions. They’re going to hash that around. The campaign is focused on insuring the message gets out to women, to minorities, and to others across the country, what his record is, what he believes are the best tools to move this country forward, and reminding voters of the abysymal record we’ve seen these past four years with President Obama.
You’ve been a Republican adviser for nearly a decade. Have you been criticized by other people of color for your party affiliation or are we at a place where people can respect differing political convictions?
I wish we were at that place. Do you want to see my emails?
What kinds of things do people say?
Very nasty, hateful horrible things that I can’t even repeat to be honest with you. But I don’t focus on that. I go back to the fact that my dad raised me to have a tough skin. I know that not everybody can speak out the way I can. For every one of me, there are 50 more that aren’t as brave as me. I don’t mean that in a bad way. They’re secret Republicans or closet Republicans because it’s not worth it for them and their families to put themselves on the line that way. Not everyone can do that. I accept this as my cross to bear, if you will, because someone has to speak out. Someone has to be that person, until those attitudes and ideas change and until we do get to a point that we can have a civil discussion about where this country needs to go. There are varying opinions even within the Republican party.
Black Republicans are not monolithic. Sometimes we disagree amongst ourselves, but that’s part of the healthy, natural debate. It’s getting better, but there are certain things we haven’t broken through and certain ideals we haven’t broken through. Anytime you have a majority of one race voting one party, it doesn’t serve us well. It shouldn’t serve anyone well if the party is taking any vote for granted. That’s not the way politics was designed. It was designed to be a debate and discussion and a sharing of ideals. We shouldn’t be giving our vote over to one party, whatever that party is. We should examine the issues. I want to see more parity, from a party perspective. It would be great if we could have 50 percent down the line on each side of the aisle, or maybe one day there will be a purple party.
I heard [former Democratic] Rep. Artur Davis recently speak. He said that his ideals and beliefs are not welcome in the Democratic party. I feel that way. That doesn’t mean I don’t go to organizations and events that are highly Democratic, but a lot of times I feel out of place. I feel like my viewpoint is not represented on the stage or in a panel, and I don’t think that’s right.
Does your status as an African American Republican woman help you identify with Governor Romney when he is criticized for his Mormon faith?
I just think that’s another diversion. People of faith have embraced Governor Romney. They respect that he’s a man of faith period. From Evangelicals to Catholics, people have come out and said, “This is a man of faith.” That’s what counts to most Americans, knowing that he has a belief system and values. He’s a man of character and integrity. He’s a family man. Those are the things that matter to Americans.