Mark Anthony Thomas: Do-Right Man

Mark Anthony Thomas: Do-Right Man

GIVING VOICE TO THE UNDERSERVED: Journalist, poet, and urban difference-maker Mark Anthony Thomas during the launch of the City Limits project's Brooklyn bureau.

Mark Anthony Thomas is director of City Limits, an independent investigative journalism organization that reports on civic affairs in five boroughs of New York City. He previously served as the Deputy Director of City Futures, the parent organization of the public policy think tank Center for an Urban Future. He has served on numerous philanthropic boards and earned an MPA in Financial Management from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Thomas was featured in Time magazine in 2000, was named one of Essence magazine’s “50 Do-Right Men of the Year” in 2006, ranked in the top ten on AUC Magazine’s “Top 30 Under 30 in Atlanta” in 2005, and was featured on NBC’s Atlanta affiliate as a “Future Leader of Tomorrow.” He is the author of two poetry books and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year (Poetry) in 2005. UrbanFaith talked to Thomas about the motivating forces in his life and work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UrbanFaith: How does your faith inform your work?

Mark Anthony Thomas: To some extent, it’s so integrated into every facet of it that people don’t realize it. In New York City, you don’t really talk about your faith. People don’t really have a knowledge about how closely aligned you are to God in guiding everything that you’re doing. The type of work I do at City Limits comes from a core ethical place of strong relationship with God.

Do particular passages of Scripture or aspects of the gospel message motivate you?

I grew up Church of God in Christ, so, for me, it’s much deeper than a particular Scripture. I was definitely taught to think and believe in a certain way, that the righteous are never forsaken, and Proverbs 22:6: if you raise a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it. All of those things have always stayed with me. When you look at it in the bigger context, it’s understanding what you reap is what you sow, so if you reap positive energy and you’re purpose driven in all that you do, then the Lord will make a way for you.

In high school I wasn’t the best reader, so when I got to college, I had to take a remedial reading course. That was very humbling. To go from that to two years later being the first African American editor of one of the largest college papers in the country, and then to have won scholarships and plenty of awards at a young age, I remember being at church and testifying that every time I turn around I feel like God is blessing me. When you have ministers and people within the church community all constantly feeding you that kind of excitement, and that kind of focus, it doesn’t disappear.

And, even though Atlanta is not as ambitious as New York City, there’s this constant reminder that you can do great things. It’s the home of Martin Luther King Jr. and the whole Civil Rights Movement, so a lot of that ideology and teaching was passed down to my generation.

Why did you choose that focus on investigative journalism in your career?

When I was 20 years old, I said that I wanted to be an investigative reporter because I believed that was the best way to inform people how to make their communities better. You actually did the due diligence of making sure people could be well informed and be well versed in the issues that mattered to them. I still believe in it. When you’ve come from the side of society that I came from and you’ve worked in policy to the degree that I have on a corporate level, you don’t want to produce content that’s not enriching.

Did you grow up in an affluent family?

No, I grew up in a single-parent family, where faith was the only means of staying inspired. I’m the first college graduate on my mom’s side of the family. My grandfather, who’s passed now, was excited to have lived to see his grandson break down a writing barrier as a first black editor at a school [The University of Georgia] that he saw integrated.

Here’s a taste of Thomas’s poetry …

First-generation college students face unique challenges. Was that true for you?

I write about that journey in my poetry and my policy work addresses a lot the issues that were hurdles in my journey. With Helping Teens Succeed, the organization whose board I chaired for six years, we worked with 30 schools in Georgia and 10 in Washington, D.C., essentially running college access programs as part of a federal initiative to work with first generation students to make sure they had the right road map to go to school.

What was key for you?

The first kicker for me was in high school, we had a 1000 SAT club. I remember my 16-year-old mind thinking, “This is just not that ambitious. If I get 1000, I won’t even get into the schools that I want.” So I found an old SAT prep book and studied it. My parents didn’t know this is what their child should be doing. I just knew I had to do that to get into school.

When I got to college, I realized how under-exposed my high school was. When I met students who had better business opportunities, had more AP courses, it was striking. I was like, “Okay, there’s a reason you’re more sophisticated and educated than I am, because I didn’t have access to these opportunities.”

In order to reach a level where you feel equivalent, you have to do a lot of outside work to catch up. My first two years of college, I spent catching up to my peers. It’s tough. I wanted be among the top graduates, especially in that racial environment. Georgia is still very, very conservative and it still has a rich confederate culture that, to some extent, made it a very unwelcoming environment for a lot of black students.

Because I did very well in that environment, reporters wanted to know how that happened. I was in a lot of media explaining how I managed the system. For me, it goes back to faith and growing up in a church environment that nurtured me to where if I stayed focused, I could make things happen. Those are formative years, so once you’ve mastered them, to some extent fine, you’re after that.

But I watched discouragement set in on people year after year, like when only 370 students of 700 that I began high school with graduated. Then, as a college student, watching people in this very unwelcoming environment get discouraged and just focus on graduating, if they even made it that far. If you can learn to maneuver through that, when you actually graduate into the corporate world, you can be okay.

How did you get your start in urban policy issues?

As a high school journalist, I was interested in city and policy issues. I continued that writing focus in college, and had a real eye for policy issues, education issues, disparities, and things of that nature. When I graduated, I went to work in corporate philanthropy as a community affairs rep for one of the largest companies in the world, Georgia Pacific. I was able to play a major role in education reform, policy issues, urban planning, and a lot of arts and community development initiatives.

Essence named you a “Do-Right Man.” What does it mean to be a do-right man?

It means you’ve learned what’s right and wrong and your mission in life is to do right. I was one of 50 men to receive the inaugural award. Of those 50, I was one of six who were brought to the Essence festival to represent the best of the guys. That was pretty exciting.

What are your long-term goals?

I don’t necessarily have a road map, but I want to have an influential voice. I think I come from a place of compassion, passion, and ideas. I trust if I’m using those in the most influential places I can then I’ll be making an impact. For example, the State Department has an international visitors program that brings in guests who want help in some major area. I’ve met with 25 guests from Jordan, China, and Japan. I’ve helped them learn the kind of media that we run here in New York. That’s something you can’t measure in unique visits, but when you’re helping advocates in Jordan try to understand how to use media to push for women’s rights or freedom of speech, it’s a powerful opportunity. For me it’s great to be the kid from Decatur, Georgia, who has that opportunity.

Hard to Say ‘Sorry’

pop circumstance impactIn this Juneteenth edition of Pop & Circumstance, we consider the U.S. Senate’s late-but-official apology for slavery and Jim Crow, Tweets from a revolution, Jazz at the White House, ‘Speidi’ and the problem with reality TV religion, and what will Mary Mary sing at the BET Awards?

Senate Apologizes for Slavery — and Spartacus Wins

This week in “Current Events You Thought Shoulda Happened 40 Years Ago,” the United States has officially given its “my bad” on slavery. On Thursday, led by Iowa lawmaker Tom Harkin, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the “enslavement and segregation of African-Americans” and recognizing the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” Though the apology is official, there was concern among some senators that the language in the resolution would leave the door open for lawsuits or a demand for reparations.

While African Americans are certainly delighted with the apology, presumably 92-year-old Spartacus film icon Kirk Douglas is also happy. The actor had been petitioning Congress for an apology for slavery for years. Just this past April, Douglas wrote on his MySpace page: “As I told you quite some time ago, in my last book Let’s Face It, I wrote about the importance of our country showing the world that we are capable of humility by making an apology for our behavior towards African Americans before and after the Civil War.” The veteran actor also collected signatures in support of the apology on MySpace. Isn’t it interesting that a resolution like this hadn’t happened already? Well, better late than never.

The Revolution in 140 Characters or Less

Lest we think Twitter is just another useless digital platform to share a constant stream of the minutiae of our lives, the social networking site that asks members to share what they’re doing in 140-characters or less just got more interesting. Following the controversial election in Iran, protesters who were blocked from using other forms of online communication by government officials took to the Twitterverse to share their discontent. Sympathetic Twitter users from all across the world joined in the protest, spreading word about the election and even encouraging greater mainstream news media coverage of the events. Some even helped protect Iranian protesters from being tracked by changing their Twitter location and time zone to act as “proxy or ghost Iranians.”

The viral nature of Twitter allowed those of us who may not be politically savvy or aware to instantly participate on the front lines of a massive international protest against a Middle Eastern government from the convenience of our laptops or mobile phones. I had no idea about the Iranian election, but found out about the protest from my friend Kyle Westaway who is an attorney in New York City. He sent out the following Twitter update to all of his followers: “Twitter Friends: Change your location and time zone to Tehran and +3.30 to help the protesting Iranians from being tracked. #iranelection”. Since his Twitter account links to his Facebook profile, he alone spread word of the event to hundreds of people with just one click.

The implications of this kind of mass mobilization are great, particularly for people of faith who are called to bring the needs and concerns of society’s marginalized people to the forefront of our culture.

Jazz at the White House

As much as I’m trying not to be all Obama all the time, I can’t help it. The First Family just keeps getting cooler. On June 15th, the White House hosted a Jazz Studio, featuring musicians from the Marsalis family, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and the Thelonius Monk Jazz Institute. In her remarks to the 150 high school students who attended the event, First Lady Michelle Obama referred to jazz as “America’s indigenous art form” and the best example of American democracy with its emphasis on “individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, calls jazz more than music. He says, “[Jazz] is a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world. It is about freedom within community. It is a culture, that is, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life in general and faith in particular.” We couldn’t agree more, and it’s a pleasure to see the Obama White House encouraging creativity and re-imparting value on artistic expression.

Reality TV Piety

When Stephen Baldwin baptized Spencer Pratt a couple of weeks ago on television’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, we let it slide. It didn’t seem right to comment on such a clearly misguided publicity stunt, despite the Christian relevance. Besides, the rest of the media was already making a mockery of the incident. NBC, the network that produces the show, titled video clips of the baptism as “Stephen Baldwin shoves the devil out of Spencer” or “Saved by Stephen.” The whole thing was ridiculous, but this kind of behavior is par for the course when it comes to the former MTV Hills reality show star Spencer Pratt and his wife Heidi Montag. The couple has been injecting itself into tabloid headlines for months with self-generated drama. For a while they bought a few extra minutes of reality star fame by selling the story of a feud between Montag and Hills co-star Lauren Conrad. Then it was plastic surgery and a botched music career for Heidi that culminated in a Pratt-directed beach video. Most recently the couple invited paparazzi to their rushed wedding in Mexico.

But now things have gone too far. Montag, a self-proclaimed Christian who often “tweets” about her faith, is posing for Playboy, and she’s justifying the decision by calling herself a “modern day Mother Teresa.” As my mother would say, if she thinks she’s Mother Theresa, then she’s got another think coming. And though we’re not in the business of judging anyone’s faith here at UrbanFaith, we can express our disappointment over how “Speidi” is portraying Christianity in popular culture. We wish they would keep quiet about their faith until they figure out what they really believe. In the meantime, they’re probably doing more damage to the Church’s reputation. What do you think?

The Word on BET

A couple of weeks ago we shared with you the gospel nominees for the upcoming 2009 BET Awards. Now we have more information on the performers. Set your DVRs for 8pm ET/PT on June 28th because Mary Mary will take the stage. We hope the gospel gals sing something deep from their recent album, and perhaps bypass the secular-friendly “God In Me” single. It’s a toe-tapper, but with this kind of platform, they might want to deliver a message with a little more gospel truth. Also scheduled to perform are Beyoncé, Kanye West, Maxwell, Ne-Yo, Fabolous, Young Jeezy, and Soulja Boy.