Mark Anthony Thomas: Do-Right Man
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.