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.

Oh, No! No More ‘O’

Oh, No! No More ‘O’

Oprah Winfrey

Countless people have calculated—or rather, miscalculated—when the world would end. For many Oprah Winfrey fans, that apocalyptic event arrived at precisely 4 p.m. Eastern Time yesterday (Thursday, May 26, 2011) when, for the first time in two and a half decades, they sat in front of their TV sets and got the local news instead of their daily dose of wisdom and inspiration from the indomitable “O.”

The Oprah Winfrey Show ended its 25-year run this past week with three farewell episodes that combined to capture all of the grandeur, sentimentality, and congeniality that have come to epitomize the show and its iconic host. The first two final episodes featured a star-studded surprise guest list that regaled Oprah and thousands of her admirers who packed out the United Center in Chicago. The last show—episode number 4,561—was done in a much smaller, more intimate setting back on her usual stage at Harpo Studios, where she spent her last hour thanking fans, sharing thoughts on God, and recounting her best learnings from her years on the show. 

Though I am not a diehard member of the Oprah Winfrey fan club, I must admit that I got a little misty-eyed watching the final episodes of her long-running talk show. I haven’t been a regular viewer of the show for many years now, only occasionally catching an episode whenever she had a must-see topic or guest. But in the early years, I was among those who were glued to the tube, checking out this fascinating woman—whose hair, lips, nose, and hips looked like my own and those of the other women in my family. For this black girl, transplanted from the inner-city to the suburbs, the idea of a black professional woman with the charisma and influence that Oprah wielded was foreign. She seemed larger than life. And in the minds of millions of people today, she is.

As her mentor and friend Maya Angelou would say, Oprah is a “phenomenal woman” who exemplifies the spirit of an over-comer.

The first black woman billionaire, Oprah created a veritable media empire in the span of just one generation. Besides her Emmy Award-winning, top-rated talk show, Oprah has started her own television network, a magazine, a bestseller-making book club, produced major motion pictures and TV movies, and even launched the careers of other household names, like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Suze Orman. A bighearted philanthropist, Oprah has raised millions of dollars through her Angel Network to send deserving children to school, financed college educations for hundreds of young black men, built schools in Africa, and more. She has blessed millions of people with her servant’s heart, extreme generosity, and her uncanny ability to bare her soul and profoundly connect with just about anyone.

Over the years, Oprah has consistently motivated people to live their best life ever, teaching that anyone could achieve success regardless of past or present circumstances. She empowered people to pursue their calling in life, and encouraged them to look for life-changing “aha moments” and to be their authentic selves. If you want to make it happen, all you need to do is look within yourself, work real hard, and you will get it. That’s the Oprah way.

For that, people truly love Oprah—and some of that “love” borders on Oprah worship, according to many critics.

Many evangelical Christians have condemned Oprah for her brand of church-free spirituality that focuses heavily on self-empowerment, leaving very little room for the God she claims to know. In fact, Oprah has been called one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America because of the way people respond to her views on life and spirituality. And her talk show has given her the perfect pulpit from which to preach what some have referred to as “the gospel according to Oprah.”

Despite repeatedly giving thanks to Jesus Christ for her many years of success—including on her final show—Oprah has publicly advocated a pluralistic view of salvation that says all paths lead to heaven and God. That means that whether you accept Christ as your Savior and Lord or prostrate yourself before the Buddha, in Oprah’s way of thinking, you can be saved. Clearly, many biblically minded Christians take issue with that perspective, since the Bible teaches salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ and Him alone.

Though Oprah never intended to become this maharishi to the masses, it is what it is. And many still worry about the impact of her spiritual vagueness and emphasis on seeking a God-consciousness on the eternal souls of her followers.

Very telling is the fact that audience members have had what looked like real religious worship experiences on her shows. They’ve done the ugly cry, shouted, danced for joy, praised their guru, and raised their hands in a fashion very similar to that of worshipers at a Sunday morning church service. One woman dissolved into tears as she shared how putting on an old pair of Oprah’s shoes (purchased at a charity garage sale) keeps her from slumping into a depression.

That’s a mighty powerful influence—one that I doubt will end simply because the show has. Oprah is so embedded in the hearts and minds of those who follow her that they will simply pursue her into her next phase of her career—and whatever else she decides to do after that.

Whatever it is, Oprah clearly demonstrates that it is possible to be a good person (maybe even a better person than some Christians) without being explicitly “Christian” in the evangelical sense. She has done what none of her peers could do. She has risen beyond superstar status to become a true American idol. And, whether you are fan or foe, you have to recognize that Oprah has it going on and the lives of millions of people will never be the same because God allowed a little black girl from Mississippi to pass their way.