Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Taylor: Essence Icon and Mentoring Motivator

The irrepressible Susan Taylor

It was a great honor and pleasure to meet Susan Taylor. To me, she is something of an enigma – a bold, driven, ambitious “type A” personality, and yet very down-to-earth, soft-spoken and easy to talk to. Maybe this is partly a function of walking away from Essence magazine and all its ventures after 37 years, and her decision to focus on changing the African American community through her National Cares mentoring movement. I got the distinct sense that she made everyone and everything around her slow down and move gracefully; she is definitely not an executive in the style of Donald Trump! I think a lot of what we can learn from Susan Taylor comes from her personal presence – that a person can be a leader and care about people around them, and that women can move up in their chosen careers and fields and not feel like they have to be cold, hard, calculating martinets. Susan is a visionary, and hopefully more and more people will answer her call for understanding the power of mentoring relationships.

Susan Taylor: Essence Icon and Mentoring Motivator

Susan Taylor, builder of the legendary Essence magazine empire, is virtually the embodiment of Black womanhood in full force.

She has a small frame, but is stunning in her physical presence – she is graceful and elegant, perhaps all that you would expect from a woman who established the most successful Black woman’s magazine on the planet. Moving into its 39th year, Essence has evolved from a small monthly magazine into an icon of African American culture, including the Essence Music Festival, the Essence Literary Awards, Essence hosiery, Essence Eyewear and a vast array of topical conferences and forums. Taylor herself is ever active, always searching the horizon to anticipate changes in society that effect Black women and African Americans as a whole. Her visionary leadership has inspired Essence’s extraordinary growth and influence, and has transformed her into one of the most-recognized and admired African Americans of our contemporary era.

Yet in person, what is most striking about Susan Taylor is her gentleness, her warmth and accessibility. One has the sense that Taylor is completely present and focused, yet sensitive and responsive to everyone around her. It is hard to imagine that this diminutive, easy-going woman is also the same dynamic publishing and media mogul whose name has become synonymous with an industry powerhouse. But Taylor moves with a natural smile and a sense grace and dignity that never belies impatience, haughtiness, detachment or ego-driven ambition.

At the apex of her career and personal achievements, at a time when others might be considering retirement, Taylor has other things on her mind. With all that her wealth, status and fame can bring her, she is not preoccupied with quietly easing into a life of comfort from the well-deserved fruits of her 37 years at Essence. Susan Taylor is concerned that “the situation in Black America is continuing to decline” and has devoted all of her time and energy to building the National Cares Mentoring Movement, which has now taken root in 55 cities across the country.

Taylor was in Denver with National Cares Chairman Tommy Dortch and President Justin Lewis to launch the Greater Denver Mentoring Movement at Infinity Park last month. Seeing a profound need for guidance and wisdom in the growth of African American youth, particularly in urban and inner city communities, Taylor’s new mission emerged from the aftermath of the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. But it took time for her ideas to evolve and her vision to take form. Given that the three-day Essence Music Festival – one of the America’s premier festivals of Black music – takes place in New Orleans, it was inevitable that Hurricane Katrina would evoke a response from Taylor and Essence.

The Essence Festival temporarily moved to Houston that year, and Taylor felt an urgent need to bring artists, celebrities and political leaders together to address the audience and talk about the impact of Hurricane Katrina. The energy and spirit of the Festival was forward-looking, as people like Danny Glover, Mary J. Blige, Monique, Common, Run DMC, Terrence Howard, Marian Wright-Edelman and Urban League Director Mark Morial all spoke about volunteerism and getting engaged in the lives of the disenfranchised, disconnected young people. After the Festival Taylor felt a need to take a sabbatical to Africa, and while on Pemba Island, off the coast of Zanzibar, she had an epiphany.

“Giving it critical thought and taking quiet time, the Holy Spirit just said, ‘Mentor.’ Mentoring creates miracles and transforms lives,” Taylor explained, as we sat down at Loew’s Hotel lounge, a day before the Denver launch activities. Months of grappling with the issue led to her revelation on Pemba Island. “You don’t need lots of money. I had looked at the Urban League’s programs and the NAACP’s and a whole host of others to see the work that they were doing in communities, looking at Boys and Girls Clubs, and Job Corps; we’re talking about billions of dollars it would take to serve young people and those who are most vulnerable. So I thought, ‘mentoring is what we need.’ ”
Taylor organized a meeting with many national activists and groups and organizations, hosting them for lunch with Essence, as part of the “Essence Cares” initiative, and in turn gradually learned more about the non-profit sector. Eventually Essence Cares became the National Cares Mentoring Movement, based in Atlanta, and they relied on Tommy Dortch – a well-known political leader, entrepreneur and author – to develop a template for mentoring. Dortch, who is the chairman of the 100 Black Men mentoring organization, also became chairman of National Cares Mentoring Movement. Along with National Cares president Justin Lewis, Dortch and Taylor travel to various cities across the country, drawing crowds, speaking at launches and galvanizing communities into action.

Taylor is concerned that there has been no organization that has been successful in recruiting Black mentors and keeping them engaged with their communities. She feels mentors are essential to help bridge a growing class divide that is having a destructive impact on the African American community.

“There’s a complete divide between middle class Black people and poor Black people that didn’t exist 30, 40, 50 years ago and that gulf is widening and deepening. And so that was the original idea for the Essence Cares movement,” Taylor says. Her voice becomes more passionate and animated as she talks about the implications of these changes.

“We got into the American dream of having more – more of anything. We want a bigger house, a bigger car, more clothing, more, more, more – and there’s no ceiling to the more. And that more has focused us on getting and not giving,” Taylor points out, saying these changes are reflected in our church communities, which have now become preoccupied with a “prosperity gospel” rather than the “social gospel.” “I’m a student of history. When you look back and see what we did with what we had during the civil rights movement – people who had resources always took care of others.”

Beyond the class issue, Taylor also expressed concerns that some people are unwilling to work with ex-cons and felons, while she feels the institutions of American society and the Black community have actually failed these individuals. Taylor acknowledges that some individuals are completely out of control and need to be kept behind bars, yet she is passionate about taking collective responsibility for young people who have poor reading skills and have not been given the proper tools for success.

“There’s nobody with a gun in his hand, who’s out there mugging someone, who has a high school diploma or who has a job and is capable of taking care of himself and his family. There’s nobody out there who’s gang-banging, who has those things,” Taylor says, speaking in slow, measured tones, but with great feeling. “The challenge in this country and in our community is public education. Failed schools are pipelines to prisons. And when you have youngsters who are 17 or 18 years old reading at a third grade level, when you’re handed a broom to do a lot of sweeping, you don’t want to do that – you feel like your grandfathers did that and that’s not what you want to do.”

The National Cares Mentoring Movement is meant to identify and recruit as many “able and stable” Black men and women as possible, and then channel them into local mentoring organizations that are already vetted and prepared to establish mentor relationships. When local organizers have done enough groundwork and are ready, they setup a launch for a local mentoring organization, and Taylor, Dortch and Lewis work to motivate and draw as many people as possible.

Taylor spoke highly of Denver organizers Gerry Howard and Yolanda Jackson, who have “gathered an amazing circle of people who care about community – politicians, business people, people who work for non-profits and people who do mentoring things.” Taylor proclaimed that the launch of the Greater Denver Cares Movement at Infinity Park, which drew an estimated 500 people, was the National Cares Movement’s most successful launch in any of its current 55 cities. People who are interested in the program can logon to the National Cares Mentoring Movement web site at and be directed to specific mentoring organizations in their home communities.

Taylor believes that effective mentoring can be essential for young people who are vulnerable, falling through the cracks and at risk. For a short time commitment, mentors can have a very real and immediate influence in turning someone’s life around.

“All we’re asking for is an hour a week to speak life into a young person,” she says, explaining that young people need a caring adult to give them hope and encouragement. A mentor can talk to a young person in need and make options and opportunities real for them. “You can say, ‘Oh, you dropped out of high school – don’t worry, you can fix it. There’s a GED program over here; let’s get you in it. Come on, you can go to community college – you can do it! And even if they don’t go to college, maybe you need some kind of industrial training. You can become a bricklayer, you can become a nurse’s aide or you can become a plumber. Unions are now opening their ranks to people who have come out of incarceration. You can make $50 or $60 an hour as plumber or a carpenter.’ ”

At 61, Taylor has been on a remarkable journey, and she realized late last year that she had to leave Essence to devote herself full time in order for the National Cares Mentoring Movement to succeed. When she started at Essence in the early 70s she was a single mother, earning a salary of $500 a month and her rent was $368, and the magazine had a circulation of 50,000. Today, Essence has a monthly readership of 1.1 million, not to mention the reach of the Essence brand’s subsidiary ventures. While new editors have stepped up to fill her shoes, for several years Taylor has maintained a “long arm” on the publishing empire she created; but it was clear last year that the time had come to devote herself to completely to her mentoring movement. In December Taylor sent an emotional e-mail to all her professional colleagues, informing them that she would be stepping down, in effect formalizing the end of an era and the changing of the guard at Essence.

“I couldn’t grow the National Cares Movement. It is an answer – it is THE answer. And it needs galvanizing force – it needs pushing. It needs somebody who can be in Denver today, and Atlanta yesterday and Greensboro next week. It needed that, and I realized my tentacles – that I am connected to a lot of people in the political world, I’m connected on the grassroots level and I have the respect of my community,” Taylor says with joy and contentment. “People who know me know that I’m not about being in another photograph, or being on television, or anything like that. I belong to my community. And that’s the conversation I was having with myself.”

But if you ask Susan Taylor and push a little deeper, you’ll find that there are aspects of her life that remain unfulfilled. At some point in the future, perhaps Taylor will feel that the National Cares Mentoring Movement is well-established and enough change is occurring that she may withdraw into a more introspective and personal phase of her long and storied life.

“I want to build my house in St. Croix. I want to put my feet up and have a peppermint tea in one hand and a book in the other hand. That’s what I really want to do, but the level of suffering I see in our community is too high,” she says, with a touch of sadness. “I’m a high energy person, but I also want to read, I want to be still, I want to be quiet, I want to think… That’s what I want, but I’m doing this now, I’m putting everything I have into it – financial resources, and of course, my energy and the ideas that I have. Anybody who knows me knows that when you’re with me we’re going to talk about our children.”

Taylor is possessed by a detailed vision of transformation and very specific aspirations. It seems she may be ready to rest, but not just yet.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Postscript for a New President and the Precession of the Ancestors

Obama Press Conference
President Obama's first press conference, February 9, 2009

I normally don’t like to write about politics, but Barack Obama’s election and inauguration as President are almost impossible ignore when blogging about Africa, African Americans and African descendants and their cultures. In December 2006, when Obama’s candidacy was still in question, I wrote “Barack Obama and the Dreams of an African Ancestor,” to explore what his election might mean from the perspective of his father and his Ancestors – and our Ancestors, as African people. But that was about two and a half years ago, and since then I’ve focused on many other things like broadcasting, technology, the environment, genetics, film, music and entertainment; I never felt compelled to write about the primaries, the Democratic Convention in Denver or the excitement of election night and the inauguration in January. But just as millions of Americans made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to witness the historic inauguration of our first African American president, all across Africa, and especially in Kenya, people were celebrating. To be sure, in Kogelo, Obama’s grandmother’s village in western Kenya, they were slaughtering cows and observing traditional African ceremonies. These distant events are now symbolically linked to observances of power in the White House.

But don't get me wrong - Barack Obama as the symbol of African and African American aspirations is one thing, and Barack Obama as a president who faces constricting realities and political exigencies is someone else. Obama has varying support groups and constituencies, and he is bound to disappoint some. From the favorable treatment to banks in the economic recovery stimulus package to lack of support for gay civil rights, and now possibly wavering on a public option in national health care, President Obama has come up short of what I and others expected of his leadership. We have to live with these practical political realities and see how Obama navigates them, pressuring him at times - while still assessing the mass movement that put him in office and what his presence means to the progression of African-American history.

In my mind, “Dreams from My Father” should be required reading for all Black middle school or high school students throughout the world, as Obama’s book has lessons about Africa, tribalism, corruption, community, the urban inner-city experience, Black and white perceptions and identity, family bonds, education and excellence. I say this not out of hero worship or because of Obama's historic election; rather, "Dreams from My Father" is a lens and a focal point for exploring multi-facted dimensions of these issues in one lucid, well-written memoir. Now, 100 days into Barack Hussein Obama Jr.’s Presidency, it seems fitting to look for the signs of fate, intuition and providence in this prominent event and the Precession of Ancestors.

100 Days of Change
We’re not amazed anymore, not really. The glamour of the inauguration has worn off, and we’re no longer stunned to see a Black man commanding attention at a White House press conference, although a lot more of African Americans – and Americans in general – are paying close attention to the process of government and the actions of Barack Obama’s Administration. After 100 days in office Obama is receiving generally strong reviews from pundits, and for most of mainstream America the issue of race has faded into the background and the focus has been on the recession, the economic stimulus package, bank and auto industry bailouts, budget deficits and spending on education, health care, energy and the environment. Internationally, Obama has been inspiring the people around the world with charismatic, dynamic leadership – reaching out to Muslims, seeking dialogue with adversaries and having a palpable effect on world leaders from Russia’s Dimitri Medvedev and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, to China’s Wen Jiabao and the Summit of the Americas. Naturally, Obama has made mistakes and gaffes; at times he or his administration has stumbled, but his overall performance has been strong and he has the highest public approval ratings of any president in recent history. Obama has inspired hope with a new image of America as a country where people previously bound by slavery and segregation can transcend their history and reach a pinnacle of power. All this from a candidate people said was too young, too inexperienced and could not win - and that Americans would never elect a Black President.

Back in December 2006 I wrote “Barack Obama and the Dreams of an African Ancestor”, during the buzz period when Obama was initially contemplating whether he should even run for President. I predicted Obama would run and win. I see the United States as an idealistic nation, and when someone is able to strike the right chord, the idealism of America shines forth, and Americans turn in that direction. I knew Barack Obama could strike the chord, with a Kennedy-like charisma and leadership style, pulling America toward a Democratic, progressive agenda.

After the 2004 elections, I remember talking with a brother at my neighborhood gym who was depressed about politics, and I told him to watch Barack Obama. Then after Obama threw his hat in the Democratic Party primaries, I made a game out of betting Denver taxicab drivers – most of whom seem to be from Ethiopia or Sudan – that Obama would not only win the Democratic nomination, but he would actually go on to win the presidency. Much like many African Americans in the early stages of the Obama campaign – they could not imagine that a Black man could actually be elected to the highest office in the land. So I would bet these guys – at $50 a pop – that Obama would go all the way. Now mind you, had Obama lost any stage in the campaign, I’m sure a few of those brothers would have driven to my house to collect their winnings. But somehow, not one of them has been honorable enough to acknowledge I was right all along, and pay their due. There are various African cab drivers out there who owe me a total of about $250, and I can certainly use that cash in this recession. Well, I’m glad that Obama is President if for nothing else than I don’t have to pay off any of those Africans.

Part of my vision about where we were going with this election and my view of Obama was based on a feeling that our country was ready for this seismic shift in leadership and America’s image of itself – and part of it was based on something inner, something intuitive. Reading Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from my Father” and following his life story, I had a feeling about the forces of fate, of destiny, of what Africans refer to as their Ancestors, whose presence and guidance is a part of the fabric of their lives – particularly their good fortune and blessings. I came to see Obama’s path as a fulfillment of his father’s unrealized ambitions, and a natural foundation for Barack Hussein Obama Jr.’s fascinating emergence into America’s national political scene. The sense of connection, guidance and providence between the living and African ancestors, is vibrant in African life, in African dreams, ceremonies and everyday society.

Along with Obama’s election, I felt like there was a passing of the old guard for African people as a whole as many of our artists, musicians, writers and cultural leaders made their transitions this past year. I’m thinking of Miriam Makeba, John Hope Franklin, Eartha Kitt, Odetta, Isaac Hayes, Norman Whitfield, Bo Diddley, Freddie Hubbard, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, Es’kia Mphahlele, John Matshikiza and even Marpessa Dawn and Bruno Mello from the beautiful classic film, “Black Orpheus” who oddly enough, died 42 days apart, both from heart attacks. Well, maybe it’s just me and my sentimentality. Maybe it’s just that more information is being channeled through more kinds of media, and I'm just seeing a natural progression of generations moving through their corresponding phases of growth, youth, maturity and death. Maybe that’s what makes the loss of these exemplars stand out in my mind.

Reflecting on these beautiful souls I see struggle, pain, victory, divine direction, guidance, providence; I see people who rose often from poor or obscure backgrounds to find a path of creativity, intelligence and influence that somehow advanced all of us, all African descendant people. Perhaps every year we will look back at those who have passed and have become our Ancestors, and we’ll be more astounded at what they have taught us, the distance we have traveled with them and the phenomenal tapestry of who we are as a people.

I believe Obama has the makings of a great president because of his fascinating journey as an African American. Obama demonstrates extraordinary intelligence, wisdom and judgment because he looked for his mind, his heart and identity in the South Side of Chicago, in the inner-city urban experience, through his family and African roots in Kenya – in addition to pursuing his education at Columbia and Harvard. His life and consciousness embodies the duality of the reasoning and concrete knowledge of the Western world and the imagination, intuition, feeling, creativity, celebration, spirituality, struggle and strength of being Black, of being African American, of being African. This is why Obama is proving to be such an extraordinary leader; he demonstrates a remarkable wholeness, a synthesis of these different minds and identities.

As African Americans and Africans, we can all find the same synthesis, and we can build a bridge between two worlds, and we have the Precession of Ancestors. We have The Souls of Black Folk. We have those souls who guided us, who showed us the way, who carried light in overwhelming darkness, who took pain, anguish and strife and fashioned it into beauty, jazz, blues, gospel, hip hop, style, dance, art, literature and aesthetics. We have souls that shined a light under the weight of a civilization that has thrown the whole planet – not to mention Africa itself – out of balance. Obama is obviously a milestone in our journey, and his election represents a sea change in America’s consciousness. But where we go from here and what his presidency really means for Black people is another question. There are still vast overwhelming forces that contrast the experiences of Africans everywhere, from cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles or London, Johannesburg and Nairobi, to many little-known villages scattered throughout Africa and the Americas. There are deprivations and poverty, lack of resources and educational opportunities and obvious brazen disparaties. I think we will still need to turn to those Ancestral voices to find the essential truths that will carry us through complexities of our evolving global civilization.

The great African writer Es’kia Mphahlele passed away on October 27, 2008; I had the honor of meeting him and interviewing him in August 2005 in Denver, when he made his last visit to the United States, where he spent a good number of years as an English professor at Denver University. I was deeply saddened by his passing, because I understand what a towering figure he is in South Africa and Africa as a whole. The breadth and depth of his life work as a novelist, academic and arts activist is astounding as a vision of African ideas and possibilities. Even if Obama's position symbolizes that we may be entering into an era of new possibilities, we still must heed the voices of our Ancestors, which gives us perspective on who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. Es’kia understood this, spoke about it, wrote about it, and lectured about it often.

“Yes, Africa speaks to me, because I listen too much to the wild voices of now, of present day politics and ethnic problems and conflicts. I listen to the subterranean voices, the voices coming from the past, from my forefathers and our ancestors. That’s how Africa speaks to me. Never mind the political noises that one hears, this way or that way. I’m talking about something much more solid, as well as spiritual… But if you stop and listen to the voices of ancient wisdom—and you hear the voice in the metaphors of our languages and in the mannerisms in which we as Africans approach each other... If we listen to the voices of those forces, you get somewhere. You realize that you have some protection from other kinds of foes and forces that work on you.”

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Tamara Banks and the Long Journey of 21st Century Slavery

Sudan,Slavery,Sudan Civil War,Genocide,Darfur
Newly freed slaves in southern Sudan wave their arms in joy, celebrating their freedom.

I try not to write about “crisis” news in Africa, like the war in the Congo, pirates and anarchy in Somalia, Darfur, AIDS/HIV, etc. because there are enough of these reports in the mainstream media, so much so that it creates decidedly negative ideas and perceptions of Africa for those people who haven't visited the continent. Generally, I’ve looked for stories that convey more of the richness and complexity of the Motherland, trying to focus more on culture and less on politics. But being objective and truthful about difficult conflicts and problems is also part of being a responsible journalist. Slavery is a very real problem in Sudan, and more people need to be informed about it so that activists, human rights organizations and abolitionists can get the support they need to help end it.

To answer the question of how ongoing practice of slavery can exist in the 21st Century in Sudan, one has to examine the nexus of race, culture, religion and ethnicity that fuels the problem. Historically, Arabs have been practicing slavery and human trafficking in East Africa for centuries, using a perversion of Islam to justify the tradition by “converting” the infidel slaves into Muslims. Perhaps leaders like Omar Bashir will say that there is no slavery in Sudan, because someone owed a certain family cattle or some other debts, and the “servants” are repaying those debts. Of course, we must remember that Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur, and he has been shrouding his government's activities there. The reality is that a cruel form of slavery and human trafficking is happening in Africa, in the new Millennium, just beyond our peripheral vision of Darfur.

Tamara Banks' experience and her documentary, "The Long Journey Home" is a story with many intersecting dimensions. Everyone should see this documentary, because slavery is a terrible affront to human dignity and decency. In our global society, this kind of repression is a test of our humanity and compassion.

Tamara Banks and the Long Journey of 21st Century Slaves

In the midst of trying to grapple with the question of modern slavery in Sudan, Tamara Banks has unwittingly found herself drawn into the eye of a horrendous storm. The former Denver KWGN Channel 2 news anchor has been traveling to southern Sudan for two years and quietly documenting terrible human rights abuses and crimes against humanity that the rest of the world has somehow failed to notice.

With her bright, sunny face and disarming smile, the 5 foot 1 inch Banks has a kind, cheerful disposition that you would not expect to find in a region of nefarious slave hunters and armed militiamen carrying out unspeakable cruelties. Despite the overt dangers of a nascent war and an age-old conflict between Arabs and Black Africans is evolving with new mutations, Banks clearly feels compelled by her conscience to shine a light on slavery in the 21st Century.

While the international media has heightened awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, very little has been reported concerning the ongoing conflict between the Muslim north and Christian south in other parts of Sudan. After 23 years of civil war, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), representing the south, negotiated a peace settlement in 2005 with President Omar Bashir’s government in Khartoum, forming a coalition government of national unity. But with large numbers of returning refugees, arms flooding the region, inter-tribal conflicts and lack of adequate water, infrastructure and health care facilities, southern Sudan is drifting into chaos. Moreover, the ongoing practice of slavery is undermining any potential for stability in the region.

For most Americans, slavery is something that was eradicated through the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation; the notion that slavery can exist in the age of Barack Obama, flat screen TVs and the Internet is implausible and mind-boggling. Yet a volatile mix of history, racism, religious hatred and greed for oil is the back story to the reality of an ongoing slave trade in modern Africa. With the south holding up to 80 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves, the stage is set for further hostilities. Many observers believe that Bashir’s government is supplying arms and fomenting ethnic conflict in the region while turning a blind eye toward human trafficking, thus ensuring that southern Sudan will remain in turmoil. While a referendum for independence for the south is scheduled for 2011, the ineffective regional government and as many as 2 million refugees are becoming a looming humanitarian crisis that would dwarf the catastrophe at Darfur.

During our interview at a local coffee shop, Tamara Banks conveys a sense of urgency as she relays dramatic stories of human suffering at the hands of oppressive forces in Sudan. Banks is using the footage she shot during her 2008 and 2009 visits to Sudan to produce “The Long Journey Home,” a feature-length documentary that she plans to enter in film festivals and present to potential broadcasters by the end of this year. “The Long Journey Home” is a vivid portrait of victims, perpetrators and activists caught up in the modern day abolitionist movement. The documentary was shot by entirely by Banks on High Definition video, because the region was too dangerous for a camera crew. As a journalist, the production carries Banks beyond the her traditional role as a news reporter, pushing her emotions to their limits and testing her ability to remain detached as she witnesses the brutal effects of genocide.

“This is a crisis situation. People are being killed and being enslaved – if they’re not being physically killed, they’re being spiritually killed and emotionally killed,” Banks says. “All those bright minds, all those bright futures are just going down the drain in a pool of blood and it’s not right. Somebody has to speak up about that.”

Tamara Banks filming "Long Journey Home"
Tamara Banks interviewing a Christianity Solidarity International abolitionist.

Banks became involved in Sudan through her work as a board member of the Colorado Coalition for Genocide Awareness and Action. Fellow board member Pastor Heidi McGinnis introduced her to Christian Solidarity International (CSI), an abolitionist organization that has been working on the slavery issue in Sudan since 1995. Typically, CSI negotiates to buy slaves using Nvidia, a cattle vaccine that ironically is more valuable to the slave owners than their slaves, because Arabs in the north are completely reliant on their cattle for their livelihood. After their freedom is secured, CSI offers each former slave a “Sack of Hope” survival kit, which includes a tarp for shelter, a mosquito net, sorghum, fish hooks and a sickle for farming and building shelter. They then seek to integrate former slaves into existing communities, helping them rebuild their lives, or where possible, returning them to their original villages.

Banks pointed out that slavery in Sudan is a legacy of a scorched earth policy practiced by the north during the civil war, where soldiers and militiamen would destroy entire villages with all of their crops and cattle, and those who were not killed were taken as slaves. Returning slaves to their ancestral homes is often difficult if not impossible, because many of the slaves were captured as children and converted to Islam, and they may not remember the village they came from or even their own Christian names.

“The abolitionists interview them about when they were taken, how old they think they are, their Christian names and so on, because once they are taken into slavery, they are forced to become Muslims,” Banks said, describing the process CSI uses when they begin working with newly freed slaves.

“They take their pictures and photos and get their height and weight, just about everything you can think about. There are several reasons for that – one is to show the United Nations and other organizations that these people actually exist. It’s not some fantasy that people have made up some place. They also try to monitor the ongoing situation to see if some of the same people are being captured again.”

While Banks is determined to expose television and film audiences to slavery in Sudan, she also seems overwhelmed by the historical, political and cultural complexities underlying the slave trade. Banks sees herself as traveling back to Sudan in the future, and learning more with each visit. She says that her very first trip was a stark and haunting experience; after flying in 6 or 7 planes and driving for many miles, she had her first encounter with a group of former slaves waiting to be liberated.

“That was pretty mind-blowing. There were 106 men and boys who were sitting and waiting and they were slaves, and I’m thinking, ‘Slavery now, today, really?’ Banks said with disbelief, remembering the shock of those emotions. “On top of that I had to have my wits about me to film this video, because I can’t lose sight of why I’m here. That was overwhelming – to be thinking about so many things at once, the emotional side as well as the production side.”

Banks pointed out that the Janjiweed (literally translated, meaning “devils on horseback”) militia from the north are carrying out a form of slavery that has been traditionally practiced by Arabs for centuries, involving Black Africans. On the surface, both Janjiweed and the southern Sudanese seem to be Black Africans, but cultural and religious differences fuel a geographic and psychological divide that has devastating implications. As Banks is African American, the racial dimensions of the slavery issue are particularly disturbing, beyond the fundamental injustice of slavery itself.

“Many if not most of the Janjiweed are Arab, but many were Black, like African indigenous Black, but they were Muslim. So there’s the Black Muslim and there’s the Arab Muslim. In this part of the world there’s a false sense of camaraderie, or a (false) common denominator,” Banks maintained. “Sometimes there are Blacks killing Blacks, which is heartbreaking. When you see it, you’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute – he could be Dinka, he could be Murle, he could be from the Nuba Mountains – and they’re killing some people of their own.’ But in their mind they’re Muslim, and they believe in their Koran and they’ve practiced it and studied it and they think that it’s okay to do this. And it’s frightening - so it’s a religious war and it’s a racial war and it’s a political battle, and it is genocide.”

Banks says her presentation to African American groups is slightly different and more personal, although she believes that everyone – regardless of their race or background – should become involved in the Sudan slavery issue. She also feels that African Americans and Black people in Africa can learn from the strong response of the Jewish community, as they understand the exigency of slavery ang genocide because of their recent history with Holocaust. Furthermore, Jewish people have a connection to Israel, and they also feel a connection to anywhere there is a Jewish community. Banks would like to see Africans Americans and Africans have a similar bond with Africa and each other.

At one point in “The Long Journey Home,” Banks sits on a small sand dune at dusk, and speaks softly to the camera, barely being able to contain her emotions after hearing about some children who were forced to witness other children being decapitated as a punishment for trying to escape. The dead children's heads were put up in tree branches, and the children were forced to look up at the trees.

“For a child to go through that, how does one recover? How it impacted me, is it made me cry – not at that moment, because I understand that if they see us crying and upset, they will lose all hope,” Banks explained, as she spoke about navigating her own vulnerabilities to human suffering, while maintaining her role as a journalist. She concluded that journalists are “activists for the truth” and for “people who can’t defend themselves or speak for themselves.”

“When I started wrapping my mind around that then it made sense to me; it made sense to me when I would get choked up, or when I just felt my heart was in such sadness and pain for these individuals,” Banks said. “I think it’s okay to be a human being as a journalist.”

Banks described another traumatic experience where an enslaved man defied his slave master and said he was not going to be treated like the animals he was caring for. His owner pierced a wooden stake through is his lip and tied to rope to the stake, to painfully humiliate him and keep him tied like an animal, leaving him with a ghastly scar across his face.

“We hear about women and children being sodomized, and we forget about the men. How indignant - here is a grown man – a beautiful Black man – being treated like a farm animal,” Banks said, with both sadness and anger. “It just really pissed me off.”

Banks has also been inspired by the strength and fortitude of the Sudanese people, seeing former slaves triumph over demoralizing traumas and rebuild their lives. She was deeply moved by the personal experience of a chief who was overseeing the integration freed slaves into local villages. One of the women looked vaguely familiar to him, and to his surprise he discovered that the woman was actually his own daughter who had been abducted from his family years ago, as a child.

“So there are sometimes actual family reunions – and I was filming that at the time – and they just giggled and squealed that they found each other,” Banks said with a smile, yet still somewhat incredulous. “Can you imagine if your daughter was taken from you at age 7 or 8 or 10 and you don’t see her for 10 or 15 or maybe 20 years, and then there’s this reunion? You don’t know if your mom or dad died, or if your child died – and every once in a while there’s reunion that’s a real joy to see.”

Banks says there are a number of ways that people can get involved in the slavery issue, and she encourages her audiences to do their own research and educate themselves on what is happening in the region. Banks points out that there are several organizations founded by Denverites that are active in Sudan and need support. Project Education Sudan works on building schools and the Nuba Water Project provides engineering skills and resources to help people in the Nuba Mountains build dams and capture water. In addition to Christian Solidarity International, the Arab Dinka Peace Committee is an anti-slavery organization composed of Muslems who are working to free slaves and eradicate the practice.

Banks also spoke about the 1-800 GENOCIDE number, which facilitates calls to Members of Congress; the number primarily for Darfur, but callers can also engage the issue of slavery on the same number. Legislation specifically addressed to the slavery issue, House of Representatives bill HR 3844 (which former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo helped initiate) was introduced in the last Congress in 2007 and has subsequently stalled in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Public phone calls, letters and e-mails to Congressmen and Senators will help create political pressure for moving the bill during the current Congress.

Banks believes that with enough collective pressure, the moral imperative of these issues will eventually force action, much like a comparatively small group of vocal activists and abolitionists helped turn the tide on slavery more than a century ago during the Civil War. Although Banks is somewhat reluctant to describe herself as an abolitionist, she feels inexorably drawn to tell the story of the suffering she has seen.

"If the definition is working efforts to free those who are enslaved, then yes, I am an ‘abolitionist.’ I guess I’m hesitant about it because it’s such an honorable thing to do, when I think of Harriet Tubman and Wilberforce and Pastor Heidi and people who are just really doing the work on a daily basis,” Banks said. “As great as they are – I’m not sure I fit in that company of excellence. But when I hear that I’m quite honored, because I’m just doing what I do as a journalist, and if that helps free people, then I guess I’m an abolitionist.”