Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Black Men & Boys Series: The Insider, Sherrie Deans on Harnessing Celebrity to Improve Life Outcomes for Males of Color

Sherrie Deans (center) Executive Director of the Admiral Center with Marcus Littles, Founder of Frontline Solutions and Evelyn Burnett of the Admiral Center at the Center's first 'Catalyst' Convening held last month in New Orleans.

By Akira Barclay
BlackGivesBack NY Contributor

Meet our second insider for our Black Men and Boys series: Sherrie Deans is Executive Director of  The Admiral Center at Living Cities, an initiative that helps athletes and celebrities use their resources and influence to accelerate sustainable and impactful solutions to our nation's most pressing social problems.  A graduate of Columbia University, Deans previously served as Vice President of Development and Marketing at the national “I Have A Dream” Foundation and spent over a decade in the financial services sector.

Recently, The Admiral Center hosted its inaugural Catalyst Dinner during the Final Four in New Orleans. Taking a different approach, 'Catalyst' brought together an intimate group of influencers from across sectors to have a discussion about improving the life outcomes for males of color. Read on to learn how Deans and The Admiral Center’s leadership and influence is bringing new voices to an old conversation about Black men and boys.

The Admiral Center’s inaugural 'Catalyst' Dinner brought together influential people from across sectors for the conversation about men of color. Can you share a bit about the importance of this approach, who you invited to the table and why?

The issues facing men of color are extremely complex. They are impacted by so many variables including public policy, private practice and media portrayals. If we are really going to find long-term solutions and pivot current trends, it is going to take people from all sectors engaging in that strategy. Therefore, it was really important for us to engage people that are extremely thoughtful and influential, but who are not usually invited to join these conversations in philanthropy. We were excited that the teams at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Open Society Foundation were willing to share their work and invite other others to join.

What were the key issues on the agenda?

The need for collaboration and consensus building is essential. We wanted to make sure that everyone in the room deeply understood the work that is already happening and think about how they can accelerate that work instead of reinventing the wheel.

A sign display at the 'Catalyst' Convening.

What is the celebrity’s role (or potential) in improving outcomes for Black men?

Whether or not we understand how much or why, celebrities, particularly men of color have an extraordinary influence on society. They can be very instrumental in reshaping public perceptions about men of color and can also be instrumental in modeling great behavior particularly for young men of color. The bad news about that influence is that poor messages spread much more quickly than good ones. That is why we have to be more purposeful about developing and highlighting positive messages. It is exciting to see that foundations are embracing this as a key part of their strategies. Shawn Dove and the Open Society Institute put strategic communication as one of the key pillars of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Trabian Shorters from the Knight Foundation is lifting up black male images through the Black Male Engagement Campaign. We really believe that celebrities can have an influential role in accelerating these messages if engaged properly.

Deans with 'Catalyst' guests and David Robinson, former NBA player and Co-Founder of the Admiral Center

When working with celebrities and leaders outside of philanthropy who may not be accustomed to the ambiguity that often comes with trying to solve persistent social issues, how do you manage expectations around requests to see results?

It is natural to want to see results quickly. Celebrities are not unique in that way. Many of us engage in philanthropy in a “fast-food” kind of way. Hungry kid; buy them dinner. Poor education system; donate books. That kind of philanthropy is not wrong. In fact, most of us do it and get tremendous personal satisfaction from it. It has its place, but we all know that ‘Band-Aids’ don’t cure cancer. Our members understand that and work with us because they want to do something deeper. Once we talk with them about the breadth of the issue and the benchmarks of success, it is easier to embrace doing long-term work. It is also important to stress that similarity to the business world. Every investment isn’t a winner. Everyone should monitor their philanthropic investments and make adjustments when necessary, just like you would with your personal investment portfolio.

With the insights uncovered from the initial convening, what is your vision for next steps to engage these new voices in philanthropy?

What was clear is that there is a real role for private sector and non-philanthropic leaders to play not just as donors but as strategic thinkers and partners in the execution of the strategy. For example, we have watched Michelle Obama raise awareness for healthy exercise and healthy foods. Most corporations have engaged by increasing their giving to sports and health nonprofits and supporting campaigns like “Let’s Move.” While those steps are important, other corporations have allowed the goals of those campaigns to change the way they do business. You can get apples in your Happy Meal at McDonald’s now! That is not an insignificant change in their business practices, but a great example of how the private sector can partner with philanthropy in a highly leveraged way. We are excited to engage with our partners in the strategies to figure out what the “Apples in the Happy Meal” opportunities could be for Black Male Achievement.

The Admiral Center is leading the conversation about strategic philanthropy and celebrity giving, partnering with Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) National Headquarters, EPIP New York Chapter and the California Endowment for 'Giving Famous,' the closing plenary of the 2012 EPIP National Conference in Los Angeles. Sherrie Deans moderated a powerful panel featuring Dr. Robert K. Ross , President and CEO of the California Endowment, Maria Bello, Actress and Activist, Co-Founder, We Advance; Cynthia Germanotta, Co-Founder with daughter Lady Gaga & President, Born This Way Foundation and Top Chef Master Mary Sue Milliken. The 'Giving Famous' panel followed The Admiral Center’s Sports and Entertainment Philanthropy session at the Association of Black Foundation Executive’s Conference. Follow the Admiral Center on Twitter @Admiral_Center.

Send us your black men and boys stories to info[at]blackgivesback[dot]com.

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