Over the past three years, Jamal Simmons has steadily become one of the most recognizable political analysts. With regular appearances on CBS News, CNN and MSNBC, Simmons’ candid commentary established himself as a “fresh voice” on national broadcasts. His work has also been featured in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Politico.
Channeling the power of social media, Jamal Simmons launched an innovative fundraising campaign for the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation: “$40 for 40 Kids.” From this effort, forty high school graduates in Detroit and the surrounding Michigan area will receive financial assistance to attend institutes of higher learning.
As one of the foundation’s 1988 scholarship recipients, Jamal Simmons enrolled in Morehouse College, where he recently received the Presidential Award of Distinction. A few years later, Simmons would obtain a Masters Degree in Public Policy from Harvard University.
In preparation for the official launch of the “$40 for 40 Kids” campaign, Jamal Simmons managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the value of strong communication skills, his evolution as a political analyst and the importance of receiving his father’s “tough love.”
Clayton Perry: When you reflect upon your personal life and examine the professional decisions that you have made over the years, what immediate credit can you attribute to your upbringing and parents’ influence?
Jamal Simmons: I have been influenced in two primary ways. My parents and my grandparents loved me unconditionally. They told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be and they expected me to do the best I could at whatever it was I chose; but they never told me what to be. And I think having the freedom to make those choices for myself was incredibly important, but I also had the discipline of expecting me to perform at whatever it was that I was doing.
Clayton Perry: Since you were never explicitly told what to do, is there a particular life event that you feel catapulted you into the political journalism arena?
Jamal Simmons: My dad has always been involved in politics. My grandfather was also, but he was more of a union organizing guy, and my dad was involved in electoral politics in Detroit where I grew up. My dad worked for then Mayor Coleman Young back in the 1980s. So I grew up around it. I grew up handing out leaflets, going door-to-door on Saturdays for hot dog money! [laughing] As I got older, it was something I had then developed an interest in myself; and so I continued to volunteer on campaigns and do all those menial tasks that really mean so much in a campaign, like door knocking and phone calls. Before email, letter stuffing.
Clayton Perry: Having started out so young, when you look at all those experiences, are there any particular professional lessons or pieces of advice that have guided you after all these years?
Jamal Simmons: Yes, I’ve had a couple. First of all, despite the fact that I really did come from a loving family; it wasn’t really very traditional. My parents were never married. They split up when I was less than two years old; but I lived with both of them at different periods. I lived with my mother until I was thirteen and then I went to high school. I was getting a little rambunctious, so I went to live with my father. We went to see Boyz n the Hood and we were laughing about how similar the story was. Where we grew up in Detroit was a similar neighborhood to the neighborhood in that movie. It was a pretty tough neighborhood. You grow up in a tough neighborhood in the inner city and all the things happen that happen. You get robbed and you get in fights and friends die and there’s drugs and all that stuff that goes on. But again, I came from parents who exerted a lot of discipline on their kids. And the second thing I’d say came from experience. I got in trouble when I was in college. I got cut off from my parents and had to sit out of school. I had a false arrest that ended up getting taken care of. All this happened at the same time, and I think there was a moment where I had to look at myself in the mirror and decide what I was going to do. And I credit my dad now – for having the will to cut me off – despite the fact we got into a huge argument and we stopped speaking to each other for months. I had to go out and get two jobs; go to work and save money; and eat potatoes and ramen noodles every night. One of my jobs was in a restaurant on the weekends. At the very least, I knew that I would get two good meals on the weekends. During this time, I really learned how to take care of myself. If you don’t work, you don’t eat; and that’s an incredibly important lesson in life.
Clayton Perry: Is there a particular obstacle that kept you grounded?
Jamal Simmons: Other than being hungry? [laughing] Well, you have certain problems that come along with being young. You have roommates that cause you trouble. We had problems paying the rent some months. It’s just all the stuff that happens when you don’t have any money. So I certainly went through a lot of that. I had another experience when I was a little bit older and I was in graduate school. I did a summer at Citibank. I thought at one point I may want to go be a banker. But after I got into trouble, I got myself into school with the help of my parents, and we decided we were going to split the cost. I had to pay for all my living expenses and they paid for the tuition. I made the honor roll every semester after that. I really just kind of buckled down and got my act together. So by the time I got to graduate school, I thought I wanted to go be a banker. I went to this interview. I’m sitting with the guy, and he’s one of these business consultant types. He was trying to intimidate me a little bit. They draw things out. I mean, if you’ve ever seen a business consultant or any kind of consultant, sometimes they use these white boards and pads and it’s like circles and inverted pyramids and arrows going back and forth. He asked me to explain this problem to him and said: “Feel free to use the Magic Markers. Decide whether or not the bank should spend money on mortgages in China. Here’s the Magic Marker. Hopefully you’ll use it.” I’m sitting there looking at the Magic Marker and looking at this guy; and I got a blank. I couldn’t think of anything. I was totally stumped. I had already been through a year-and-a-half of school. There was no reason for me to be stumped. Then a voice in the back of my head said: “Put down the Magic Marker.” At that moment, I put it down and I just started talking to this guy. As I started talking him through this problem, he started responding, and he liked my answer. So while I’m talking, he picks up the Magic Marker. He starts drawing all these little pictures while I’m talking. What I realized that moment, though, is that you have to have your own voice. You have to speak in your own way, and very often people will try to put you into their context. He understood things graphically. I understood things verbally. That’s how I communicated. And when I was trying to communicate like he communicated, it wasn’t working. But when I communicated the way I do, it worked very well. I got the job. I hated it. I never went back to banking, but I got the job. That was actually a good lesson in my life, about trusting my own voice, trusting my own way of doing things. And I had to learn that lesson several times. I guess that’s what growing up is about. You may learn something a little bit one time and you make another mistake in another way; but that was an important point for me.
Clayton Perry: “Finding one’s voice” – this is often a life-long struggle that many people have to balance. Since you are well-known for being a communications expert, is there a particular skill that you can attribute to your success? And as you were finding your own voice, in what specific ways was this skill honed over the years?
Jamal Simmons: Frankly, the most important thing I could say to anyone who is thinking about anything they want to do: learn how to write. It’s just surprising how many people really don’t write very well. Whatever your ideas are, if you have trouble communicating them, whether speaking about them or writing about them, then it doesn’t matter how good you are, because no one will ever know. With the exception of musicians, mathematicians and a few other professions, most of us have to communicate in some way verbally or in writing. So, I think that is very important. The other thing I would say: find something that you love. When I was young, I was fortunate to not only have parents, but a couple of good mentors, who told me: “Listen. You’re young. You don’t have a mortgage. You don’t really have any responsibilities. There’s no reason for you to take a job just for money. You’ve got to make enough money to live; but while you’re young, do whatever you can do to learn and follow your passion and then you will find a way to make money from it over time. Take all the necessary time. You don’t have to work for money, when you don’t have kids who are trying to eat or a mortgage that has to be paid. Go out and do something you love.” And it’s true. It was great. I had the freedom. Some people get a lot of help from their parents. My dad gave me $200.00 and said: “Good luck.” [laughing]
Clayton Perry: Oh, wow! I am sure that you had to be very creative, in your day-to-day decision-making, so that you could make that money stretch.
Jamal Simmons: I was lucky, though. I found a job in D.C. It was a job that I liked and wanted to do. I was working on the campaign for Bill Clinton – and luckily he won that campaign. But I remember when I was off on the campaign, there was this problem. We were getting our first paycheck, two or three weeks in, and at first they said they were going to send it overnight; then they were late. I was on the road somewhere, perhaps Colorado, and the lady who made the checks said: “Well, how about this? How about I just wait? I’ll just send it tomorrow morning when I get back in.” I remember I called her back after the conference call and I said: “Michelle, I don’t have any money. I have like $25.00 left. Send me my check. I’m not going to be able to eat. It’s a lot of money.” And she did. But I was lucky that I was able to do the things when I was younger; to explore and to follow what my heart wanted to do, and it turned out to be something that I was pretty good at. In spite of a couple of detours, like trying to go into banking, I kept coming back to politics and it has turned into something that I have been able to find success.
Clayton Perry: Yes, a great deal of success. I completely agree with what you said about developing the ability to write well and clearly communicate with others. I am also intrigued by your recent work on two charity concerts: 2004’s We Are the Future charity concert, as well as Al Gore’s Live Earth concert. What insight can you give on the power of music and its ability to communicate certain messages verbally and nonverbally? What special connections can be made through this medium, as opposed to alternative channels?
Jamal Simmons: I’ve always liked music. I grew up mostly in Detroit. It’s a big music city. My earliest memories are of my mother cleaning the house with Lou Rawls playing on the big stereo. There was always music around. I do think music communicates in really powerful and positive ways. I came up in the late eighties and early nineties era of hip-hop. Public Enemy and KRS-ONE. We were all wearing high-top fades and African medallions. Music communicated to us politically a lot then. All that music captured the essence of a time and reflected what was happening. It also influenced what was happening at the time. The most significant experience from the We Are The Future concert was the time that I spent with Quincy Jones. He said something to me that was really important – and kind of related to an earlier point. One day, I approached him and started a conversation: “You’ve worked with a lot of artists. What is the thing that you think is the most important about somebody who’s got staying power? You’ve been in this game for fifty years. What is it?” He said: “You know, I can make a hit record for anybody. Almost anybody can make one hit record. The hard part is making two hit records.” [laughing] He said: “You can go in the studio. You know what’s hot on the radio right now. You know what everybody is listening to. You figure out what to do with the music. You figure out some lyrics that make sense. Making one hit record is not that hard. Making two hit records is about one of the hardest things you can do in music, let alone having a whole career.” The secret, according to Mr. Jones, is honesty. I told him I wanted to be a writer. He said: “Listen, whatever your art is, is that you’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to say what you really think and feel. Sometimes that can be incredibly lonely because nobody else will get it, and sometimes it can be incredibly powerful and everybody will get it.” As an artist, if you run from what’s honest, then you’ll never tap into whatever is great that’s inside of you – and uniquely yours. Even in politics, I’ve tried to do that. Probably the toughest decision that I made in my political career was the decision to support Barack Obama. I have worked for Bill Clinton half of my adult life. I was very affiliated with him and people who work for him. I had never worked for Hillary Clinton, but I had worked for her husband so I felt a certain pull on me because of it. But there was something inside of me. I don’t know. Have you ever read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois?
Clayton Perry: Yes.
Jamal Simmons: There’s a part in The Souls of Black Folk where he talks about the “two-ness” that black people feel; the American side and this Negro/black side.
Clayton Perry: Ah, the issue of double consciousness!
Jamal Simmons: Yes, double consciousness. I just always had a fundamental belief that we can reconcile that matter; and that in fact, America could be brought to appreciate what makes us unique as black people, and that we as black people could understand and appreciate what made us different as black people who lived in America and the ideals that America stood for about openness and opportunity. Even though the country has not always lived up to those ideals, it has always been a country where those things were possible. And so sitting there watching Barack Obama run for president, I just couldn’t shake the fact that this was an opportunity to get there. This was an opportunity to see that “two-ness” become one for at least a moment. I remember vividly going to talk to Barack Obama and telling him that I was going to support him. Then I got asked by CNN to be the person who argued on his behalf. The campaign was in favor of that – and I spent the majority of 2008 supporting his candidacy publicly – which was incredibly important for me. I felt honored to be able to do it. It gave me a lot of opportunities in my life that I never thought I would have.
Clayton Perry: As I hear you talk about honesty, I, too, am reflecting upon my own life journey. As an educator of elementary school children, I am concerned about the limited national discussion on the challenges facing public school systems and the overall rigor of American students’ primary education within a global context. That being said, I am really excited to hear about your “$40 for Forty Kids” campaign. In your most recent press release, I noted that you received a similar scholarship when you graduated from high school. When you reflect upon the receipt – and impact – of your own scholarship, what factors persuaded you to create similar opportunities for other students?
Jamal Simmons: When I graduated from high school, I got a scholarship from the Rosa Parks Foundation, and it made a big deal. Back then, $2,000 had a much bigger punch on tuition than it does today, and it really helped me close the gap to pay for Morehouse, which was pretty expensive compared to Michigan State. Morehouse was three times as expensive, so I credit them, my family and a couple of other people with my being able to go to school. As I got older, I hit a lot of roadblocks and needed people to help me get through them, and so I also began looking for ways to help people. Two or three years ago, I rediscovered the Rosa Parks Foundation. I think I was looking at something and I thought: “I wonder what’s going on with them.” I looked them up on the Internet and I sent them a check. So they reached out to me and asked me to speak to one of the graduating classes a couple of years ago; and for the last three years, I continued to send checks. This year, they came to me and said: “We really could use some help closing the gap to make sure we can continue to write these scholarships for kids. We don’t want to lower the number of scholarships that we offer; and after the economic slowdown, we lost some money in the stock market from the endowment.” And as we continued to discuss funding concerns, I thought: “I’m turning forty this year – and I don’t really need anything. It would be a good time for me to give something back.” And so I made a commitment to help them raise money this year. Since I know all these fancy pants people in the country now… [laughing] …maybe I could put some of that to work! [laughing continues] I hit the phone and the email and started asking friends to help out in a really easy way: go online, post on Facebook, and send out tweets supporting the foundation. If we could get just some small percentage of the people who follow and friend each other on these social networks to donate $40.00, they can help forty kids in Michigan get scholarships to further their education.
For more information on Jamal Simmons and the “$40 for 40 Kids” campaign, visit his official website: http://www.jamalsimmons.com