Visionary: Renee Pouissant '66
"Tell me what you were like as a kid."
"What was your neighborhood like?"
"What do you remember about elementary school?"
Armed with such simple questions, Renee Poussaint '66, co-founder and CEO of the National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP), has built a near-priceless video archive of biographical interviews with some of this nation's most extraordinary African American elders. To date, Poussaint has collected the life stories, lessons learned, and hard-earned wisdom of more than 200 "visionaries," as they are known at NVLP-including Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; Baseball-Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks; musician Ray Charles; Olympic Gold medal winner Alice Coachman; activist, author, and comedian Dick Gregory; Oscar-winning actor and director Sidney Poitier; and many others. Videos of all the interviews are available on NVLP's website, www.visionaryproject.org
"Mrs. King, what kind of kid were you?"
Renee Poussaint kept asking Coretta Scott King the same question and Mrs. King kept giving the same answer: "I was valedictorian of my class . I sang in the choir. we were very poor. I chopped cotton."
So Poussaint tried another approach. "Okay, let's say you were a saint. But didn't you ever get into any mischief?"
Mrs. King paused and said, "When I was a little girl I was something of a tomboy, and I used to beat up all the little boys in my neighborhood. One time there was this boy who was really getting on my nerves . and I just happened to have an axe in my hand. It wasn't a big cut-there wasn't a lot of blood. But his mother was screaming 'I'm going to have you put in jail, you're never going to have any future.' "
"I realized," continued Mrs. King, "that I needed to do something. So all through high school I worked on becoming a lady and getting control of my temper."
And then she smiled, looked at Poussaint and said, "Isn't it strange I would have gotten involved in the non-violence movement?"
Stories like these help Poussaint to accomplish one of NVLP's primary goals: getting through to young African Americans, many of whom are in desperate need of guidance and encouragement. She believes that such stories show young people that even seemingly perfect cultural icons like Coretta Scott King were once like them - young, troubled, and struggling.
"I was brought up with a sense of social responsibility," Poussaint says when asked why she cares so much about young people. "I was brought up with a sense of social responsibility, and it was like. you have to care; it's just a part of who you are.
"I was also excited about all the different things there are to see and experience in the world, and I want young people to have the ability to make choices about their lives.
"Black people had been struggling in this country for centuries because we had no choices - and for a long time it was legal that we had no choices. We fought those battles and won most of them, but what was frustrating for me was seeing young people who were not given the opportunity or the tools or the resources . or made to understand how critical those tools were to their survival."
"Any problems at home, Admiral?"
Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., the U.S. Navy's first black admiral, "was probably one of the toughest interviews I've done," recalls Poussaint. "He was coming from this very military 'I'm a man's man' kind of perspective."
His wife was in the room during the interview, and at one point Poussaint asked the Admiral, "What was it like, since you spent so much time away from your wife and kids? How hard was the transition, coming back into the family?"
"There were no problems," he answered.
Poussaint pressed him: "Every military family runs into these problems. You can't just leave for three months and then come back." The admiral kept insisting there was never any difficulty. "It was the mark of a man who saw himself in a certain kind of a way and who wasn't going to open up about any vulnerabilities."
A half-hour later, however, the admiral suddenly mentioned that he had once ended up in a hospital.
"When?" Poussaint asked. "Because there's nothing on your record."
Years before, the admiral said, during his climb up the Navy's hierarchy, he had been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.
He had never talked about it before; it would have ruined his military career. But as Poussaint explained, "The stuff I'd been talking to him about-the stress and the pressure from being the 'first black this' and the 'first black that'. finally, and I don't know what triggered it in him, he wanted to acknowledge his breakdown. He wanted that known."
Many African American elders harbor such secrets, Poussaint said.
"Life was hard," she explained, "and if there was any weakness, the authorities would get them, their neighbors would get them. They had to be spotless and invulnerable, and never admit to any kind of problem. So they learned to live that way. For some, these interviews were their first and probably only opportunity to be honest about their failings or problems."
"But we've already done Alice Walker."
Renee Poussaint has a knack for getting people to open up, having honed her skills as a news anchor at WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C. and as a special correspondent for ABC's "Prime Time Live." But in 1997 she left the industry with few regrets. "I kept trying to make commercial broadcasting care about the issues I care about - poor people, education, women's issues, black people - and I got tired of having story ideas turned down."
One time she was out doing a story for "Prime Time Live" and got word that Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. "I was so excited," said Poussaint. "I had interviewed her for a couple of things, and I called the office and said 'The next profile I do has to be Toni Morrison.'
"There was this silence on the other end of the phone. Then the person said, 'But we've already done Alice Walker.' "
Apparently, one black woman author was enough. "They weren't being mean," Poussaint explained. "It was just the way they think."
But that wasn't the last straw. "I found out that a story I had done on how to get the bacteria out of kitchen sponges was one of the highest-rated stories on 'Prime Time Live.' And I thought to myself: That's going to be my legacy as a journalist. It's time to get out of here."
A Journey Towards Peace.
After leaving commercial television, Poussaint started her own documentary production company, Wisdom Works. Finally, she said, "I could make a documentary on something I cared about."
One project, the highly-acclaimed documentary, "Tutu and Franklin: A Journey Towards Peace," aired nationally on PBS in 2001. Its impact is still felt today.
The documentary centers on a meeting between Archbishop Desmond Tutu (then head of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission), Dr. John Hope Franklin (then head of the White House Advisory Board on Race), and a group of high school students from across the world.
"It became this wonderful expansive project," Poussaint said. "We made teacher training guides, student discussion guides, community discussion guides." At last count the documentary had taught young people in 40 states and 150 cities how to improve interracial communication.
"It's still current. Which is good and bad news, because the issues that these students are dealing with are still there."
"This is where I need to be."
In 2001, Poussaint created NVLP with educator and producer Dr. Camille Cosby, and now devotes her talents to collecting the stories of older black Americans and making sure they get to where they need to be - in the heart and minds of America's youth.
NVLP works closely with D.C.-area churches, community groups, and public schools, for whom it produces an array of teacher resource materials and multimedia lesson plans on the civil rights movement. NVLP also partners with Digital Satellite Television, a local cable station that brings lively NVLP roundtable discussions and NVLP's annual Intergenerational Summit on the State of Black America into D.C. classrooms.
NVLP also sponsors the Visionary Heritage Fellowship Program (VHFP), an accredited independent study course that every year teaches 40 African American college students how to record and preserve the life stories of visionaries in their communities. Participants receive hands-on instruction on how to research an oral history project, conduct a productive interview, and record it on video. Fellows also attend leadership seminars and roundtable discussions with nationally known NVLP visionaries.
In 2004, Poussaint and Dr. Cosby co-edited A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak, a collection of interviews with NVLP Visionaries that made the New York Times best-seller list. It is full of gems, including this one from the dancer, painter, actor, photographer, and writer Geoffrey Holder:
"When you pray to God, don't say, 'God, give me a new car.' Say, 'God, all I want is wisdom.' Wisdom is something that will get you through everything .. Find your great aunt or your favorite godmother, go and ask them questions. They'll give you all the answers, their way. Apply it. They are the writers of the book."
Geoffrey Holder is alive and well, but African American elders continue to pass away. Three died just this past year: James Cameron, the nation's oldest known survivor of a lynching and the founder of the Black Holocaust Museum; Lloyd Richards, the Tony Award-winning director of "A Raisin in the Sun"; and John "Buck" O'Neil, the Negro Leagues baseball legend. But thanks to NVLP, their faces, voices, and wisdom will live on so that, as Poussaint puts it, "our children, and their children, will be able to know and celebrate the extraordinary elders on whose shoulders we stand."
"For me," she adds, "this is where I need to be. And I am never going to run out of elders."
—Scott Shindell ’85