Backtalk with Susan L. Taylor - Black Enterprise
Arts and Culture

Backtalk with Susan L. Taylor

black women
Susan L. Taylor

For nearly four decades Susan L. Taylor was the leading force behind Essence magazine. As the voice for black women, Taylor celebrated the beauty and potential of African American women, which is the reason BE named her as one of our 40 Most Powerful African Americans in Business (see “Titans,” August 2010).

By 35, Taylor had climbed the editorial ladder and become editor in chief of the fashion, lifestyle, and beauty magazine. And her “In the Spirit” column became one of the most popular sections of the magazine.

Today, Taylor dedicates her time to a nonprofit she started, the National CARES Mentoring Movement ( Founded in 2006, the organization recruits and connects black mentors with local youth-serving and mentoring organizations in an effort to guide black children to academic and social success. Currently in 56 cities around the country, Cares is on a mission to recruit 1 million black mentors. BLACK ENTERPRISE caught up with the Harlem native to learn more about the importance of mentorship in the black community and what she’s doing to help close the mentorship gap.

What prompted you to start the National CARES Mentoring Movement? The crisis is graver than you know. For example, I learned that 58% of black fourth graders are functionally illiterate. People don’t know that. That’s not what’s being spoken about from our pulpits. I don’t want to point the finger but it’s not what our sororities and fraternities and our many organizations are talking about. Those facts have to be put before the community.

You used the Essence Music Festival as a platform to help recruit for the movement. Why then and why there? After Hurricane Katrina, Essence couldn’t go back into New Orleans with the music festival and conduct business as we had before. We needed to focus on the children who had been displaced and were living in FEMA trailers. We had to get our community engaged in the recovery and forward movement of under-resourced children. It was that burning desire to give an assignment to the tens of thousands of people who were coming to the event [held in Houston in 2006]. We wouldn’t just come and have a party, it would be a party with a purpose and that’s when I launched it.  I just said to myself, “You know what, you have more than enough–you owe the rest of your time and energy and life to your community.”

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get black people to sign up for mentorship programs? It’s not that we don’t care. Black people are overwhelmed. We should take off the television watching that we really don’t need that we use as a way to relax and the mindless conversations that a lot of us are having that don’t lead anywhere. We need to really focus on our health and well-being, because when we are in balance then we focus on the right things–we don’t overspend, we don’t drink or overeat, we take good care of ourselves. When we’re doing that we have clarity and with clarity we say, “Oh my God, the kids around the corner from my church don’t have books.” The majority of poor children in underserved schools do not have textbooks. And that made me say I’m out of Essence and I’m going to do this full time. So seven days a week this is what I do.

So what needs to be done? We have to look in the mirror and say this is our responsibility. When I go into prisons around the country, guess who is mentoring the prisoners? It’s rich white men, retired executives, white women, and housewives who have the time, energy, and heart. We can’t rely on our beautiful white sisters and brothers to continue to take care of our children. We need a million black people to really step up and say “I’m going to mentor.” One hour a week is all we’re asking for. We’re not asking you to buy clothing or spend a lot of money or be their parent but just to impart values and motivation and tell young people that they can. We have to be a voice of wisdom and listen. We’re always talking to young people, but they need to be heard.

Related reading: Mentoring Insider: National CARES Mentoring Movement