Native Detroiter, Jamal Simmons, is one of the most experienced communications professionals of his generation. The Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation made it possible for Jamal to attend Morehouse College, where he recently received the Presidential Award of Distinction. He is currently a principal at The Raben Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm, and during the 2010 congressional election was the Democratic political analyst for CBS News. Before that Jamal was a fixture on CNN during the 2008 election.
He got his professional start in presidential politics traveling with candidate Bill Clinton during his successful 1992 campaign and was a political appointee during the first Clinton Administration. He also served as a communications aide for Vice President Al Gore, traveling press secretary to presidential candidates Bob Graham and Wesley Clark, campaign communications director for U.S. Senator Max Cleland, and chief of staff to U.S. Representative Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick. His views and opinions have been featured in several major publications such as GQ Magazine, the New York Times and Politico.
BMN: Where did you grow up?
JAMAL: I was born in Detroit and lived there until I was 8, and then I spent 4th and 5th grade in L.A. and then 6th to 8th grade in New York. I came back to Detroit for high school and went to Cass Tech.
BMN: What was it like for you to be a recipient of a scholarship from the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation?
JAMAL: It was big. It was a big deal for me. I had applied to a couple of different schools. I got into Michigan State and I got into Morehouse College and I really wanted to go to Morehouse. The scholarship really made a difference in giving me the opportunity to go out of state and being able to afford that. That was a big deal for me when I went to school, and I thought as I got older that I really wanted to be helpful to other kids to have the same opportunity. Growing up in Detroit you have this great love for Detroit, and still it’s amazing wherever I go I run into people from Detroit or from Michigan and I do believe Midwest people sort of run the world. You find them in all kinds of places and in leadership positions wherever they are, and I just think other kids gotta be able to have the same opportunities.
BMN: Aside from the financial component, which is significant, what did it mean to you that the scholarship was linked to Rosa Parks and that legacy?
JAMAL: Oh you know it was big. She was still alive when I got my scholarship so she was at the luncheon. I met her and I have a photo with her from that luncheon—it’s a group photo. She was a connection to Martin Luther King and the whole civil rights era, so all of that was something that I had read about and learned about and parents had talked about so that was a very big important influence.
BMN: You mentioned wanting to create opportunities for other kids like those that were presented to you, and now you’re working with the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation to make that happen using Twitter. For those who aren’t aware yet, the message is aimed at encouraging people to donate $40 to send forty more kids to college. Where did the idea for the 40 for 40 social media campaign come from?
JAMAL: The foundation was trying to find ways to reengage alumni, and they asked me to help on a couple of things. I spoke at a luncheon last year, and had given them money a couple years in a row, and I was approaching my 40th birthday. I was thinking about doing something bigger. I’ve been very fortunate, and I didn’t feel like I really needed anything, but this might be a good opportunity to give something back to other people. It all kind of gelled that I would do something for the scholarship, so I was thinking What could I do that would leverage the relationships that I have, and the public exposure that I have, so that it’s not just about me writing a check? It would be about being able to raise the profile, and really also about being able to show people outside of Detroit that there are these kids who are really wonderful kids, and there are people who are really doing positive things that you don’t hear about in the news and see in the newspaper. This was kind of a way for me to be able to highlight that. I feel like mission accomplished. We’ve been raising money, we’ve been increasing exposure for the city, and we’ve been giving these kids a little shine, ya know, so people can see what’s going on. I’ve got a link to all the kids who got scholarships on my website. I feel like all those things are really important.
BMN: That’s great. Our campaign is also deeply committed to supporting and inspiring our youth, which is what these Celebrity Shout Outs are all about, so what advice do you have for Michigan kids who think they may want to run for public office someday?
JAMAL: The first thing I would say to anybody who wants to run for public office is Go get a life. Go do something that’s interesting. See the world. Be involved in a profession: be a teacher, be a doctor, be a lawyer, be an engineer or something. Go and see what it’s like to be an adult who is just out there living their lives, and working, and anonymous, and what the struggles are that everyday people have. That will inform your politics a lot. And for people who can, I also recommend starting a small business--even if it’s just as a consultant. Do something on the side because there’s nothing like learning about the regulations you have to go through, and the taxes you have to pay, and if you’re lucky enough to be big enough to have an employee when you have to meet a payroll there is nothing that focuses the mind like the fact that somebody else won’t eat or pay their rent if you don’t make enough money to give them their money. It’s something that really makes you understand what life is really about for most people…I think it’s important for people to go out and participate in the economic and cultural life around them, and learn as much as possible, and then bring all that experience to bear in politics.
BMN: What about those who don’t necessarily want to be a candidate, but want a career in politics like yours?
JAMAL: For those who want to get involved behind the scenes in politics I would recommend they go out and volunteer. That’s how I started. I was lucky, I had family that was sort of involved in politics and so that helped give me the opportunity to volunteer, but my dad wasn’t giving me favors (laughs). I had to go out and walk door to door and stuff envelopes and do all the things that people do in campaigns when they’re first starting out to prove that you’re trustworthy enough to get the next job. Sometimes I think when we have young people today, not to be like the old guy now, but, and this was true of me too and others, you want to just leap in and start doing what you want to do. You want more responsibility. You want more attention for what you do. You want a higher profile or just more work to do, and you have to prove yourself. Sometimes proving yourself means getting coffee, stapling papers, and answering phones. If you’re good at that people will give you the next job, and after that you get the one after that. So it grows on itself. The one thing I can say about politics as an operative is that there is no other career where people so young have so much responsibility. Once you begin to prove yourself you can very quickly move up to very senior or very significant roles.
BMN: Overall, how do you think growing up in Michigan impacted your life and career?
JAMAL: Well it’s big. One thing that is true about Detroit is that the blue collar work ethic permeates everything. Nobody really thinks of you fondly if you’re sitting around all day and not producing. I really felt that desire, that need, and that push to get up and do something and go to work. When I was a kid, I was 13 or 14, my dad sent me to go work at my uncle’s. My uncle was a landscaper on the side, and he sent me to help my uncle out one summer laying sod and digging ditches and stuff like that. That was the summer I decided I was going to college.
A lot of people in Detroit they may have worked in the auto industry or they may have worked doing something else, but they had a kind of a side small business. People would say, Oh yeah I work at the plant but I’m a partner in a barber shop or we sell T-shirts at the festival. People always had multiple things they were doing and that work ethic really carries on the rest of your life. As an African American it was a big deal for me because Detroit just has so many black professionals. You go to the doctor and you have an African American doctor or you go to the dentist and you have an African American dentist, or there’s a black mayor, or whatever. You have a sense that everything is possible. I didn’t realize how important that was until I moved away and I lived places where there wasn’t such a strong professional group of black people in a lot of communities, and people hadn’t really experienced working with a lot of African Americans in different fields. They never thought about all the things they could be until they went away to college and began to meet other people. I think that was incredibly empowering about the Detroit area. There are people of every background doing everything which I think is incredibly strong for everyone.
BMN: How often do you make it back to the state and what are your favorite places to visit?
JAMAL: I was just there last weekend for my family reunion--like 3 or 4 times a year. I have a niece who’s there so I try to get back there and see her as often as possible. One of my favorite places is Sweetwater Tavern. I go there for the wings…I go to Cliff Bells, the jazz place, I love that place. The other place I like a lot is Shields Pizza.
The other thing that is really big about growing up in Detroit is sports. You can’t leave that out. It’s a town that just loves its sports. I remember the night the Pistons won their first world championship. What I remember especially is how peaceful it was…we had swept the Lakers in the World championship and I remember driving down the Lodge and people were going down the streets with brooms out their windows and everyone was dancing out in Cadillac Square. People turned their car radios on and were dancing in Cadillac Square and having a really good time. I remember 1984 when the Tigers won the World Series. This was one of the best days of my life. I remember my dad woke me up the morning of the parade. I thought he was waking me up for school, and he said No you’re not going to school today you’re going to the parade. I’m skipping work and you can skip school. He and I went down to the Tigers’ parade together…That sports spirit is just another very big Detroit asset.
One other thing I recommend to people when they go there, are things I remember from when I was a kid…we would take the field trip to the apple orchard. You go on hayrides, pick apples, have apple cider, and all that. Also, Frankenmuth, which I think is so unique. I haven’t really seen much like it anywhere else…Lastly, the thing we did on Saturday was to go to the DIA to see the Diego Riviera…it is a masterpiece, a world masterpiece that is right there in the heart of the city.
BMN: You just mentioned some great locally-owned businesses. What are your thoughts on the Buy Michigan Now concept and the importance of supporting local businesses?
JAMAL: Supporting locally-owned businesses is very important because that money recycles back. One of the things that is certainly true of economics is that if you have a business that is local, you will hire people that are local. So if you’re concerned about jobs one of the ways to generate jobs is to support small local businesses because they will hire the people that live around them. It’s true with African American businesses too. The number one job-generator in the African American community are African American businesses. There will be a lot of people who work for a big company, but the GROWTH in employment really happens at the small business level lately.
BMN: What Shout Out do you have for your friends and fans in Michigan?
JAMAL Detroit and the state of Michigan has such a rich history and unique capability, particularly around manufacturing, and all the things we just talked about like sports. The spirit of hard work, entrepreneurship, and authenticity are incredibly important assets to building. I just hope people in Michigan maintain those characteristics as they start to build a brighter and new future in this economy we are experiencing. I think those assets are things that will be incredibly valuable in continuing to make Michigan such a wonderful place.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please visit www.JamalSimmons.com to contribute to the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation and "Tweet" about using hashtag #40for40.