Scarvey column: CSI: New York actor speaks at Livingstone
Hill Harper may be the most well-rounded person I’ve ever met.
A magna cum laude graduate of Brown University ó where he played football and was active in theatre ó he went on to earn degrees in law and public administration from Harvard. Harper is an actor now on “CSI: New York,” as well as a best-selling author. In 2004, People magazine named him one of the “Sexiest Men Alive.”
Teaming up with the Wachovia Foundation, Harper was in town Saturday for the United Negro College Fund’s “Empower Me” Tour. Livingstone College was Harper’s third stop on the national tour of historically black colleges and universities.
Harper started the non-profit Manifest Destiny Foundation to help inspire young people to fulfill their potential ó and give them the tools to do so.
I got a chance to talk to Harper after his speech and felt up close the magnetism that draws young people into his orbit. But Harper doesn’t just radiate as a celestial presence from the Hollywood galaxy; he develops real relationships with the young people who seek him out.
That’s evident in his book “Letters to a Young Sister,” which includes the thoughtful letters and e-mails that Harper has sent to young people seeking his advice. It’s an uplifting, practical book.
So what motivates this man to spend such a significant amount of his time and energy doing community service?
“What’s the purpose of having money if you’re not going to use it to help other people?” he said.
Harper understands that his celebrity gives him a special platform ó and he chooses to use it in a positive way.
“It’s important for me to do this now, before I look like my dad,” said Harper, who is 42 but looks younger. “Now, I have a window, where I can be seen like their older brother.”
Harper hopes his words of advice will plant a seed that may later grow as listeners turn to his books or his Web site for more information.
“I don’t like drive-by self-help,” he said. “That’s why I wrote the books.”
Harper’s commitment to helping people is similar to that of his most famous friend ó Barack Obama, whom he met his first year in law school.
Obama, Harper told me after the presentation, is “extremely thoughtful, intelligent and committed to helping people,” and not caught up in ideology and agenda. In the deepest sense of the word, Obama is the “conservative choice,” he said.
Harper encouraged his audience to vote early in North Carolina ó which could very well decide the election, he said. The young people in Harper’s audience listened attentively and participated enthusiastically when asked.
The main message he delivered was that we all need to be “active architects of our own lives,” to make the choices now that will have a positive impact on our futures.
He urged his audience to come up with a blueprint for their lives, and then use that blueprint to build a foundation and actually construct the life that they have envisioned.
He mentioned several famous people who had great blueprints but sabotaged themselves by making bad choices: football player Michael Vick and Enron CEO Kenneth Lay.
Fear can sometimes hold us back from manifesting our destiny, Harper said. Fear, he said, is false evidence appearing real.
Harper talked about some of his own obstacles to publishing his first book, “Letters to a Young Brother.”
“Hill, we can’t publish this because we don’t do charity work,” the publisher told him. The book wouldn’t sell, Harper was told, because the intended audience “didn’t read.”
Harper didn’t accept that assessment and shopped the book to a different publisheró one that saw its potential.
The book went to no. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Harper also gave some financial advice.
He asked his audience if anyone actually knew someone who had won millions of dollars playing the lottery. Someone in the back raised his hand.
“I don’t believe you,” Harper said.
“The lottery is the most regressive tax in this country,” said Harper, who went on to talk about more realistic ways to acquire wealth.
Money, he said, as well as education, is important because it buys us options.
Harper said that while there has been a lot of bad economic news, now is actually a great time to invest, since there are bargains available. He mentioned Wachovia ó ironically, since the Wachovia Foundation is sponsoring the tour ó as a stock that astute buyers had picked up for a song when the price dropped drastically recently.
Harper picked out a girl in the front row who was wearing Nike Air Force Ones, noting that the sneakers run from $80 to $150. Harper told her he could teach her to take what she spends on expensive sneakers and turn those dollars into real wealth through investment.
“In our community ó despite evidence that investment builds wealth ó we don’t invest our money,” Harper said. “And we have the highest level of consumerism.”
He advised his listeners to start investing regularly. He picked a group of cheerleaders from his audience and told them that if they started an investment club, he would match every dollar they put in. When asked about his own dreams, Harper talked about how they had changed over the years. In high school, he was convinced that he was going to get a football scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley ó which, despite his talent, didn’t pan out because the coaches felt he was too small for big-time college football. He could have gone as a walk-on, but he chose instead to go to Brown University ó which he calls “the best decision I ever made.”
At Brown, he says, he was introduced to things like politics, the arts, and theatre.
“Sports became unimportant to me,” he said.
“I spent more time in the library, doing things that informed who I was as an overall individual,” he said.
So what had been a huge disappointment ultimately led to better things for him.
“Sometimes rejection is God’s protection,” Harper said.
Harper also spoke about self-image and self-esteem and getting them from the right things. “Young brothers have been taught that self-worth comes from the size of their rims or their earrings.
“I don’t need to adorn myself to make me feel better about who I am,” he said.
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