Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, artist, actor, author and activist Common drew inspiration from his mother, a teacher. In a city filled with distractions, she helped him stay focused on school. Common’s perseverance through the grit and grind of life in Chicago taught him the value of education as a path to a brighter future through music and the arts.
Today, Common is giving back through his Common Ground Foundation, which operates educational programs to uplift youth from high-potential communities to become future leaders. I had the privilege of speaking with Common about his work during a recent event hosted by Walton Family Foundation to celebrate the incredible work of our K-12 Education program partners in advancing social equity and racial justice.
Why did you get into education work? Was there something specific in your life that happened – or was it just a calling?
I feel like in many ways it was a calling, because my mother was a educator. She was a teacher. And just in life, she still continues to teach. So I feel like I inherited it innately. I was always feeling empowered when I would do well in school or was educated about something. It made me feel good. It made me feel greater as an individual. I was always sparked to be in education and I continued my education even outside of formal academics.
You said your mother was an educator. How important do you think it is for young people of color to see older people of color, Black people, doing jobs that they don't normally see, and expanding their career opportunities?
I think it’s one of the most powerful things we can do, is expose our young people to [successful] people that look like them. For me, it was seeing my mother. It was seeing Muhammad Ali. It was seeing my math teacher, Mr. Brown. Seeing them do things and seeing the way they behaved, they gave me inspiration to want to be something, to have an impact on the world and have my life have purpose … That's one of the biggest [goals] we have with our school, AIM, Art In Motion. It's about exposing young people to new aspects and things they may not be aware of … so then they can say, "You know what? I gravitate towards that. And that's what I want to pursue."
How can we grow that and just spark the conversation, just to keep things progressing?
I think we have to be intentional with putting People of Color in places where young people, young kids in schools, can see like, "Hey, Black people can do this, too." And then eventually just see all of us doing it. It is important for us, especially in these inner cities, to see Black leaders and Black people in professional places, so you could see yourself. Because for me it was always important that I saw someone who was coming from where I came from who actually made me know I could do it. When you do see somebody like that you think, "Wait, I actually can reach that level."
What experience did you have growing up where you feel like somebody touched you and they changed your life in a beneficial way?
A teacher of mine named Mr. Brown, God bless his soul, he was my math teacher. He was really impactful in my life. Just as a young Black man, he taught us ways to be a Black man. He really cared for us and really made sure that we were the sharpest math students ever, but also just conducting ourselves in ways that were respectful. He was just very significant in my development. I want to give it up to my Uncle Steve. I didn't grow up with my dad, so my Uncle Steve was the one taking me to play basketball, taking me to the drive-in, taking me to Wisconsin Dells to have fun, but also teaching me how to be a young man.
How do you feel we can keep progressing as a society to improve education?
I think we have to acknowledge the truth within that education, because if education is only telling one side, or telling the softer way, or skipping over some of the real truths that exist, then we're not really getting fully educated in the way that we should. Education also has to be a living organism, to educate students and people unique to what they need. Because sometimes you could be studying things in the old form and the old ways, and it may not be vital and applicable to your life and what you need going forward. We should think of education in a holistic way. It’s important that we learn about nutrition, about meditation, about math, about the history of people from around the world, because it's a big world out there.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.