When Vanessa Williams performed the National Anthem at the opening night of the US Open this week, a lady working behind the scenes approached her with a touching story. Turns out Vanessa’s mother Helen Williams (co-author of her 2012 memoir You Have No Idea) was the woman’s music teacher in high school, and she had very fond memories of the time.
Yesterday (September 2), Vanessa became the New York ambassador for Think It Up, a national initiative supporting students and teachers, presented by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, DonorsChoose.org and Staples (the latter pledging a cool $10 million to the cause). During the launch, Vanessa mentioned how — just like the woman she’d met at the tennis match — 79% of parents talk about one teacher who inspired them greatly.
“Both my parents were teachers, so I’ve seen firsthand how much teachers give to help their students achieve success,” Williams said. “I’m thrilled Think It Up is taking this opportunity to give back to the teachers of New York City public schools and all of the students whose lives they will impact this school year.”
Think It Up invites public middle and high school students to work with their teachers to develop projects that draw on their passions and help pursue their educational goals. The student-powered, teacher-led projects will be featured on ThinkItUp.org and crowd-funded by citizen donors, beginning this month.
BET.com: How did you become the New York ambassador for Think It Up?
Vanessa: I got a call. I think I got the call because of my qualifications. They know my parents have an educational background — both being public school teachers — and I’m in the entertainment industry, so it was just one of those natural requests. When I read what the whole movement was about, I thought it was fantastic. So much funding is being cut for the arts in particular and when I went to school, I had so many options. It seems like it’s getting very narrow. So if Think It Up can broaden the scope of what can be offered to kids in their educational process, especially in public schools, I’m down for it.
What’s most interesting, aside from the fact students are given a chance to work on creative and diverse projects, is the program fosters more open relationships between students and teachers.
Exactly. They have to work together for things to manifest. The program will show students they can have an idea, but in order to implement that idea you have to be flexible, you have to have a dialogue and you have to work with one another.
You’re an unpaid ambassador for Think It Up, however you do receive a stipend. You’ve chosen to donate this to San Miguel Academy in Newburgh, New York, a celebrated middle school for boys from underserved families.
Newburgh is a compromised area [Editor’s Note: with a population of roughly 28,000, Newburgh has the highest violent crime rate per capita in New York state]. Between sixth and eighth grade is a really tough time for boys, because there’s influence and peer pressure. You can choose to walk the straight line or not. Father Mark Connell has done an amazing job with San Miguel Academy. I remember when it was an idea of his, a passion, and it came to fruition. I’m so happy to support.
Your daughter [Jillian Hervey] is enjoying success with pop act Lion Babe. Were you always encouraging of her artistic dreams?
Absolutely. I never said to her, "Oh, get a real job." I was just at AfroPunk rocking out to her performance a couple weeks ago! She’s seen everything — whether it’s Broadway or me in a recording studio or on a television or film set. She knows how hard the work is, she knows the dedication you need to have in order to have success and she knows the ups and downs. She’s seen that you can have good years and bad years. It’s her passion and it comes so naturally to her, and you can see that on stage. She loves it.
(Photo: Stuart Ramson/Invision for Staples/AP Images)