For your community to give and help you is something to be thankful for. But to be able to give back to your community is a great feeling in itself. Whether it’s volunteering in the classroom, your local food kitchen or shelter, giving back to your community is a blessing. And in terms of Michael Walton, giving back was his calling.
I recently conducted an interview with world class sprinter and philanthropist Michael Walton, whose foundation, The Michael Walton Foundation, has been creating community outreach programs for inner city youth throughout urban communities.
“Attitudes are more important than facts”
Black Men's Dossier talks with Michael about what and who inspired him to start his foundation, what advice he would give to our youth going forward despite recent tragedies such as Mike Brown and Eric Garner and what can be done to help our youth have brighter futures.
Tell us how you began your foundation.
I actually started my foundation in 2002. I graduated from USC and I’m originally from the DC area. I say that because my father was in the Air Force so we traveled a lot. So really in a small sense, I’m from a lot of different places all over the globe. But DC is where I call home. I came back to DC and was really looking for a way to reconnect with my community there. It was advised to me and I decided to do a small speaking tour at middle schools in Prince George's County, Maryland. I did that and upon doing that. I really just found a thing. You know my passion and my calling. I didn't expect what happened, I didn't know how it’d be received or know how I would feel about it. But I think it was just a mutual connection between myself and the kids that I was speaking with.
What or who inspired you to go this route and help the youth?
One incident happened in particular that just led me into creating the foundation. I started doing the speaking tour, but I had no intention on creating an organization. It was a 6th grade graduation and after I was done speaking, a group of the teachers came up to me and asked me if I would mind spending some more time with a group of students they had in a classroom setting. So I agreed to do that and it was interesting. It was just myself and a group of about 100 kids sitting on the floor Indian style, me sitting on a desk and them just firing away questions at me about things that they were struggling with and what their needs were. Not that I had an answer for everything, but it just really lit a fire within me to help them identify the answers. And that’s how it began. From there I really decided to put a vehicle in place to help serve them in any way that I could.
Considering recent events with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, what is your advice to our youth as to what they can do going forward?
To me, we have to do our part in reinventing the stereotype. And I don’t say that in any way to say what happened to them was their fault at all. Clearly it wasn’t. I think that there are a lot of stereotypes out there about this current generation of youth and there are a lot of kids that lend to those stereotypes. My advice would be to stand up and be different. Before Dorothy Height passed, I had the opportunity to see her speak and she reference how her and Martin Luther King Jr. and others got together in a room when they were in their teens to start this whole movement. We need that. We need that type of thing again and it’s on them [youth]. We as adults can talk to them until we’re blue the face. We can point them in the right direction as much as we can. But ultimately it’s on them to de-myth these stereotypes that are out there about them and show people that there’s more to them.
What steps should be taken in order to protect our youth so they can have brighter futures?
One, we have to inform them of the stereotypes that may exist. Even though they’re not fair, clearly we have to make sure our kids are informed of “This is what could occur” unfortunately. When you interact with police, always try to conduct yourself in a way that’s not threatening. Unfortunately we have to. We have to let them know that. Also I think we have to do our part to make sure that something changes within the perception of the police departments. I think we have to fight that fight to make sure they’re not profiling our kids and that these injustices don’t continue to occur. I don’t know if that’s on a lawmaking level. We as adults have control over getting our voice heard to help stop [profiling].
Nowadays with our black youth dying at an alarming rate, it seems as if our lives don’t matter due to the color of skin. What would you tell our black youth that believes that at this moment in time, their lives don’t matter?
First would be the obvious and tell them that their life does matter. And that’s a part of what I do with our foundation. We’re very selective and careful of who we put in front of the students. We bring on board successful people including myself, from athletes to entertainers. Just role models in general that are from similar backgrounds and that have made it through, achieved success, but that have faced similar stories and may continue to face similar stories to what these kids have gone through. So I would tell them “That’s not true” and I can show you examples of why that’s not true. I can show you someone that has been in your situation, maybe even worse, and that has gone to achieve their dreams and then some. Anything is possible. You just got to hang in there and hold on.
I know you’ve been on many news telecasts giving your expertise on things such as issues dealing with teens, childhood obesity, domestic violence. What’s it like to able to broadcast your message on so many news outlets and being able to spread your message to so many people?
I think it’s an honor but I take it as a serious responsibility. On the one hand, yeah I think it’s great that a lot of people hear my voice. But on the other side of that, I have to be very careful about the messages that I’m conveying because a lot of people hear my voice. For me, this is something that I take very seriously. I want to make sure that I’m always as much as a first class example myself as I can be and that I’m leading people, in particular our youth, in the right direction.
What are you most proud of personally that you were able to accomplish so far throughout your life?
To me, it’s the foundation. It’s not just being able to start a foundation or an organization as I like to call it because a lot of people have done that. People started stuff and then two years later, it’s folded. We’ve been doing this going on 12 years now. I’m proud because of the sheer impact that we’ve been able to have through numbers. We’ve reached over 160,000 kids since we’ve been doing this and also being able to have that one on one connection on some levels of our programming as well. To me, that’s by far the hugest accomplishment, and everything that I’ve done in my life just led up to that. Any accomplishment that I had on the track or through media is just really to help create more platforming to have my voice heard and for my voice to be credible within the youth community which is of most importance to me.
What are the any principles you live by that has helped you succeed?
I’m a go-getter man. I’m resilient. I don’t quit. Don’t really make excuses. And I don’t wait for things to come to me, I make it happen. One key thing that is a quote to live by that resonates with me is “Attitudes are more important than facts”. And that’s not an original quote. I got that from a Norman Vincent Peale book. How you respond to something is more important than anything that can occur to you. It’s all about your attitude, how you react, how you respond moving forward. That same thing can actually be said through all the stuff that’s happening right now. That message to me is more relevant now than ever. To our youth, it’s all about how you respond. Okay this happened, it’s a fact. Now how do you respond to it? That’s the true measure of who you are.