TONYA LEWISNearly a year ago, Tonya Lewis Taylor was one of many greatly affected by the pandemic. In addition to her and her husband, and co-founders of the I WILL GRADUATE program, getting coronavirus at the time (and fortunately healing), they lost loved ones to it. They also lost 90% of their money.  “But the beauty that came out of the ashes was that we started writing for grants,” the Be You Not Her author tells So Booking Cool.  “We lost 28 staff members, so we’re down to five of us. We had to lay off 28 people. And what is interesting is that what came out of the ashes was these three grants that we were able to get. And all three of them we wrote for in the pandemic and received all of them and they totaled about $500,000.”

The award-winning I WILL GRADUATE program, which is a part of the Taylors’ Entertainers 4 Education Alliance, was designed to empower and support New York City-based youth in achieving educational excellence through a series of programs and events. Taylor knew the organization was needed when her friend inquired if she could bring a celebrity to her school. At the time, Taylor was a music executive at Roc-A-Fella Records.

“We just bombarded her school with all of the Roc-A-Fella Records artists, and it became an amazing opportunity for us to do something good at that school. And that was the moment I knew that I WILL GRADUATE was needed because the principal said to me at the end of that school visit ‘When the students who did not show up today find out that Roc-A-Fella Records—Kanye West, Rell, all of these artists—were in the building and they were not in school, they’re gonna be very upset.” The principal asked if she could make this happen a few times a year.

Recently, I WILL GRADUATE released the poignant PSA: Gun Violence Destroys Families, which features Audrey and Greg Jackson, the parents of the late rapper Pop Smoke who was shot and killed in his home last February. In conjunction with the New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative, I WILL GRADUATE/ENTERTAINERS 4 EDUCATION, offers the Stop The Violence Program for middle school and high school students, which has been operating virtually.

“I think one of the biggest problems that we have had in our communities is that there’s so much funding and money going into violence prevention but for some reason it’s getting worse,” Taylor says. “And so, for us, it was: how can we do something different?”

Watch the interview to learn more about the program as well as Taylor’s advice for youth, especially those who aspire to be changemakers; growing up around mature adults; her thoughts on how soon children should be encouraged to advocate for themselves; her view on the connection between artists and music; and more. For more information, visit Taylor’s and I WILL GRADUATE’s official websites. Check out the PSA below!

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