Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, authors of The Rich and the Rest of US: A Poverty Manifesto, said on April 26 on the Staller Center Main Stage that they are “unapologetically old school.”
“We never know our life’s chances, until we know our life’s choices,” Smiley said. He is the host of several public television and radio shows, including PBS’ late-night talk show Tavis Smiley and co-hosts Smiley & West, with fellow event speaker, Cornel West. Smiley inspires the next generation as a broadcaster, author, advocate and philanthropist, and continues to be an influential voice for change.
“This is a love tour, that’s really what it is,” said West. He is one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals, and is an educator and philosopher. West is a university professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, and holds more than 20 honorary degrees.
Smiley started off the presentation by getting right down to business, letting the packed house know that we “need to care about the least among us.”
He spoke about his relationship with Bill Clinton, and his thoughts about what he refused to call welfare “reform.”
“Bill Clinton is my friend,” Smiley said, “but he was wrong to sign that welfare bill 15 years ago.”
The discussion of Clinton brought up the subject of the presidential debates, and Smiley made it a point to say, “In the three presidential debates in 2008, you never heard the words ‘poor’ or ‘poverty’ once.”
Smiley openly talked about his childhood, “I know this story because I lived this story.” Coming from a family of 13 kids, he lived in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom trailer. “You can build an entire life on hope, but even hope these days needs help,” Smiley added.
Smiley cleared his throat and introduced the audience to West, who stood up and asked the audience, “What does it mean to be human?”
West effectively used his witty charm and humor to highlight the histories of poverty in different racial communities, while bringing the diverse audience together in recognizing this growing problem in America.
“For so long, poverty has been associated with people of color,” West said, then adding, “but [then] it starts spilling over on the vanilla side of town.” Laughter filled the room, and for the first time, poverty was looked at as something more than just a burden in life, but an obstacle that could be conquered. “Only the strong survive it,” said West. “It requires being creative.”
Following the talk, a Q&A was held, giving the audience a chance to question Smiley and West. When asked what Stony Brook University’s role is in breaking poverty, West said, having a voice in our society is something that we can all do. “Students should always be a part [of] the community,” West added.
As the night came to a close, the audience rose and the sound of clapping echoed through the Staller Center. Poverty is something that needs to be addressed, “sooner than right now, and quicker than at once,” Smiley said.