In 2003, when I was 26, I was introduced to Harry Belafonte. In my eyes, he was a famous entertainer from my mother’s generation, someone I knew from an appearance on “The Muppet Show” and who had coproduced “Beat Street” (I sang the theme song at our meeting — and he laughed). With a little digging, I had also discovered how many barriers Harry had broken over the course of his career — the first Black man to win a Tony Award, the first Black person to receive an Emmy, and many more.
But all of those accomplishments paled in comparison to Belafonte’s true passion. Instead of using his celebrity only for his own material gain, he spent much of that capital on political change. He paid a price for it, too, including being blacklisted in the 1950s for being politically outspoken.
That’s why we met that day — me, a young social activist, and Belafonte, a close friend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the civil rights moment. Harry wanted to change the status quo.
At our meeting, Belafonte showed me a news photograph that had shaken him to his core — a 6-year-old Black girl being arrested for doing nothing wrong other than acting out in school. Instead of calling her mother, school officials had decided to call the police. Looking at that photo, Belafonte knew he had to do something.
He believed action started at the grass-roots level, specifically to give youth greater opportunities and a sense of belonging. And so I was hired by Belafonte to work with him in marginalized communities to reduce youth violence. I quickly learned about the role of illegal economies in these communities to generate revenue sources, because other economic opportunities and resources were scarce. Without access to legitimate work and financing, people turned to underground economies — often illegal ones.
Belafonte wanted to change that by providing youths with alternatives. But rather than rush in with what he or someone else thought should be done, he put the focus on creating community. He founded The Gathering for Justice (previously known as The Gathering of the Elders), which brought together civil rights leaders such as Diane Nash, Bob Moses, Dolores Huerta, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. From the beginning, the Gathering was conceived as a safe space for dialogue among activists, street organizations, academics, community members, and formerly incarcerated people. The Gathering also received support and models of activism from many organizations including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress of Racial Equality.
Out of the Gathering for Justice came a plan for a series of youth meetings — a cross-country, cross-cultural experience — from north to south, rural to urban. For two years, we worked to bring youths from different communities together — say, urban Black kids visiting poor white kids in the rural South. It culminated with 1,500 youths from 26 states and all backgrounds— white, Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Indigenous people — coming together in Oakland, Calif., for a peaceful march and a gathering to pledge allegiance to nonviolence. That event also kicked off training for more than 3,000 youth in the six principles of Kingian nonviolence, as defined by King in his 1960 “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” essay.
For Belafonte, it was a huge investment — money, time, energy, and political capital. (Like ensuring that those 1,500 kids were treated as his guests at the hotel where they were staying.) And it happened because he understood how famous he was; he knew how much people liked him. He leveraged his celebrity to make things happen.
His activism also led him to support Nelson Mandela in his fight for the liberation of South Africa, as well as pan-African liberation movements — just as he advocated for political reform in Haiti. He was a true humanitarian on a global scale.
Working for Belafonte for nearly a decade, I was influenced by his vision and his unwavering passion for change — and it continues to shape how I work today. He will always be the one who modeled what he believed — that we couldn’t simply rush in with so-called solutions. We needed to amplify the voices of the community and then bring solutions into the halls of power.
But first, we took the time to listen in a way that made it safe for others to speak their truth and to build trust. The more we heard and learned, the more Belafonte shared the stories of marginalized people as he sang their songs. He amplified their voices, not his.
That’s what Harry Belafonte taught, that’s how he lived. That’s the work that honors his life and legacy.
Malia Lazu is a lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Managment and CEO of The Lazu Group.