On January 9, over 1,500 students of the I WILL GRADUATE program were treated to a fun-filled, exciting day to call their own where the emphasis was on education and the vehicle was engagement and entertainment. Declared via official proclamation from Mayor Bill De Blasio of the City of New York, I WILL GRADUATE DAY 2020 NYC, a citywide school initiative, was hosted by NYC’s Power 105.1 Angela Yee from The Breakfast Club and took place at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater. The event was attended by some of the city’s most distinguished leaders including Laurie A. Cumbo, City Councilwoman District 41; Councilmember 36th District Robert E. Cornegy; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and NYS Attorney General Leticia James who all promoted the idea that “Smart is the New Cool.”
Also on hand were several up and coming artists (Island Def Jam Recording Artist Jufu and Ron Suno); social media influencers (comedian Shiggy); and community dance companies (Dance Company KaiSokah USA Medgar Ever Preparatory High School Bloodline Dance Theater and Soul Tigers Marching Band) that performed and shared their own journeys with an audience of educators, school principals, and college-bound hopefuls who are mostly at-risk middle school and high school students in need of motivation and encouragement to pursue continuing their education beyond high school.
I WILL GRADUATE Co-Founder & CEO Tonya Lewis-Taylor launched the program with her husband back in 2006. “I WILL GRADUATE is designed to help young people find their life’s purpose. We do that through arts & education, college & career prep, all different types of mentoring programs and sports activities with the goal to inspire young people to want to be educated, and use education as a platform for success,” Lewis-Taylor told TNJ.com in a recent interview.
She explained that the program, which began with Roc-A-Fella Records bringing some of the label’s artists into a Brooklyn school to engage students, was a way to bridge what she and her husband loved most: the music and entertainment industry, and inspiring young people. (Prior to launching the program, Lewis-Taylor worked in the public education school system, and later as a celebrity publicist for Roc-A-Fella Records after which she started her own PR firm. Her husband’s background is also in the music industry and working with youth.)
Today, the program has grown to being on 40 school campuses around the city with plans of doing a community-based program where students who just want to be mentored can be a part of the community program.
“Our goal is to work with the kids from one phase of their educational life to the next. If they are in middle school, we stay with them through high school and college depending on if the high school they attend participates in our program. If not, we stay in contact with them to make sure they have all the tools they need to graduate. We make sure they are inspired and focused on their journey,” she says.
And although the big day at Kings Theater was a huge success, funding remains a challenge. “The number one challenge is always money,” Lewis-Taylor notes. “Money solves everything, especially staffing issues. If you have money, you can hire a full time staff to keep the funding going. So, we focus on being creative with funding sources, and all of our fundraising efforts.”
If those funding plans come to fruition, Lewis-Taylor and her team will be able to roll out their short to long term goals for the program for 2020 and beyond which include a citywide speakers initiative and expansion to more schools all around the city. “We also want to develop multi media platforms that will serve as youth-inspired platforms to keep kids motivated and entertained at the same time, someplace where youth can get good, clean content,” she reveals. “And we are relaunching our parents initiative. We do most of our programs for youth, but we’ve found that if we get parents vested in their children, the kids can go much further because they have the support at home. We have a lot of goals we are looking to achieve, so we’re excited.”