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Political dignitaries, media titans, sports luminaries, several hundred kids and one music superstar converged on Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre last week, not for an Usher concert, but for the singer’s New Look Foundation, which was hosting its three-day World Leadership Conference from July 20 to 22.
The charity was founded by Usher back in 1999, when at 20 years old, he was inspired by what he describes as an “innate desire to give.” Surveying the millions of underprivileged and underserved children as he toured his way around the country and thinking back to his own experience growing up with the community support of his church and the local Boys and Girls Club, he conceived of New Look at a multi-tier leadership program, that would follow its participants from junior high through college.
Usher centered it around four main pillars — talent, education, career and service — and devised a curriculum that was based in large part on his unique experience: seeing the possibilities of your own future through someone else’s success. The strategy seems to be working — 98% of the youth associated with the foundation graduate high school and go on to college.
“Powered by Service,” “ Moguls in Training…” these are the buzz words New Look instills in each of its participants, and to drive the point home, the Grammy winner enlisted the likes of CNN founder Ted Turner, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, country star John Rich and Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli to appear at this year’s conference, which also boasted no less than 18 corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Ford, Goldman Sachs, Shell and AEG.
Usher spoke to THR on the eve of the conference about where New Look is headed and how far it’s come.
The Hollywood Reporter: Charity is often seen as little more than an elder white man handing over a fat check, but New Look is based on a progressive model that demands the participation of its beneficiaries. Is this an effort to change the face of philanthropy?
Usher: How you help someone else or contribute is done in many different ways. For instance, a good friend of mine, [the producer] Swizz Beats, is opening a charter school in the Bronx. He’s done a very creative thing that doesn’t feel like philanthropy. It feels like something that would happen organically, not just another check from a white man…. So we tie in our art and philanthropy together with music, and that becomes a movement, which is bigger and the people who benefit from it appreciate it on another level. And because corporations now will consider being more artistic, we are refacing philanthropy with what we’re doing.
THR: When you first started New Look in 1999, what did you envision?
Usher: I didn’t know what the vision would be, I didn’t know if it would work. All I knew is I wanted to do something that would give back to youth who were unfortunate and didn’t necessarily have the best outlet. I think anybody, not just children, is a product of a great environment. If you put them in a better environment from a sad situation, nine times out of 10, they’ll go in the right direction. That’s what New Look has become: our tracking system allows us to watch our kids make it through high school, hopefully go to college, help them with scholarships, the grants that we make available for them. They feel supported.
THR: What kind of charity were you involved with growing up?
Usher: In our neighborhood, the community was a family and everybody helped everybody. Most of my service goes back to my church. We would have different drives around Christmas, for coats and toys and stuff like that. If there were toys I didn’t play with anymore, of course I gave them to someone else. And Boys and Girls Club of America gave me a sense of responsibility because of how their systems work. Those same systems help set up the action part of what New Look does. In terms of activities and sports, it helped keep kids motivated… With every adversity, you come to see the greater benefit. So the more things you grow through, the more you’re compelled to do something positive and fight. That becomes your motivation.
THR: Attendance at the World Leadership Conference has grown by the hundreds, is it bigger than you expected?
Usher: Definitely, and each year will yield a different experience. Last year, my first annual was with Bill Clinton, and if you look at what he’s done with Clinton’s Global Initiative, that’s the potential of what we could grow to be. As I say a lot, it’s about having a reference: something to live up to, something that gives you hope. So I’m looking at the success of how this is all coming together, and I’m just happy. Not only for the success of New Look and the fact that philanthropy is becoming more prevalent in Atlanta, but also for the youth and how they’re going to be able to utilize what we’re showing them. I’m ecstatic about it. Anything that’s annual is a success. Just in looking at where the foundation started 10 years ago and where it is now, I’m very happy I’m able to continue to grow something that comes from a genuine place.
THR: During times of disaster, like Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, New Look mobilized quickly to help…
Usher: It’s about action. When Katrina first hit, I didn’t think, “Let’s just send a check down there.” I said, “Let’s figure out a way to bring awareness to what the issue is, and that’s getting families back to their homes and back together,” because families were split up… So we instantly did a concert in Atlanta to raise money and awareness, brought the cameras there, talked about it, and helped the people connect. When Haiti happened, the systems we created which worked for Katrina, they worked again. There were things that we picked up and learned throughout the process that we’ll use there’s ever another tragedy.
THR: Who are some philanthropists that you look up to?
Usher: I look up to Bono, Michelle Obama, Oprah — people who I think use their celebrity and everyday relevance to help other people. I’m the youth of it all — it’s a mission for me to make sure that philanthropy doesn’t feel like a vintage hand-me-down from mom or dad. I want people to feel compelled to do something positive because they just love it, they’re excited about it, and it’s cool.
THR: Is there a New Look moment when you felt especially proud?
Usher: I don’t mean to sound cliché, but I’m proud of New Look every day. Although I will say that I felt 100% percent on top of the world at the World Leadership Awards last year standing onstage with Bill Clinton. Knowing all that he does in service and how respected he is, it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
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