Actor Robert Townsend wasted no time during his visit to Chicago. The West Side native spent Thursday through Saturday meeting with youth to address the violence, visiting the prison and juvenile detention center and even hosting a free class offering tips on breaking into the film industry–all a part of his ‘Man Up’ mentorship initiative.
He said the main reason he came back was to work with the NAACP West Side branch in finding ways to stop the violence in their community. One way is to bring in more funding to help with programs, Townsend said. He is helping create two five-minute promotional videos for the organization to share with corporations.
“It’s going to be used as a fundraising tool because a lot of times people don’t know what the NAACP does now, and then it’s kind of for corporations and other people who want to donate to say, hey, this is what it’s about,” he said.
The NAACP’s West Side branch president, Karl Brinson, said the video is a good project for everyone involved. “It’s a win for the NAACP, it’s a win for the individuals working on it, it’s a win for our community,” he said. “The goal is to show to corporations to get funding back into our organization, which goes back into the community.”
One of those programs is ACT-SO (Afro-American Academic, Cultural Technological Scientific Olympics), which works with youth in the community on math and science and then takes them to national competitions.
Townsend spent his last morning in town working with almost 100 aspiring writers, actors and producers. Saturday, at Columbia College Chicago, the film producer, who is known for movies like “In the Hive” and “Hollywood Shuffle,” gave brutally honest advice about what it takes to survive in the industry and why some of them will never make it.
“You’ve been pregnant for a long time, but you haven’t given birth yet because of fear,” he said, referring to their repressed dreams.
“Some of you are so afraid, you’re sabotaging yourself. Your dream can be born at any time, [but] it’s about when you want it,” he said.
The workshop was scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., but Townsend became so enthralled with the topic that he ignored the clock and didn’t finish until after 2:30 p.m. After he shared his biography and offered some advice, he opened the floor to questions. First hands were raised, but with a crowded room, he couldn’t get to everyone so people were instructed to get in line. He made sure every person’s question was answered.
“I thought he did an excellent job, he exceeded my expectations, and not really knowing what to expect I came in with an open mind and he answered any questions I had,” said Charles Edwards, a current CPS security officer, but an aspiring writer.
Edwards said the best advice he received from Townsend was that sometimes it takes 700 ‘no’s before getting that one yes that will forever change one’s life.
Another attendee was in for a huge surprise. After Townsend told the audience of attentive listeners that they can’t be afraid to ask for help, Sheree Bynum did just that. The West Side resident introduced herself as an actress with multiple talents who attended the same high school and college as Townsend. From there she asked him if she could work on the NACCP videos with him. She said she needs help and if he would be willing to give her a chance. Townsend left the stage, approached her and looked into her eyes. He told everyone he knows nothing about her, but because she didn’t let fear hold her back and she spoke from the heart, he was making her his executive producer. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, he directed people to her.
“At first I was fearful to raise my hand and ask,” said Bynum, who credits God for what she calls an unexpected blessing. She attends workshops frequently, but none can compare to the Saturday’s she said.
“It was way more than I expected,” she said. “He goes so much deeper than giving you just the surface of industry and he was real in his perspective,” said Bynum.
Townsend said he really wants to help eliminate the violence that seems to plague some communities more than others. He said anyone can help, but it takes someone like himself, who actually knows first hand what it’s like growing up in a rough neighborhood to really do the job.
“I think that coming from the West Side of Chicago, I understand everything they’re going through, so it’s different if you don’t identify with them or know their plight and I get it, so part of the thing for me is trying to give them some hope, to know it is possible to win,” he said.
La’india Cooper, 17, said she wants to major in journalism and take theater classes when she enrolls in college this fall. The advice that Townsend offered is something she can use academically too, she said.
“I think what stood out the most was when he was saying nothing is handed to you, like how he created a movie himself, in 12 days, that’s great advice for me to take with me to college,” she said.
“Going into the journalism field and theater, you have to be a go getter and I know going into college, I have to be the same way because you are a number to them,” she said.