Cedric Howard was raised by a single mother in inner city Macon, Ga., a community he credits with his success today as the University of Washington Tacoma vice chancellor for student affairs.
He was raised to give back to the areas he lives in, and received the Weyerhaeuser Living the Dream award this year, which recognizes people who reflect the values taught by Martin Luther King Jr.
He was nominated in part for a mentoring curriculum he developed for a Tacoma Boys & Girls Club to help young men graduate from high school and attend college, and for a transition program he helped create to cut the dropout rate at Jason Lee Middle School.
Question: How did you start volunteering, and why have you focused on youth organizations in particular?
Answer: Growing up, it was always imperative that you not just take from the community, but that you found a way to give back to the community. I came through a Boys & Girls Club. There's a natural connection for me to work with youth organizations.
Q: How do you think that upbringing shaped your education and career?
A: I grew up very much in an urban, inner-city environment during the drug wars. But I was insulated because of my education. They viewed me as someone who took education seriously. Even the drug dealers. . . . They would say: "It's time to go home. You need to go talk to your grandmother." The community as a whole surrounded me and said: "We want you to go places."
I'm here not just because of my hard work, but because of the work of others who protected me. That's what drives me today. At least by their standards, I am successful.
With that also came the obligation of: "How are you going to give back to your community?" That work has continued throughout my life.
Q: Did you celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day growing up in Macon?
A: We always knew that (the) day off meant we were going to do some type of community service project.
I grew up in an environment where I was raised by a village. When you're growing up in the inner city, you have those village elders who oversee the youth and make sure they're taken care of.
My nickname was the professor. (Elder Mary Lewis) used to say: "Professor, see those people there (marching on Martin Luther King Jr. Day)? They're only there in order to make a pathway for you. Out of all these kids, you're going to be the one to make it. We have faith in you."
That was the first time I realized that Dr. King was not just opening doors for one generation, he opened doors for generations to come.
He had already been assassinated by the time we were born, but we knew they were marching for our rights. Our role as the youth was to make sure we were doing something that wasn't taking our rights for granted.
Q: Do you have a personal connection with the holiday?
A: First and foremost, being an African-American male from Georgia. For me, Martin Luther King Day represents a celebration of a lot of his accomplishments, and I'm a by-product of those accomplishments. The first few years of my mom's high school career, she went to a segregated school.
Q: After receiving the award, how will you spend this Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
A: UW Tacoma has a unity breakfast. This year we will start the day at UW Tacoma, my family and I, celebrating. Then we will go to a program at the Peace Community Center. They select kids who have written speeches about racial inequality and social justice.
Q: Are you still part of any service projects in Macon?
A: My mother is now a pastor in Macon, Ga. She's the second Dr. Howard in the family. My mother and I own a lot of houses in the neighborhood. Some are shelters, some are transition homes.
She has an academic enrichment summer camp. This year we gave them book bags and a gift card. A lot of these kids, their parents don't have resources for that.
I'm very proud that my daughter took her break and served as a teen adviser this year. I see that next generation of giving with my own kids now.