TVGuide.com: Tell me a little about what you learned and what you were surprised to discover while making this program.
Hill Harper: I wanted to see where we were 50 years later, because part of the whole idea of desegregation of schools was to improve the quality of education for African-Americans. There was one thing that surprised me: tracking. Even within a school such as Central High, which now is predominantly African-American, the AP classes are predominantly still Caucasian. So I actually got hit with a double whammy. Not only are we finding that graduation rates and literacy rates are tumbling, but even within the school there are problems with the education of African-American students. It’s a little disheartening in certain aspects.
TVGuide.com: One of the most compelling elements of the special was the reflections by the members of the Little Rock Nine and their perspective on education in America today. Did you come away from this project feeling hopeful or discouraged?
Harper: I feel extremely hopeful because I feel like we’ve gotten to a point where we have to make a change. We have to make a difference right now.
TVGuide.com: You were classmates at Harvard with Barack Obama and you are a strong supporter of his presidential campaign. In light of this special, were Obama to win the White House, what would you most like to see him do for young people?
Harper: Obviously, this whole "no child left behind" idea is more rhetoric than actual practice. [Barack] was born into relatively meager wealth but he utilized education to excel and to go to greater and greater levels of success in this country. Education works. It works. It’s just a positive investment and I know Barack knows that. He talks about it all the time. I want to get away from the rhetoric and get to what actually works: spending money on education; finding the best and the brightest teachers; making it more competitive to become a teacher; compensating the teachers more. Those are things that are absolutely necessary, and I know that Senator Obama’s onboard with that.
TVGuide.com: You are a large proponent of mentoring, especially in the African-American community. Who were your role models and mentors?
Harper: Wow, so many. My parents both are physicians and my grandfathers were both physicians. My grandfather had a pharmacy, and all through segregation and Jim Crow he would serve the African-American community [by giving] out prescription medicine to people who couldn’t afford it. That made an imprint on me with the idea that all of us, no matter who we are, should serve our community in some way and give back. Since I’m in the entertainment business I think I have to hold a mirror up to myself and say, "Am I complicit in miseducating and misinforming our youth by participating in this business, or can I use this business to re-educate and uplift?" So that’s what I’m trying to do.
TVGuide.com: You were motivated to write your best-selling book, Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny, by the numerous e-mails you received from young men who were looking to you for advice. You have a follow-up book due out in June geared to young women.
Yes, June 3. I’m really excited about it. It’s called Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny.
TVGuide.com: How does the message change for this audience? What specific challenges for young black women did you want to address?
Harper: Mentorship is about helping navigate the journey. I believe that mentorship on paper works, too. For young women it was a different challenge. It’s me, almost like an older brother, saying, "What insight can I give them into the way that men think to help them navigate their choices vis-à-vis men?" I also bring in my "surrogate sisters" — women who I think can also give advice vis-à-vis being a woman. It’s a different book in the sense that it mixes more male and female voices throughout.
TVGuide.com: Let’s change course for a moment. You’ve been quoted as saying that the writers are the real stars of CSI:NY. What’s your take on the current writers' strike?
Harper: I hope it ends soon for everybody’s sake. It’s not good for anybody, but I will say this: Without writers none of the entertainment would exist. It starts with writers. Writers are the most important piece of the entire puzzle. They need to be respected by the studios for what they deliver, and that’s why I support the writers wholeheartedly. In this world where new media exists, they deserve to be compensated if their work is going to play on the Web. That’s all there is to it. So I completely support the writers and their strike.
TVGuide.com: You are probably best known for your role as Sheldon Hawkes on CSI:NY but you can also be called an author, activist and mentor. What do you most want people to think of when they hear your name?
Harper: Somebody who cares. I would just like people to know that I care and I’m there for them and I’m attempting to enjoy the journey by lifting other people up along the way.
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