I know I couldn't be who I am without the help of many mentors. That support system allowed me to go from public schools in Iowa and California to Brown and Harvard universities, where I ultimately outcompeted students from top private schools to earn four degrees with honors. My educational achievements were not due to some innate intelligence, but rather to having people in my life who encouraged me and told me there was nothing I couldn't achieve.
As an actor on CSI: NY, I'd often get invited to address school groups, primarily because of my educational background. I was struck by how many of our young people are not finishing high school. I met teenagers who wouldn't consider planning for the future, because they felt they didn't have one: They assumed they'd either be incarcerated or dead by 19. In too many communities, our schools are failing our kids, and gun violence and incarceration rates are soaring. How could I — or anyone else, for that matter — look in the mirror and not try to do something about it? That's what motivated me to write books addressed to these young people, Letters to a Young Brother and Letters to a Young Sister. I want our young men and women to know how much they can achieve, if they have a plan and the discipline to stick to it, and if they know how to seek out the help they need — that we all need.
But books and speeches can only do so much, so I started the Manifest Your Destiny Foundation (MYD). At schools in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., we work with groups of underserved youths. We teach them about all aspects of well-being: mental and physical health, academics, finances and self-esteem building. So far, we've worked with more than 200 kids, and each one has made it through high school. My dream is to spread our program nationwide.
Mentoring is the most powerful means of individual transformation and achievement. The path is different for each of us, but education and encouragement are the foundation. If we can empower kids to connect to their individual genius, their opportunities are limitless. We all can mentor. We all can change a life.
Best-selling author Hill Harper, 50, appears in the upcoming Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me.