warren_ballentine_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Warren Ballentine is a syndicated radio host, cable news commentator, author, social activist and attorney.

On Friday, he stepped into another role: mentor.

Ballentine and a handful of celebrities, including actress Kim Coles of the 1990s sitcom Living Single, actor and former football player Brian White,  Monique Jackson, and Kita Williams of VH-1’s The T.O. Show, spoke to hundreds of Miami-Dade County high school and college students at Florida Memorial University’s Lou Rawls Theater as part of the United Negro College Fund’s Empower Me Tour.

“I grew up in the projects of Chicago,” Ballentine told the crowd during a panel discussion called “Keeping It Real,” which sought to demystify the role of celebrity while  stressing the importance of school and financial literacy.  “I remember standing in government lines with my mother just to get cheese to eat and milk.”

Ballentine said he never thought he’d be able to evolve out of that life of hardship but did it by getting an education, which he encouraged all the attendees to do.

“I went to school to better myself and, when you better yourself, guess what happens? As you grow, your network grows and your network becomes your friends and your family,” he said.

Education, White added, “is a tool for you. Only you can use your education. It turns walls into windows. It turns windows into doors. It gives you choices in life during hard times.”

More than 1,000 students attended the Empower Me Tour’s stop at the FMU campus, 15800 N.W. 42nd Ave., Miami Gardens. The day-long event also included panel discussions on money management, preparing for college, career development, entrepreneurship, and personal empowerment.

Monica McCluney, national director of strategic alliances and corporate relations at the United Negro College Fund, teamed up with Georgette “Gigi” Dixon, senior vice president and director of national partnerships at Wells Fargo, to develop the Empower Me Tour four years ago.

The tour takes “a holistic approach to engaging and empowering youth,” Dixon said, by focusing on various aspects of life, from financial literacy to leadership development to personal development.

“What is really ingenious about UNCF’s strategy with this tour is that it is meeting multiple needs but doing that on a very firm foundation,” Dixon said. “The firm foundation, of course, when you’re trying to conduct outreach at this level, is funding and, for us, it’s financial education.”

The idea for the tour originated with the UNCF’s presidents’ council, Dixon said. The council wanted to develop an initiative that could teach high school and college students about financial responsibility. A senior executive with Wells Fargo who was on the UNCF’s board of directors, contacted Dixon with the idea and asked her if Wells Fargo could help make this program happen.

They could and did, drawing on the financial literacy resources that the bank uses every day in its community development, outreach and philanthropy programs.

When the tour launched in the fall 2008, only one celebrity — actor Hill Harper — was on its roster. Today, several more are on call and ready to join.

Ballantine and Coles are two of them.

Ballantine said he first learned about the tour three years ago after the UNCF asked his manager if he’d be interested. When he learned it was about empowering youths to take control of their education and finances, he said he would do it for free, he told South Florida Times.

“We’re putting some hope into their community, putting some hope into them. And that’s very important,” he said.

Coles had been thinking about starting her own tour to speak to young people, especially girls, before meeting McCluney during the filming of a BET show a few years ago.  McCluney told Coles about the Empower Me Tour and the actress signed on.

“I haven’t done all the dates, I’ve done a smattering of dates,” Coles said. “But it is awe-inspiring how these young minds want us to come in and pour into them and it’s been a blessing and a great gift to me as well.”

The Empower Me Tour visits nine cities every year. Friday’s visit to FMU was its first stop in South Florida. FMU President Henry Lewis III said he looks forward to a repeat visit next year.

Laura Jeanis, 17, and Kendra Donaldson, 18, seniors at North Miami Senior High School, were among the attendees. Unlike many of their peers, they skipped the celebrity-driven “Keeping It Real” discussion and attended “Hands on Banking,” a session aimed at helping students understand money skills.

“We still got the same information everyone else got,” said Laura, who plans to study social work when she enters FMU in the fall.

Kendra also plans to attend FMU this fall but to study nursing. The session “made it easy for us to understand” the ins-and-outs of financial planning for college, she said.


Photo: Warren Ballentine