I come from a legacy of service. My grandfather on my mother's side was a pharmacist who served the African-American community in a small town in South Carolina. My father's side, the same thing: My grandfather had a farm and was also a doctor who built the first hospital in a four-state radius, specifically to serve African-American families.

About 12 years ago, I started getting asked to give talks to young people. I was invited because of my background—public schools in Iowa and California, then to Brown and two graduate degrees from Harvard, and now an acting career. Young guys and women would ask, "Hey. You're talking about goals and dreams, and I'm the first person in my family who has a chance to go to college, but I don't have any money. You said I could do anything—so what can I do?" And I'd say, "You know, I can't answer that question in a sound bite. Go stand over here." By the time I'd finish with these talks, I'd have 40, 50 kids waiting over there. I would try to exchange e-mail addresses with them, and I would try to do some type of e-mail mentoring.

I can't tell you how many young people I meet who, when I ask how they're doing, mumble something. They can't even look an adult in the eye. They don't feel that they're worthy of the connection. So I say, "You're magnificent. You're brilliant. There's nothing you can't do." I ask them, "How many times has an adult male ever said, 'I love you,' and expected nothing in return?" A good six to eight times out of 10, the answer is never. In their whole life. You have to remember most of the kids I talk to are being raised by single moms, so Nana's around, Auntie, Mom—and they say, "Baby, I love you"—but oftentimes the men aren't there. That's what all my work is, the talks, the mentoring, the two books I wrote of the best advice I'd been given and had to give: It's love and hugs on paper—that's all the books are.

I was fortunate that I had people in my life who demanded that I live up to my potential, and that's what I try to do with the young people I'm fortunate enough to meet. I tell them they're excellent, so they have to excel. I always ask them what my uncle Russell used to ask me: "What are your grades?" When they tell me, I say, "How are we going to turn those into straight A's? I can see that you're a straight-A student." And they've never heard anyone say that to them before.

Young people are extremely savvy and they can see through b.s. in a second, so they know if you have it in your heart or not. People ask if this is exhausting, but I believe that love expands. As you give love out, it's received and reciprocated—and it grows. That's the beauty of it. Love is an energy. You can feed it to people, and they in turn feed it to others, and eventually it comes back.

— As told to M Healey

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