Susan L. Taylor. To many, her name and face are synonymous with Essence Magazine, the African-American women’s magazine where as a single mother she started as a freelance beauty editor in 1970. It would take her 11 years to rise to editor in chief before climbing to the top of the masthead in 2000, where she remained as editorial director for another seven years.
But that is only one facet of her life. Taylor stepped down as the magazine’s editorial director last year, and, armed with her perpetual title, editor in chief emeritus, begins a new journey, propelled by valuable lessons and changes that have enriched her life – including being a grandmother to Amina King, 10.
Taylor, like most grandmothers, wants Amina to have the best that life has to offer. She relishes being a guiding force in her granddaughter’s life, instilling “wisdom and values.” But one child is not enough – Taylor wants to extend love and encouragement to one million vulnerable children in the U.S. It’s this passion for making a difference in the lives of all children that has led her to create the National CARES Mentoring Movement, a mission dedicated to recruiting one million mentors to help “save and secure” the lives of at-risk African-American youth. (To date, CARES has signed on more than 175,000 mentors.)
“Each day, more young African-American youngsters in failing schools are falling into peril. Nearly 60 percent of black fourth graders are functionally illiterate. In some cities, only 18 percent of black males are graduating from high school. Homicide is the number-one cause of death among young African-American males. I grew weary of writing about the problems, of attending — and hosting — conferences about these critical issues. I decided it was time to act, ” says Taylor of the underlying forces that guided her, in 2006, to found this mentor recruitment movement, initially as Essence Cares.
As a grandmother, Taylor is making sure to share the gift of giving back to the community — while passing on other important lessons — with Amina.
“We grands play a critical role in instilling wisdom and values in our young ones when we open our minds and hearts to listen to them and their thoughts. We can be the counterbalance to the impact of popular culture that teaches them to value the superficial and encourages mindless and endless spending.
We can show them through examples in our own lives that material things don’t bring us lasting pleasure or happiness, and that lasting joy comes from helping those in need. Our family makes sure that Amina gives away to less fortunate children the books, clothing and playthings she’s outgrown. I just love it when she’s offered something she doesn’t need and she says so.”
“The essential lesson that I want all young people to learn is that who they are — what they have within them — is enough. And that the challenge in all of our lives is taking the time and having the willingness to do the work of discovering the greatness that lies within all of us. So especially for girls — and most especially for girls of color — because they’re always comparing themselves to the celebrities and the images of beauty that they see in the media.
And what I learned during my first 10 years at Essence as the beauty and fashion editor was to see the beauty in every face, in every body type, and to know that each of us — and this is what I want my granddaughter and all of our children to know — is a divine original. That we are not deficient in any way.”
But learning goes both ways, and Taylor admits to having learned patience from her granddaughter.
“With Amina, I get to practice the things that I wasn’t aware of or didn’t have the patience and the wisdom to practice when I was mothering my own daughter, Shana. With Amina, I’m infinitely patient. I can’t think of anything that Amina could possibly do or say that would make me raise my voice or lose my temper. With Amina, I value the importance of time spent and deep connections made.
I’ve created a space for her in which she knows she can tell the truth, and in which she knows she can ask me about anything. She’s taught me not to rush conversation, which is what I did as a mother. I would rush a conversation with my daughter to finish the one I was having on the telephone, or stay at work when I should have been at home mothering her and bringing my work home so we could do our work together. But with Amina, finally you grow up. And grandchildren are the beneficiaries of our maturity.”