ASM: Can you tell us about your life growing up in America raised by immigrant parents. How did it shape your world view with you ultimately becoming the face of America in many countries?
GCP: My parents came to America from Jamaica with my father arriving in 1920 and my mother in 1924. They came on banana boats to America to start a new life and fell in love with the country; and like most immigrants who come to the United States, they did not just come for the economic benefits but also to become Americans. That is what makes our country so different in comparison to other parts of the world.
My sister and I grew up as children of immigrants and we were well provided for by hardworking parents who both worked in the garment industry. We were also surrounded by uncles and aunts who also came from Jamaica. I grew up in a neighborhood in the South Bronx where everybody was an immigrant; black immigrants from the South, immigrants from Puerto Rico, immigrants from Europe and all parts of the world. My growing up experience was in a diverse community. When I went to college and the military, almost all the students and fellow cadets I met were first generation Americans. I have to constantly remind myself that though it was hard for my parents when they came here, they made it; and until the day they passed on, they spoke with very thick pidgin accents. I would speak the Jamaican Patois if I had to and always understood them, which was a source of pride to me. Though I was born an American and my parents became Americans, whenever they talked about home, they meant Jamaica. As I tell my audiences, never forget where you came from; but America is your new home and you are blessed to have two homes. I have lived this philosophy that immigration has been the great strength of America for a long time and I talk about it in every one of my speeches – the beauty of immigration and what it has done for us. That is why I speak out for immigration reform. That is why I speak out against those who condemn immigrants; and that is why I believe strongly that we need to find a way to bring foreigners who are here without authorization out the darkness and put them on the road to receiving a green card and perhaps a road to citizenship. My immigrant background helped me succeed in life because it taught me about diversity. When I went into the United States Army, it was one of America’s most socially progressive institutions, but many posts were in the South which was still segregated.
ASM: Can you explain a little bit more of how you taken the ability of co-existing in such diverse communities throughout your life onto the world stage? Has that ever served you in international relations? Do you ever refer back to your youth or was it a constant progression throughout life?
GCP: I think the answer to that is yes. You have to remember that for thirty-five years of my adult life I was in a very diverse, integrated, multicultural, multiracial organization called the United States Army. So my knowledge of how to get along with other people of different backgrounds, races and origins was enormously helpful in my military career because these young soldiers were like the kids in the Bronx to me and I was privileged to have the opportunity to serve with them. I think that what I learned in the Bronx, working for an immigrant store owner as a teenager, going with fellow immigrant kids from grade school all the way to college, made an indelible impression upon my brain, heart and soul.
ASM: We read in your book that when you were in the military you had the idea that everyone had a stop for their train and had to be comfortable with where they were and you were not too concerned in making it all the way to the top. However, you did and in light of that situation, you have to have been inspired by something other than your personal gains and advantages. Where did your passion for excellence come from that drove and drives you besides the external motivators?
GCP: It started with my parents and my extended family. My cousins and I had our parents, uncles and aunts who had expectations for us. They came to this country not for their children to dabble in dangerous activities that would lead to jail and shame the family. So it was the high expectation and the sense of shame that started us all off. My cousins became successful attorneys, doctors, subway conductors and bus drivers. We were all told the same thing; to do our best, believe in ourselves and the country, do not shame the family and do better than they did. I don’t think I can ever do better than my parents but nevertheless that got us started. Then I entered a profession, the Army, which is very unyielding with respect to performance. What was communicated to me back then was the non-interest in my immigration, racial, educational background or my economic status. All they were interested in was my performance. If I was able to meet or surpass expectations on my performance and show potential, they would see how they can support me further. There were no promises made but as long as I committed myself and did my very best, they would see where it would take me. When I speak to my audiences, I tend to be asked if I ever dreamed of becoming a General or Secretary of State; and the answer is “no.” How could I have possibly aspired to something like that as a kid coming out of the South Bronx? What I did aspire to and did do was to put my entire mind and focus on being a good soldier.
Being a good soldier meant that I knew how to take care of my soldiers; it meant meeting the standards that I had to meet and it meant I knew that I had to ensure my troops returned home safe and accomplished the mission put before us. So I always just wanted to be a good soldier; and at the end of each day when I returned home and could say to myself that I was a good soldier today, that was satisfaction for me. I did not go into the military believing that I would become a general or the secretary of state. I just wanted to be a good soldier and that worked for me- that is the title of my latest book “It Worked For Me.” I just did my best and I found myself being promoted and getting jobs that were above my grade which forced me to live up to their expectations. This enabled me to meet people who recognized my potential and gave me assignments and challenges to see if I could meet them. I just kept advancing and the stars aligned and I was able to go all the way to the top. I am very proud of that, proud of my country; and especially proud of my army for giving me the opportunity. I never rested on the fact that I was an immigrant or that I was an African American. I have so many groups in me- I am African, Caribbean, British, Scottish, Arawak Indian and many more; but I did not focus on that. My goal was to do my best as a soldier using whatever was presented before me to the best of my ability.
ASM: What would have been your backup plan if you had not joined the military to attain the success your parents had expected of you?
GCP: I absolutely have no idea. At seventeen when I entered college and joined ROTC, I had no backup plan yet. It was all I could do to stay in school because my grades where not that great. However, I found something I loved by being a soldier. I realized I was good at it and it made me realize my potential. I loved the discipline, the family relationship with my fellow soldiers, and the fact that I was meeting standards. As I became an adult, the military became my new and other family in addition to my real family and I wanted to do my very best for them. It was a unique period at the time. Segregation was ending, things were starting to change and doors were opening that were not open before for people of color.
ASM: Speaking to being an average student going through the education system, what does it mean to you walking through CCNY and having a school named after you, The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership?
GCP: When I first went back to the City College after I left the State Department, to see what was going on up there that had my name attached to it, I was a small center initially named the Colin Powell Center. As I sat in the college president’s office with about a dozen students telling me where they were from, what they were studying and their ambitions, I realized that all of them were just like me. I have gone back sixty years and I now have a chance to watch others go through this wonderful college just as I had. So I invested myself financially and timewise into the City College; and in turn, CCNY appreciated what we were doing at the Powell Center in respect to service and connecting the academic work with work in the community. It became popular spreading around the college that they decided to create a school out of the Powell Center giving it all the Social Science and Economic departments with me chairing the Board of Visitors. I am very proud of the Powell School. Every time I go to the school and watch the student go by or speak to them, I see myself sixty years ago. CCNY has an immigrant population of ninety percent and about eighty percent of them were born in another country. The college is one of the most diverse in America. There are other schools around the country named after me. They are elementary and middle schools. It is just a pleasure to go to one of these schools and see my name above the door than it is to get another medal. Those schools will still be there long after me and the medals are gone.
ASM: You have raised successful children. Two daughters and a son. What was your philosophy in balancing your career and educating your children?
GCP: I became a parent when I was in Vietnam. My son was born when I was off in my first year in Vietnam; and I did not know that he had been born for a couple of weeks. He was nine months old when I saw him for the first time. My second child, my first daughter was born when I was about to go back to Vietnam; and the third child was born after I got back from Vietnam. These three wonderful children were born into a family that knew sacrifice and service. They knew how much we cared for them even though I was away a lot. Alma, my wife was the strong one in the family who made sure that they did everything expected of them. Her family is also a successful family of educators so the children grew up in an environment of education, support and encouragement of believing in themselves, doing the best they can.
They have all succeeded in life – my son is now the chairman of the Cable and Telecom Association, my oldest daughter is an actress in New York and my other daughter was an executive at ESPN but now in Virginia raising her two children. As I have said many times, I cannot change anything in my past, I can watch the present and comment on it but I may not have much of an influence. However, the one thing I can still influence is the future and the future belongs to all our children. So to the extent that I can use the position I have in the country and the resources I have to help the young people. That is what I want to do; and my family and I have been doing it for many years. The America’s Promise Alliance which my wife chairs is an organization I founded in 1997 at the request of President Bill Clinton and all of our other living presidents, and it is still going strong. It is reaching out to young people who are in need trying to get them the resources they need to be successful in life. When some people question my background as a tutor or teacher, I let them know that for thirty-five years, I worked with teenagers who were trained to be soldiers. So I know about the young people and how to educate and train them, giving them a sense of purpose to keep them on the right track.
ASM: What are the obstacles that you have noticed for the future next generation of the World citizens? What are the variety numbers of things that you would ask them to pay attention to the African Emergence, the Economic power and the world that contributes?
GCP: I try to speak not just as an African-American, but as an American and I have asked not be referred to as the black Secretary of State or the black Chairman Joint Chief of Staff. Rather, to refer to me as the Secretary of State or the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff who happens to be black. So regardless of the racial background, the young generations are precious to us and their loved ones. I think right now the African-American community in the United States is at a lower economic level and is having greater problems than other segments of our society. This is usually due to the lack of economic opportunities for the families; or schools that are not as good as they could be. I think the same would apply to Africa and anywhere in the world. There is the wide discrepancy between those at the top and those that are not. So what needs to be done is we have to find the money for good quality educational systems. It is not that we are giving it way, we are investing in the future of our country.
In addition, we are creating customers and workers for the future; so education is number one. Secondly, every child needs a good start in life and the best way to begin is to have a family that loves and supports the child – especially the parents. I am deeply troubled by the number of children born to single parent households; especially in the African American community. The single parent is usually the mothers many of whom are effective parents; but there are those who are not. As a result a good number of our children are growing up without the structured family life needed to be successful in school. They have not been read to, they have not been taught their numbers or to tell time. Furthermore, as we say in my family, they have not been taught to “mind” their manners, mind the adults or mind the teachers. A child who goes to school unprepared to learn, will not. What we know as a fact is that if we do not get them on the right path in the first couple of years before they get to the third grade, they will be behind. Once behind, they start acting out and the teachers can no longer teach because they become truant officers. So it is important that our children get a good start in life from the family, Boys and Girls Clubs and mentoring programs at churches, temples, synagogues, mosques - all the places we go to teach the young ones how to be ready for school.
ASM: Are there organizations or leadership programs outside America that the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership Program is working with to achieve the level of success that your school has? If so, can you tell us about them? If not, will this be in the works?
GCP: The Powell School is three years old and so we are still structuring what we are able to do by starting here in America. We have programs where our students partner with other schools and universities and spend a semester in Washington, DC. In fact, I just recently spoke to Powell School students and students from the University of Delaware. However, because of the immigration levels and diversity of our students, we have the world coming to see us at the Powell School. Our enrollment has increased significantly for the three years that we have been around. In addition to some becoming citizens, there are those we educate here in the United States who say they want to take what they have learned back to their respective countries to aid in building their countries. I think that is one of the greatest contributions the Powell School and CCNY make to students from around the world.
ASM: What does service mean to you as a Caribbean, American, African-American and a Global Citizen?
GCP: Service means giving to others, reaching back to help somebody in need and not walking past someone who is hurting in life. It means being kind and as you develop resources, be prepared to share some of that with others that are not as well off as you are. It is also important to incorporate service to others in our lives to lend our time and talent to the welfare of our community. Communities do not grow from just the largesse of our government; but by the willingness of its citizens to contribute to the welfare of all the people in the community. That is why when the America’s Promise Alliance was created, one of the promises we made was that the young people are given the opportunity to serve in schools and serve others so that they learn the virtue of service and put that value in their hearts. For thirty-five years, I was called the Service Man and I have taken that into the private life.
ASM: Of course we have to ask you about your fashion. Any tips for us?
GCP: (laughs). Well, for thirty-five years I was known for the green suit and black tie which I loved. Now, I think I have more nice civilian suits to wear.