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COMMENTARY: Something to sing about

FLORIDA COURIER — Robert F. Smith’s gift of paying off the student loans of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class stunned the school’s students and faculty, but it was just the latest act of philanthropy by the quiet billionaire tech investment executive who is concerned that economic opportunities for African-Americans have narrowed.



By Wire Reports


ATLANTA – Robert F. Smith’s gift of paying off the student loans of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class stunned the school’s students and faculty, but it was just the latest act of philanthropy by the quiet billionaire tech investment executive who is concerned that economic opportunities for African-Americans have narrowed.

“My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans!” Smith told the graduates during his commencement address. “You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity.”


Smith made the surprise announcement Sunday while giving the college’s commencement address. His gift is estimated at $40 million-plus.

Smith, 56, is the nation’s richest African-American – ahead of Oprah Winfrey–with a net worth of $5 billion, according to Forbes. He amassed his wealth as chief executive of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm in Austin, Texas, that he founded in 2000.

Vista Equity buys, grows and sells companies in the software and other technology fields. It manages $46 billion in investments with a portfolio of more than 50 companies that employ more than 60,000 people, according to the firm’s website.


His company is No. 1 on the BE100s (Black Enterprise magazine’s annual list of the most successful Black-owned companies) Private Equity list with $14 billion in capital under management. His company has been named to the BE 100s list for about a decade. Vista Equity Partners was BE’s 2013 Financial Services Company of the Year.

Smith seldom gives interviews and operated in relative obscurity until a few years ago. His profile began growing in step with his philanthropy, much of which is aimed at supporting the African-American community, and with more public appearances.

Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., this month, Smith warned that educational and economic opportunities for African-Americans had narrowed since the time he and other Denver children were bused to recently desegregated schools in the area.

‘Great public schools’

“There is only one of those folks that were on that bus that actually got incarcerated,” he said. “We have doctors. We have lawyers. We have politicians. We have investors – all because we had the opportunity to get into a great public school.

“That dynamic lived in my neighborhood. It doesn’t live in that neighborhood today as much as it did then. The economic opportunity that was afforded me, I think, has changed. It has shrunk.”

Smith said African-American communities are as segregated today as in the 1950s, subjecting them to “economic underdevelopment” that doesn’t allow them to fully participate in the economy.

He called for companies to invest in the problem, including by offering internships to underprivileged students who may not even be aware of the job opportunities created by the tech revolution.

Constantly giving

Months before saying he’d wipe out the student loans of this year’s graduating class, Smith announced a $1.5 million gift to Morehouse. He also has donated $20 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, and he and his foundation have given $50 million to Cornell University, his alma mater.

In 2016, Smith became the first African-American to be named chairman of Carnegie Hall. He had served on the celebrated New York concert venue’s board and was a donor, and hall officials cited his passion for music and his desire to help undeserved communities connect with the arts.

At a gala last fall for the City of Hope – the cancer hospital and research center in Duarte, Calif. – Smith was the largest individual donor, with a gift of $500,000 that was earmarked for prostate cancer treatment for Black men and breast cancer research for Black women.

Smith also signed on to the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate a majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The concept was formed by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

Living large

The Colorado native also enjoys the fruits of his success. He owns a $59 million penthouse in Manhattan and a $19.5 million mansion in Malibu, Calif., among other properties, according to media reports.

Smith has five children, three from his first marriage and two with wife Hope Dworaczyk, a former Playboy model he married in 2015.

The son of two high school principals with doctorate degrees, Smith grew up in a mostly Black middle-class neighborhood. In a Washington Post interview, he recalled that his father made sure music filled the house and that as they went to bed, the recordings of African-American opera star Leontyne Price played on the stereo.

STEM, then business

According to Black Enterprise, “Smith started his early life out as a computer geek and even interned at Bell Labs. Although he worked in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field for some time after earning a degree in chemical engineering from Cornell, the financial world beckoned.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell, followed by an MBA from Columbia Business School and a stint at Kraft General Foods. He switched to tech investment banking in 1994 when he joined Goldman Sachs, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, then stepped out on his own and started Vista Equity.

‘I can do that’

As his success and wealth grew, Smith maintained a low profile and shied away from being photographed. But now he’s more comfortable with his public profile in part because he wants young African-Americans to see what he’s accomplishing, Smith told the Post.

“Now I want people to say, ‘If Robert Smith can do it, I can do that and more,’” he said. “I could just live off my money. It might be a good life, though it wouldn’t be a fulfilled life.”

‘Love your community’

According to Black Enterprise, at an event last year at the Oakland, Calif., home of business strategist Carl Hackney, Smith spoke with a gathering of mostly Black politicians, venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. He weighed in on the importance of investing in communities and his advice for future generations.

“Love your community by voting,” he said. “Love your community by taking care of your community. Love your community by actually doing something wherever you can.

“Think about what is it that you uniquely bring to a community that changes that community. Sometimes, it is words of inspiration. Most of the time it’s acts of inspiration. It is doing something, it is leading, it is taking advantage of what it is you have to provide.

“Sometimes what you have to provide is walking a child home every night so they feel safe. Sometimes it’s making sure a child is read to at night because their parent is at work. Sometimes it’s a scholarship. Sometimes it’s the encouragement to go dream big, go take the test, go try something different, go get an internship.

“Or it’s creating an internship, like the internship I got at Bell Labs when I was 17 years old, that allows them to stretch their imaginations,” he said.

Information from James F. Peltz and Laurence Darmiento of the Los Angeles Times/TNS and Samara Lynn, Caroline Clarke and Selena Hill of Black Enterprise was used to prepare this report.

This article originally appeared in the Florida Courier. 

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On Ishmael Reed’s Inclusion and Van Jones’ Amazon Prime

Complain about the media representation of Oakland all you want. Last week, in the national media, Oakland was portrayed as a great place to live, work, and dine, with restaurants where people come up to your table and greet you like a long-lost neighbor. 



Ishmael Reed/Photo by Emil Guillermo

Complain about the media representation of Oakland all you want. Last week, in the national media, Oakland was portrayed as a great place to live, work, and dine, with restaurants where people come up to your table and greet you like a long-lost neighbor.

That Oakland. You know it? It’s the backdrop of a profile in the New Yorker magazine on Ishmael Reed, novelist, playwright, poet, and resident of Oakland. Hills? Oh no, the flats. Reed is a jazz guy; He B-flat. 

Hopefully, the joker in Reed laughs at that pun. It’s because of Reed that I am a writer. But let me not forget Flossie Lewis, my high school English teacher, and current Oakland resident. Lewis set me up. Reed delivered the punch.  

I first met Reed in St. Louis, Mo., where he was the “artist in residence” for Washington University’s first Writer’s Program. Intended to become a better Iowa Writers Workshop, it had all white writers like William Gass and Stanley Elkin. Reed was the token-in-resident. I was the token minority grad student. When one writer told me to stop writing about my Filipino family, Reed was there to tell me to put them back in. 

That’s what Ishmael did for me. 

The New Yorker profile published on July 19 compelled me to pull out Reed’s work again. “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972) re-read during the pandemic jumps off the page and is funnier than ever. People coming down with a virus that makes people dance the boogie?  It was a finalist for the National Book Award and considered for the Pulitzer Prize. 

The New Yorker also details Reed’s life with his wife, the dancer/choreographer/director Carla Blank, and their daughter, the poet Tennessee Reed. And you’ll learn how the writing all started–as a jazz columnist in the Black press for the Buffalo Empire Star.

That’s the enduring value of the ethnic media, the Black press, and newspapers like the Oakland Post. It’s still a place where diverse voices can let it all out.  

Asked about his legacy, Reed was simple and humble. “I made American literature more democratic for writers from different backgrounds,” he said. “I was part of that movement to be heard.”

I heard that. 

Van Jones’ $100 Millon Speech

Ishmael Reed is one of the only MacArthur Genius grant winners I know.

But Van Jones is the first winner of the Courage and Civility Award, which he received on July 20. Yes, that Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center. Way before CNN. I hope he remembers how he was a guest on my old New California Media roundtable talk TV show on the ethnic media more than 20 years ago on KCSM-TV. 

Because the Courage and Civility Award is $100 million unattached–from Jeff Bezos.

I wasn’t crazy about Richard Branson’s flight, so you know I’m not out-of-this-world over Bezos’s 63-mile jaunt, which I call the Neo-Space Age’s white flight. You can go beyond the suburbs.
Bezos has been hammered over not paying his taxes, and how spending billions of dollars into space travel during a time of real humanitarian need on Earth is on its face one word–obscene.

To his credit, he did what all rich people of money do when they stretch the limits of tasteful behavior.

They use their money by giving it away. It’s how the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Sacklers, the Mellons, etc., etc., can live with themselves. Albeit, far away from everyone else. Hence, the Courage and Civility Award. 

Jones was gracious about the hun mill gift. 

“I haven’t always been courageous,” said Jones.  “But I know people who are. They get up every day on the frontlines of grassroots communities. They don’t have much. But they’re good people and they fight hard. And they don’t have enough support.”
All true. And then he delivered the penance for Bezos sins.

“Can you imagine,” said Jones. “Grassroots folks from Appalachia, from the Native American reservation, having enough money to be able to connect with the geniuses that disrupted the space industry, disrupted taxis, hotels, and bookstores. Let’s start disrupting poverty. Let’s start disrupting pollution. 

“Start disrupting the $90 billion prison industry together. You take people on the frontlines and their wisdom and their genius and creativity, and you give them a shot. They’re not gonna turn around neighborhoods, they’re gonna turnaround this nation. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Then Jones had this for Bezos. “I appreciate you lifting the ceiling off of people’s dreams,” Jones said, then turned back to us. “Don’t be mad about it when you see somebody reaching for the heavens, be glad to know there’s a lot more heaven to reach for. And we can do that together.”

Bezos’ $100 million doesn’t buy a lot in the space biz. But handing it to Jones? Let’s see the disruptive good it can do on Earth.

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Community Responds to OPD Chief’s Call for Help in Stopping Violence

Oakland Chief of Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong has reached out to the community asking for support, and rightfully so.  For this is not just an Oakland Police Department fight but our fight.    



stop gun violence sign photo courtesy Chip Vincent via Unsplash


That’s the number of homicides that have occurred so far this year here in Oakland.  There have also been at least 300 acts of violence injuries perpetrated against the citizens of Oakland, many of them gun related.

Oakland Chief of Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong has reached out to the community asking for support, and rightfully so.  For this is not just an Oakland Police Department fight but our fight.

Those 75 families who lost loved ones to senseless acts of reckless violence are families from our communities. They’re our neighbors, our co-workers, and our friends.

The word of God reminds us to “Love our Neighbor as we love ourselves.” The Bible compels us to want the best and do the best for one another.

What would you want if one of your family members were one of those 75 who had been shot and killed in the streets of Oakland? What would you want?

The answer is simple.

You would want someone to care!  To shout with outrage and do something to end this cycle of violence!

On July 27, a group of community activists met with Armstrong to discuss how they could come together organizing in a city-wide community coalition to bring holistic ideas to create a wrap-around approach to combating violence. Those ideas include a) mental wellness, b) community chaplaincy, c) ask the formerly incarcerated to mentor and encourage youth in crisis, d) job development, e) entrepreneurship opportunities, and – last but not least — address our ever-growing homeless issues.

For more information on how you can be a good neighbor, please call 510-688-7437

All for the Peace — “Shalom” — of our Great City.

Pastor Scott is the president of Pastors of Oakland and leader of Tree of Life Empowerment Ministries.

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Bay Area

Where Do Negotiations Go Now After A’s “Howard Terminal” or Bust Ultimatum?

The A’s are seeking to develop 55 acres at the Port of Oakland. The proposal includes a 35,000-seat baseball stadium, which would cost $1 billion, or 8.3% of the total project.



Oakland A's Photo Courtesy of Rick Rodriquez via Unsplash

FILE – In this Nov. 17, 2016, file photo, Oakland Athletics President David Kaval gestures during a news conference in Oakland, Calif. TheAthletics will be phased out of revenue sharing in the coming years as part of baseball’s new labor deal, and that puts even more urgency on the small-budget franchise’s plan to find the right spot soon to build a new, privately funded ballpark. Kaval, named to his new A’s leadership position last month, is committed to making quick progress but also doing this right. That means strong communication with city and civic leaders as well as the community and fan base. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

John Fisher















Nikki Fortunato

Rebecca Kaplan








Oakland’s City Council rejected the A’s proposed non-binding term sheet, which the team had presented to the City along with an ultimatum, “Howard Terminal or Bust.”

At a packed City Council meeting last week, attended by 1,000 people on Zoom, many residents were angry at what they viewed as the A’s real estate “land grab” at the Port of Oakland and either said that the team should leave or stay at the Oakland Coliseum in East Oakland.
Rejecting the A’s term sheet, councilmembers at the July 20th meeting voted 6-1 with one abstention to make a counteroffer, approving city staff’s and Council’s amendments to the A’s term sheet.

Council’s vote was to continue negotiating with the A’s, and the A’s gained substantial concessions, $352 million, enough to return for further negotiations, in Oakland. The Council’s vote didn’t derail A’s pursuit of Las Vegas.

Now, over a week since Council’s vote, neither A’s President Dave Kaval nor owner John Fisher have spoken publically on the A’s intent to continue bargaining with Oakland for their proposed $12 billion waterfront development at Howard Terminal.

The A’s are seeking to develop 55 acres at the Port of Oakland. The proposal includes a 35,000-seat baseball stadium, which would cost $1 billion, or 8.3% of the total project.

In addition to the stadium, the development features 3,000 condominium/housing units; over a million square feet of commercial space (office and retail); a 3,500-seat performance theater, 400 hotel rooms and approximately 18 acres of parks and open space.

The most fundamental sticking point, along with all the other complications, is whether a commercial/residential development, ‘a city within a city,” in the middle of a working seaport are compatible uses for the land. Many experts are saying that the existence of upscale residences and thousands of tourists strolling around will eventually destroy the Port of Oakland, which is the economic engine of the city and the region.

According to Kaval, who had pushed for the Council to approve the ultimatum, “We’re disappointed that the city did not vote on our proposal … we’re going to take some time and really dig in and understand and ‘vet’ what they did pass and what all the amendments mean.”

Although the A’s stated a willingness to be open to the amended terms Council approved, Kaval expressed uncertainty whether the Council’s amended term sheet offers “a path forward.”

“The current [amended] term sheet as its constructed is not a business partnership that works for us,” said Kaval, saying the team would have to examine the Council’s counter-offer before deciding to resume negotiations or return to Las Vegas or focus on finding a new home someplace else.

City Council President Bas and Mayor Libby Schaaf joined city and labor leaders to discuss the Council’s vote. Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan made it clear that the amended term sheet the Council approved should be considered a “road map for future negotiations … a baseline for further discussions.”

Upon Kaval’s dismissal of the Council’s stated positions, Fife said, “I don’t know where we go from here,” abstaining from the vote on the proposed term sheet.

Many find Kaval’s statement confusing because he used words like partnership but apparently ignored and/or disregarded the City of Oakland – the A’s major stakeholder and a business partnership since 1968, more than 53 years.

Some are asking if the A’s understand that Oakland’s 53-year relationship with the team is the basis for the meme “Rooted in Oakland?” Are the A’s willing to accept, as the Council has determined, that the terms of the business “partnership” must be equitable and mutually beneficial for all of “us”?

And the question remains after a 53-year relationship, is it reasonable to terminate that relationship or negotiate further for an equitable and mutually beneficial business partnership?

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