I sat down with NY1 news anchor, Cheryl Wills on March 28th. It was a cold evening and the sun was starting to set. When I arrived at the 6th floor of the Chelsea Market building, Ms. Wills was waiting for me at the front desk of the New York 1 News Studio. Wearing a bright smile, she welcomed me and gave me a quick tour of the news studio. After a few pictures, Cheryl and I sat down to talk.
Many of our students and ESI Liaisons will remember Cheryl Wills from the ESI Day of Action, where she spoke about her great-great-great grandfather’s legacy. Most recently she spoke at one of our Young Men’s Gathering.
When retracing their family lineage, most African Americans will find an intersection with slavery. That is what Cheryl Wills found, but what she also discovered was that while her grandparents were slaves, they did not die as slaves. They were proud people who fought for their freedom and for the rights that were given to their white counterparts. She writes about this in her new book, Die Hard: A Heroic Family Tale, which talks about her father and her grandparent’s story.
As I sat in the studio’s conference room, she talked about this legacy and how, because of it, she has discovered a new direction in her life. Ms. Wills told me that most weeks she visits two or three schools to speak to students similar to ESI students. I asked her how she could do it—work sometimes more than 15 hours a day— and still find time to speak at schools.
Cheryl Wills: I am determined that I am not going to be a bystander to this nightmare that is unfolding. If I could pluck one student here, one there, and let them know they are special. And then they could see me on TV and think ‘Wow I met her and she cared about me.’
Erica Pretel: Did this work that you are doing, start before your book or while you writing it?
Wills: Oh no, I have been doing this work for years. But it’s taken on a new life when I wrote the book. And now I am tying into a historical theme that resonates with so many people.
Ms. Wills is right. This isn’t just one person’s story this is all of our stories. She expresses, “It is time that we start to uphold the legacy passed down from generations. We have to be great to honor their struggles and their sacrifices.” Ms. Wills speaks with so much conviction and is so animated when she speaks that it is hard not to be moved by what she is saying. Her eyes light up when she is speaking about the students she encounters and it clear that this work brings her immense joy and a feeling of purpose. One student in particular has forever left an imprint on Ms. Wills’ heart.
Wills: I went into one school and I met a young man named Harry, he sat in the front and he talked my ear off. He was eighteen and he was so smart and then he told me ‘You know I almost died,’ I was stunned. He told me that at fifteen he had fallen into the wrong crowd and they tried to kill him. It’s a miracle he is still with us today.
She went on to tell me that he was doing well now and is scheduled to graduate this June. However he wasn’t sure about applying to college. Ms. Wills made a deal with him. “If you apply to college I’ll give you the money for the application fee and I’m going to put you on stage with me to tell your story.” Harry applied to three colleges the next day. Honoring her word, weeks later at the MCU-UFT Youth Empowerment Day, Harry went on stage with Cheryl Wills and spoke to an audience of 500 students.
This was how she introduced him: “I know I am giving you 150 years-old history, but now I am going to bring it to the 21st century. Did your ancestors struggle the way they did for you to kill each other in the streets? Let me show you why they did not. That’s not what they intended. This is Harry; he was almost murdered at 15. Harry, tell them what happened.” And that is exactly what Harry did.
Ms. Wills recounted to me how he spoke to the students and how they were captivated by him. “I feel like I did something good today. He was really special,” she said.
Wills: That’s why, on my days off, I go into these schools and speak to these kids. I may not be able to get all 500 but if I could pluck one of [them] and give [them] a platform then it will ripple out and affect thousands. And that’s why I do what I do, and that’s what Paul Forbes inspired me to do. I join you in your mission to take back our sons. I absolutely endorse it. I refuse to see what’s happening as normal. This is a hiccup and we are going to take our children back, and I mean that. I follow in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman. People talk about her a lot but let’s really examine what she did. She didn’t stay safely in the north she went back to the south, but the key thing is she wasn’t taking thousands at a time she only got a few dozen here half a dozen there. Of those who were enlightened enough to hear what she was saying, she was still only able to save a handful. She knew that by taking a few those few would start a ripple effect. That’s why I am inspired by Harriet Tubman. I may not be able to go to every school. I may not be able to rescue every boy, but I saved Harry. And now who is Harry going to save?
Our conversation truly inspired me. I left that studio with a renewed sense of hope—hopeful because people like Cheryl Wills and initiatives like ESI are out there to help our young Black and Latino boys. The biggest message that we are trying to send our young men is that their lives—their futures— are important and that they are cared for. Like Ms. Wills said, our ancestors’ legacies are too great to let them become watered down by what is happening to our children today. We need to continue to strive towards fixing these problems now so that future generations can look back and be proud of the legacies you leave behind.
By Erica Pretel