Kanye West performs for Chicago students:  Javier Ayala

This week, the New York Times reported that the Kanye West Foundation closed. The eponymous charity was founded by the rapper/producer more than four years ago with his late mother, Dr. Donda West. Having disbursed more than $54,000 worth of grants during that time, the organization reached several thousand students who were at risk of dropping out of school and also had an interest in the musical arts.

West is one of many celebrities to bring awareness to issues disproportionately facing a select demographic, oftentimes in a particular neighborhood, city, or region. In 2010, singer/actor Beyoncé Knowles announced that she would open the Beyoncé Cosmetology Center to help recovering clients of the Phoenix House Career Academy learn career skills. Later that year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public school system.

“It is the personal, raw connection to a dream that makes it feel attainable. Role models help unveil that feeling.”

West with Exec Director Joseph Collins: High Style Marketing & PR

Icons have long used charity as a way to stay in touch with the common realities of otherwise common people, mostly in the form of a financial contribution and sometimes actual appearance. That any of them would dedicate their career to a cause seems like a stretch; nonetheless, their name alone brings a level of awareness to the issue that is rewarding enough. West, for example, could encourage 2,500 students to improve their grades with a large motivation being to see him perform live in their hometown.

In reality, the real magic is in what follows; once the glitter has dimmed, and the students need direction and mentoring to achieve the level of success of a Kanye West. Sometimes for an outsider who is transfixed by the bright lights of talent and success, the notions of hard work, perseverance, and professionalism become a faint, almost forgotten shadow. 

West implemented his vision through the former executive director of his foundation, Joseph Collins. Collins was an organizer who decided how the foundation’s programs were run, and how to best serve the community. His decisions could potentially impact the way programs like his were administered around the nation; a heavy burden and great opportunity for a visionary. Directors are leaders, armed with a mighty muscle to fight for a cause, whether good or bad. In a battle, the strongest muscle usually wins. 

Sometimes less famous than their iconic and leader counterparts, role models are capable of laying tangible groundwork for students to follow. Their work is visible and exposed; their approach is hands-on, and their gift is teaching. They answer questions and provide opportunities. If every foundation was given an unlimited budget to serve each student, the greatest impact would still likely come through the intervention of a role model. It is the personal, raw connection to a dream that makes it feel attainable. Role models help unveil that feeling for students.

When foundation doors close, as they often do, leaders will continue to be made. The best learning begins once a student becomes the responsibility of the community’s role models.