Category Archives: National & Global News

Sunshine On A Cloudy Day: Terron Brooks On Playing Eddie Kendricks In ‘The Temptations’

Terron Brooks is a talented singer/songwriter who has performed alongside such music royalty as Smokey Robinson, Stephanie Mills and Michael Jackson. His time on Broadway — highlighted by his roles as Simba in “The Lion King” and Seaweed in “Hairspray”— set the stage for what would become his largest role to date, his portrayal of Motown legend Eddie Kendricks in “The Temptations.” That NBC miniseries depicted the life and times of the talented but troubled group. Brooks has also released five studio albums, with a sixth to be released this fall.

Zenger News discusses the popularity of “The Temptations” film, his new podcast, “Honest Answers,” as well as his new single, “Tomorrow” — a twist on the song from the musical “Annie.”

Percy Crawford interviewed Terron Brooks for Zenger News.

Zenger: Congratulations on the “Honest Answers” podcast. To have Leon — who played Temptations lead singer David Ruffin in the 1998 miniseries — as your first guest, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Percy Crawford interviewed Terron Brooks for Zenger News. (Heidi Malone/Zenger)

Brooks: I was very blessed that he said, yes. Then to have him as my first guest seemed appropriate. If you wanna start with a bang, you start with, Leon, right?

Zenger: Absolutely! I was shocked to hear you guys didn’t stay in touch. I know it was several years ago, but you created magic together during “The Temptations” miniseries.

Brooks: For me to be able to reach out years later and ask him to do it and for him to be so gracious and so quick with his response is just a testimony of what we had. But yeah, it’s true. We haven’t really talked all the time. We don’t live in the same place and time moves on. But those impressions are my point. They stay. Some do and some don’t and fortunately him and In the film, Eddie [Kendricks] and David [Ruffin] had a certain relationship as well, that Leon and I tried to really truly have in person.

Zenger: Listening to you guys converse, it sounds like he really looked out for you on the set, being that that was actually your first movie role, which you nailed, by the way.

Brooks: I knew he was doing that, and he knew he was doing that, but was that spoken? No. So for him to say that to me years later and to understand his intention, and I think that would be his intention on any co-star he has, but for him to be intuitive and see it. I don’t think I was struggling, but I needed the confidence. Some actors are not gracious enough to give you that. You’re just by yourself hoping you’re doing your best. He understood that if this was going to be great, he would have to be encouraging, inspiring and lead by example.

I wanted to be good because he was so good. For him to be able to communicate that, and I was impressed by it. I was actually really blessed by it. It could have gone another way. He wasn’t the only one that did that in that experience. And hopefully my experience with theater and performing rubbed off on the other guys as well because that wasn’t a foreign world to me at all. Performing wasn’t foreign, it was the acting on TV. I didn’t know what that was.

One of Terron Brooks’ latest endeavors is his “Honest Answers” podcast. (Courtesy of “Honest Answers”)

Zenger: It appears that you have an amazing list of guests that will be coming on the podcast. What made now the perfect time to roll out “Honest Answers?”

Brooks: I think it was always the time. I think I was running away from the presentation. I think now with technology, you have to be on your A-game if you want to present anything (laughing). If I were to be honest, I think that’s what kind of stalled me a little bit. How I’m going to be able to manage this, how am I gonna present this? And it wasn’t until recently I thought about the guest.

I think the pandemic gave us time to figure out those things that we wanted to do, and ask ourselves what were the reasons and excuses why we’re not doing them? Having it come out now as we are coming out of this thing, I’m asking my guest to step back just a bit and asking what they learned from that. I think that’s so inspirational for people.

We put people on the pedestal all the time, but you find out just how much we’re the same, just how much we’re alike, except maybe in our career choices, or our paths and how things are elevated for us. But from a human level, just like Leon. I think he gave some, not necessarily surprising answers, but maybe some revealing answers that fans or people that think they know him wanted to hear. He was very open.

Zenger: I must’ve watched that “Temptations” movie 50 times. For a film that was created 23 years ago, are you shocked at its relevancy today and did you feel it would have this impact when it was created?

Brooks: I really did not. I knew the magnitude of The Temptations. I knew what I was doing was historical and meaningful and valuable. But at that young age, I didn’t perceive that many years later I would still be recognized every day of my life. No matter where I’m at, it doesn’t even matter what nationality you are. I wasn’t able to perceive that. Just hoping Eddie’s family or people that knew him would receive what I did. To answer your question, being blinded by those expectations, I think helped me do a good job.

Not only do people watch it over and over, but some people are also just discovering it. A lot of people are very young people that, whether they know about The Temptations or reintroduced, it has really reignited their passion for real music.

A promotional portrait of American R&B group, The Temptations, circa 1965. Eddie Kendricks (1939 – 1992) is seen on the far left. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Zenger: Did you do anything outside of some research to get into character to portray the legendary Kendricks?

Brooks: You have to do the research to understand the character. I think I got underneath the skin of Eddie Kendricks as opposed to more of the imitation of what he does, per se. As a performer you can go to videos to get as close as possible, but I was just trying to figure out, who was Eddie Kendricks? What was his character, what was his integrity, his belief system? A lot of those things were lined up with me. You really gotta give Jackie Brown casting and the whole production team their flowers for that. They found the right people to be the vessel for these incredible men.

I think when you put those things together, my intention was to honor Eddie’s character. He was an advocate for the right thing. He was loyal and always trying to find the truth of what the situation was, and he had a certain shyness about him to that I could really identify with, as well. Not really imitation, but just trying to embody this man the best way that I could.

Zenger: I still can’t believe that was your first acting job. You really did Eddie Kendricks an amazing service.

Brooks: I appreciate that, man. I think there are certain things in your life that you are just meant to do. I have had a great and blessed career and a couple of things that I thought, OK, this is another thing, but “The Temptations” still stands out. It’s something that seems beyond me and something that was just for me no matter what it was. I don’t know if you know the story, but initially I went in for the character of Paul [Williams]. As the story goes, they changed that very quickly and said, “No, you’re Eddie Kendricks.” Some things you work really hard for and I’m not saying that I did not, but this thing seemed to just be in the cards.

Zenger: Your single “Tomorrow” embodies better days to come. You spoke earlier about us coming out of this pandemic. Was this an intentional release?

Brooks: I don’t know if we purposely put it together that way. It was the last song we recorded for the new record, and the record company decided that out of all the songs, that would be the first song. But anything that I do is all inspirational and all about hope. That’s just my thing. If it’s not about that, I won’t be doing it. So that’s an easy thing to say. But I do feel in this specific time, people do need hope. When we don’t have answers, nothing is secure, when you get one answer then it changes, you want something to cling to.

So, this song, “Tomorrow,” is from the musical “Annie.” No matter what comes the sun is going to come out tomorrow and you can bank on that, man. What your perspective is, the song is just reminding people, take a deep breath, it is going to get better. I think people need to hear those kinds of messages, and I’m happy to be able to provide it at this time.

In my new album coming out in September, “The Soul of Broadway,” we rebelliously twisted these Broadway songs that most people know. They’re iconic songs, and man I gotta be honest. Some of them I didn’t really even love. But take the lyrics and I can twist it around in my own style and present it outside the context of a show or character and then suddenly you don’t think about the little girl with red hair. You think about the song and the message. We weren’t really calculated on the songs that we picked, but it seems like the songs you are going to hear in September all go together with that same inspiration. We had fun with it. I’m an artist; if I’m going to sing something, I’m going to sing it my way.

Zenger: Thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure. Any closing thoughts?

Brooks: Thank you. Tell people to subscribe to the “Honest Answers” podcast so they don’t miss any. It’s 11 episodes. I also have a YouTube channel you can subscribe to. And there is more music to come. We have a follow-up single coming out before the record comes out. And Percy, I appreciate you, man. This was a great talk.

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)

The post Sunshine On A Cloudy Day: Terron Brooks On Playing Eddie Kendricks In ‘The Temptations’ appeared first on Zenger News.

Movement Afoot To Keep Classics Department At Howard University 

A concerned group at Howard University hopes to find funding to continue the school's classics program. (Howard University)

WASHINGTON — As the 2020–21 school year winds down, a band of Howard University students, alumni and professors hopes to reverse its decision to shutter its classics department, possibly by finding funding to endow the academic discipline.

Howard is the only Historically Black College and University that has a classics department, established at its founding in 1867. It offers minors in Greek, Latin and classical civilizations. The Society for Classical Studies, in a statement, noted that it learned in April of Howard’s move.

The Howard department has a full professor, an assistant professor, three associate professors, an adjunct lecturer, a master instructor and a faculty member. The number of students most recently enrolled in the sequence was not immediately available.

In a survey from 2017, the society counted 132 colleges and universities with a dedicated classics department, said the society’s executive director, Helen Cullyer. Altogether, 268 schools in the United States provide some level of classics courses.

“I taught at Howard for six years at the beginning of my career and the students in my classes there inspired my work on black feminist receptions of the ancient Mediterranean world,” said Shelley P. Haley, the society’s first black president. “By dissolving the classics department, the institution is doing a grave disservice not only to the students who attend, but to the professors who teach them.”

An aerial view of the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C. (Howard University)

Howard University did not respond to requests for comment.

Howard junior Sarena Straughter, a political science major with a minor in Latin, launched a petition, “Save HU Classics,” on Google Docs and, and also a letter-writing campaign to university provost Anthony Wutoh, seeking to reverse the decision.

Straughter said she took Latin in high school, and that “it’s very hard for a lot of people to understand the significance and the relevance of dead languages.” She said her high school tried to eliminate Latin, but she spoke to the principal, “to express … how much Latin meant to me and had done for me” as the only student of color in her classes.

“You wouldn’t think that the classics department would be a haven for a black student, but it was, and it provided me a lot of space to think critically and feel comfortable asking questions because of our small class sizes. And I was able to relay that to my high school, and they chose to save the course offerings there,” Straughter said. “And when I found out the same thing was happening at Howard, I was quite devastated because I knew that it was on a much grander scale.”

Teaching the classics to black students has historically been discouraged. In 1916, Thomas Jesse Jones, a Welsh-American sociologist, wrote a report for the U.S. Department of the Interior titled “Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States” that disparaged classical education as wasted on black people. Jones pushed for “practical” subjects of study such as plant culture and physical hygiene.

“Thomas Jesse Jones did not, could not or perhaps would not see a world in which such people as described below existed,” said Michele Valerie Ronnick, Distinguished Service Professor at Wayne State University, who wrote an article tracing the development of classical education among blacks from the 1500s to the 20th century.

Howard’s move follows the November 2020 release of recommendations drafted by a task force charged with assessing all of its programs. In all, that report called for the termination of 22 programs, mostly for low student enrollment and/or completion rates.

A coalition of students and alumni are working to find alternative ways to fund the classics department at Howard University. (Derek E. Morton/Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s what that report had to say specifically about the classics department: “… While currently a free-standing department, [it] does not provide a major course of study, and general education courses may be offered through other departments. As such, this department should also be considered for dissolution.”

Straughter said Howard is not allowing students to enroll in classics minors, nor allowing those in the program to switch. The courses will continue to be offered until those students have met their graduation requirements.

“Where we stand now, there’s a strong coalition of students and mostly alumni who are working on finding alternative ways to fund the department,” Straughter said.

The group estimates that about $700,000 would be needed annually to cover the contracts for adjunct professors and salaries of the tenured professors and support staff. The goal is to raise $10 million to fund the department for 10 years, and allow it to expand.

The coalition is also reaching out to Congress, which makes an annual appropriation to Howard, Straughter said, “making the argument that as the federal government sort of initiated this domino effect of taking the classics away from black education, it’s also their responsibility to preserve it now.”

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)

The post Movement Afoot To Keep Classics Department At Howard University  appeared first on Zenger News.

These Black Entrepreneurs Are Battling On Three Fronts To Keep Businesses Alive

WASHINGTON — The Washington, D.C., area is home to a bustling population of food trucks. Streets surrounding the city’s monuments are often lined with stationary trucks vending shawarma, hot dogs and many other foods. Clearly, the competition for such vendors is intense.

Against that backdrop, Jerk At Nite began in 2013 with the experimental cooking of Denville Myrie Jr., a Jamaican student at Howard University admired by his peers for his cooking. Jerk At Nite initially seized the dearth of late-night food options in the years before meal delivery apps became popular. With the campus cafe closing at 10 p.m., there were only one or two restaurant options for late-night students.

Thus, the business was born, with Myrie Jr., Kadeem Todd and a few other Howard students operating a small enterprise serving their peers. In 2014, it grew to catering larger Howard events, getting their name out and growing their customer base of the future Howard alumni. In 2016, its food truck arrived on the scene. Then, in 2019, they started work on their first restaurant — but soon ran into a variety of obstacles in working to make that spot a reality.

Todd, one of the business’ five managers/owners recently took time out of his schedule to speak to Zenger News about the solid foundation that the business is built upon, and why they’re confident those hurdles will ultimately be overcome.

Jerk At Nite’s first brick-and-mortar location at 2149 Queens Chapel Road N.E., in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Kadeem Todd)

Zenger: How did this business begin?

Todd: Myrie used to always cook and stuff at night, and we all admired his food. During this time he got the idea of making Jamaican food. He had the idea of making it for years prior to that. Myrie had already graduated a year prior to me and started working for the Department of Health, a career he wasn’t really into, and I was fresh out of college trying to figure things out. I originally was an EMT, working in hospitals, but I wasn’t really into it, to be honest. So he came up with the idea: We’ve been doing this all these years, let’s put our money where our mouth is and invest in a food truck. At the time, food trucks were really big in D.C., and we definitely saw the opportunity of it being very lucrative because we’d see them every week downtown by all the monuments.

Zenger: Since there are a lot of food trucks in D.C., competition seems to be tight. How did you rise above that?

Todd: We kinda of came in struttin’. We came in like we had the best because we felt like we were the best. And we kinda promoted ourselves like that. Downtown D.C. business spaces are really mundane. People are walking to and from in their business suits, but we came through and cut through that with our own aura. So we would come in playing our music really loud, it was almost like the ice cream man concept, the people would hear it at 11 o’clock and we would get there before they even get out for their lunch break, we had the grill smoking and you could smell the food. You couldn’t walk past without wondering “what are they cooking?” and Jamaican culture is really worldwide; people love Jamaican food. People love it, and people who don’t love it have friends who love it who will take them there to try it.

It was easy to cut into the competition, as everyone [else] was selling tacos and burritos at the time. We always had the mindset that we wanted to be a business, not just like a hot dog stand. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to have a brand, so we always marketed ourselves that way. So with that game plan we found it easier to cut through the food truck competition. We found ourselves more in competition with other Jamaican restaurants in the area.

Zenger: You started getting noise complaints on social media. Why did that happen and how did you respond?

Todd: We had acquired our restaurant space in 2019, we had no outside funding, so we were using the food trucks to fund the buildout for the restaurant. We were pretty intentional about not having outside investors at that time. So with us finally building out the store, painting and remodeling it, we decided instead of moving around with the food trucks in downtown D.C., we planted our flag right here where our restaurant is coming, and we started parking on Eighth street.

So we would park both of our food trucks on Eighth street. Playing our music, curating a vibe, a culture to it — and people love it, our customers really love it. Because who doesn’t love good reggae music? It’s calming, it’s relaxing, you feel like the islands have been brought to you, so you feel like a happier mood and you’re engaging with the food or the people that’s around. Our neighbors on 11th and H weren’t too happy with that, but we were in complete compliance with the law, as far as that goes. We didn’t technically have to turn our music down to a certain decibel level until 10 o’clock.

We made sure to check in with everybody to maintain that so nobody would feel offended. I personally went door to door once we started cooking and working there to ease people’s minds about it. We were saying, hey, we’re not trying to disturb the neighborhood, we’re trying to be a part of this community, and we want to be on a good footing with everybody.

But it didn’t quite go that way. There were a lot of deceptive smiles and yeses, but we found ourselves in a situation where the police were called numerous times about noise complaints, about us not being in compliance with our crowds. Which again, we were by the book every single time. But it was annoying that every time we had service police were called. We want to be a part of the community, but we didn’t know exactly who to communicate with to resolve this. People were kind of hiding from it, and they weren’t really with the energy we brought, I guess — because we weren’t the only restaurant who played music; there was another restaurant adjacent to us that also played music — but I guess because we didn’t have the same amount of traffic they felt they didn’t need to call the police on them, but they needed to call the police on us, so there was a bit of a bias there.

Denville Myrie Jr. (left), founder of Jerk At Nite, and co-founder Kadeem Todd, in front of one of their food trucks on Queens Chapel Road in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Kadeem Todd)

Zenger: What happened that caused you to stop work at the restaurant?

Todd: We invested a majority of our funds to build out our restaurant, and because of the police being called on us at the time, our landlord wasn’t really on our side because of — well, let’s just say he would have preferred to have other tenants. The value around that area had gone up since we had been there, and we locked in our lease in 2019, when there was nothing on that street. The street was in transition, and a lot of restaurants had closed prior to COVID-19. So we got a really good deal on the price of our location, but after us being there and other businesses opening around, the value had gone up around us, so our landlord at that point was trying to nitpick and find a way to get us out.

So we were in the last stages of building out the restaurant, installing the HVAC system. So with authorities constantly being called, we always had to pull out our paperwork. So this time they came and they wanted our permits for the HVAC system, even though they were called for a noise complaint. It turned out our landlord had not signed off on the permit, so he kind of derailed us. We technically weren’t in compliance then, so we ended up getting a stop work order from DCRA [Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] which pushed a lot of things back for us.

Zenger: Why have your neighbors and landlord been such roadblocks?

Todd: Well, internally, I think that our traction has caught a lot of attention. But anyone who would look at this from the outside, they would think it’s definitely prejudice because of who we are. They see two young black men with no outside help, no huge backer trying to literally build something from scratch. We don’t depend on anybody to create for ourselves. We’ve never had to, we’ve always found ways to reinvest into ourselves, and we put 100 percent into ourselves.

We’re not out here living lavish lifestyles, we’re literally trying to create a brand and a product that people appreciate and love, and it’s for everybody, it’s for our community. A lot of people don’t like that, so we get picked on. But it’s not a matter of us having a victim mentality, it’s about finding new solutions. At the end of the day, if we keep putting in this kind of work, we will have success.

Zenger: What were some other solutions you have employed to mitigate these conflicts?

Todd: We sat in with a few council members to understand where we might be in the wrong, how we should properly be operating. We also receive mentorship from H Street Main Street, which operates through the mayor’s office to help small businesses. We got a lot of guidance and mentorship from them. They make it easier — they write a lot of our letters to our landlord — besides our lawyer, of course. But they teach us how to properly approach these business situations because a lot of this is new ground for us. They have also gotten us grants to help combat this, because when we had to shut down, when we had no income coming in, we had to find ways to alleviate our finances. But also since we vocalize our battles, we get more opportunities.

Zenger: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs just starting out?

Todd: The best advice is to just do it.  Then you need to firmly believe in yourself, have a product that is good and do it for the right reason. Our reason is we really want to have a quality cultural product for our community. So if you have the right reasons and good motivation, you’ll run into success no matter what. So to anybody starting a business, just start and don’t stop. If you do that, there’s always a solution to whatever comes up.

Zenger: Anything you’d like to add?

Todd: Follow us @jerkatnite on Instagram if you want to see some young brothers really trying to make something happen in the world, join us on our journey. Feel free to comment, reach out if you need help, ideas, conversation, inspiration or even mentorship. That’s one thing, we’re always open to learning. There’s a Jamaican idiom that my mother always says: “Raw meat seek fire.” It means every single day you have to actively look for information and opportunity. As a company, we do that. We love our community and we want to keep being able to serve it.

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)

The post These Black Entrepreneurs Are Battling On Three Fronts To Keep Businesses Alive appeared first on Zenger News.

VIDEO: College Classmates Set Their Sights On Growing Eyewear Industry

Tracey Green and Nancy Harris, owners of Vontélle eyewear company. (Vontélle Eyewear)

BROOKLYN, New York — At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, two enterprising African-American women saw an opportunity to capitalize on their passion for stylish glasses and created their company from scratch.

Tracey Vontelle Green and Nancey Harris of Brooklyn, New York, chose to venture into unchartered waters of the eyewear manufacturing industry during a time when most companies were shutting down.

They launched Vontélle in October 2020, hoping to bring a unique style to the marketplace. Before this venture, they did extensive research to gain an understanding of what their target consumer was looking for in urban contemporary eyewear.

Green, who has been wearing glasses since she was 13, said, “I remember how upset I was when I had to start wearing them. So I said, since I’ve got to wear glasses I want to make a statement. That’s what started my journey of wearing them, not just to see the chalkboard but to be fashionable also.”

Her passion for attention-grabbing fashion started when she was an adolescent fan of syndicated talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael in the 1980s. She became one of the game changers on daytime TV, in one sense, because of her trademark red schoolboy glasses. That look resonated with Green and started her on her quest of sparking interest in her fashion sense when people looked her in the eye.

“Sally Jessy Raphael’s glasses made her look fly,” Green said. “There was an old saying back then that girls with glasses didn’t get passes and I wanted to get passes from boys.”

“After searching high and low for glasses that were stylish and had an ethnic flair, we realized they simply didn’t exist,” Harris said. “That’s when Tracy suggested we start our own line.”

While Green’s penchant for stylish eyewear began out of necessity, Harris was always enamored by the optics. She didn’t start wearing glasses until two years after she graduated from college in 1993. She was working in public relations for an optometrist when she began having difficulty with night glare while driving. She was eventually diagnosed with nearsightedness and needed to start wearing glasses.

Green and Harris met through a personal acquaintance in their freshman year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Their friendship developed quickly, and they became inseparable on campus. As the relationship grew, they remained close even once they were separated after graduation. Their relationship had a profound impact on the development of their company, as it was more than just about creating a look for their customers. They wanted to make an impact in an industry where few African-Americans were gaining access.

“Our eyewear is original, authentic, distinctive, and invites a conversation,” Harris said “Vontélle adds a cultural richness to the marketplace. We are under-represented and under-served in this industry.”

The value of the global eyewear market in 2020 was $149.9 billion, according to data from Grand View Research and Statista, compared with $138.7 billion in 2019. It is estimated to grow to nearly $259 billion by 2027. The U.S. eyewear market, including sunglasses, was valued at about $18 billion in 2019. Harris said African Americans in the U.S. vision care market generate less than $3 million annually.

Last year, even as many American businesses were shutting down, Harris and Green decided the time was right to launch their company.

“The pandemic helped us a little because it allowed us to slow down and develop different styles of frames,” said Green. “Instead of trying to prove who had the better idea, we respected each other’s viewpoints, which is why we now have 34 different styles of frames.”

Vontelle is Green’s middle name and is loosely translated from French as “there she goes,” which fits the women’s business, since each individually crafted frame reflects their mindset when they bought frames for themselves. Green is chief executive officer and focuses on charting their corporate vision; Harris is chief operations officer with a focus on product design. But both women are involved all aspects of the business.

They aim to become the leading African-American woman-owned eyewear design company with their innovative, chic, fashion-forward brand, hoping to carve a niche in the growing market.

They financed their startup by pooling their own resources. As part of their research, they traveled to Fashion Week in Paris, discovering how they stood out in the primarily white and Asian male-dominated industry.

“When we got there, not only did we notice that we were not only the only African-American women there [in the eyewear segment], we were the only women of color,” Green said. “But by the time we left, everyone knew who we were.”

With low overhead and a lab where they create the frames and lenses in the basement of a Brooklyn brownstone, they are able to pass savings on to consumers. Although now officially in the business of eyewear manufacturing, Green and Harris haven’t forgotten the trauma of losing or breaking their glasses. Vontélle offers its customers a free replacement within a year of purchase if glasses are lost or broken.

During the peak of the pandemic, when mask-wearing in public was required, they created stylish facial coverings to match their frames.

Vontélle also partnered with WIN (Women in Need) in New York to help provide eyewear to women who can’t afford them.

(Edited by Judith Isacoff and Matthew B. Hall)

The post VIDEO: College Classmates Set Their Sights On Growing Eyewear Industry appeared first on Zenger News.

Nigerian Refugee Turned Survival To Success As An Entrepreneur

Kingsley Kabari (Courtesy of Kabari Wellness Institute)

Kingsley Kabari is a successful entrepreneur and a happily married man living in Utica, New York. But he wasn’t always the head of a growing health and wellness company, or a chiropractor, or one of the most sought-after muscle-activation specialists in the northeast United States.

In fact, when he came to America a quarter-century ago, he was a penniless 15-year-old refugee who didn’t speak a word of English.

“Most of my childhood friends are dead,” said Kabari. “That changes your perspective. But it never caused me to doubt that God was watching over me, and it inspired me to work hard at everything I do — from learning English as a teenager to getting through college to running my own company.”

Kabari was born in a small village to a small tribe in Nigeria called the Ogoni. (Map by Urvashi Makwana)

A childhood in Nigeria

Kabari was born in a small village to a small tribe in Nigeria called the Ogoni. Life in the village consisted of farming, hunting and fishing. Resources were scarce, especially for Kabari and his mother.

“I was raised by a single mother in a poor village in a male-dominated culture,” said Kabari. “I fixed and cleaned shoes and took whatever money the men in the village gave me. Some days, we didn’t eat.”

On some of those days without food, Kabari and his sister would grind hot pepper, add water, and drink it “to feel full for a while.”

His grandmother and grandfather were part of his life, at a farm 5 to 10 miles from his home. Kabari’s grandmother would often bring meals to her work at the farm; his grandfather was a wine tapper and fisherman.

Abject poverty forced Kabari to become an entrepreneur and businessman at just 10 years old. “I started a shoe repair business to support my mother. I also worked with local construction crews as a laborer to help them carry sand, clean up sites and run errands.”

Nigeria is notorious for government corruption. Kabari’s difficult circumstances were exacerbated by horrific economic and environmental conditions, owing in large part to the presence and practices of Shell oil company in Ogoniland. The Kabaris were forced to flee in the wake of political persecution of the Ogoni people, who had organized a campaign against the region’s devastation and their oppression by the military government.

Kabari became a refugee at 13.

“It took us over a year to go from Nigeria to New Hampshire,” said Kabari. “We ran through underbrush and survived by the skin of our teeth to get to the Republic of Benin, a neighboring nation.” There, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees provided Kabari and other refugees with some food and other resources, but Kabari and his family had to search through brush and in rivers and other areas to find enough to eat because “the food rations from the UNHCR were never enough to last the month.”

Camp life consisted of attending church services on Sundays, prayers at 5:30 a.m. during the week and playing soccer.

“Soccer was a big sport in camp. Since we didn’t speak the local language or have the necessary skills to integrate into the local community, we spent most of the time hanging inside the camp trying to come up with creative ways to survive and get along,” he said.

Adjusting to the U.S.

Coming to the America as a refugee was a colossal challenge. But becoming part of an English-speaking, white culture in New Hampshire was just as difficult for Kabari. Not yet the strong man he would become, he was often the target of bullying.

“I was beat up almost every day after school,” said Kabari. “Some of it was racism, but most of it was simply being different, having no friends and community, and not knowing the language.”

Yet Kabari knew  that being in the U.S. was another shot at life. He was enrolled in English as a Second Language classes and worked to support his family. He graduated high school with a 2.3 grade point average — too low for him to accomplish his goal of formal higher education. His artistic skills earned him enrollment at the Art Institute of Boston, but academic and financial struggles forced him to drop out after one semester.

Kabari, then 20, worked four jobs to keep food on the table. He loved fitness but could not afford a gym membership. Eventually he got a job at the Manchester Family YMCA for two hours a week, which he turned into 10 hours a week to avoid his struggles and troubles outside of the gym.

It was at the YMCA that Kabari met one of the most influential people in his life: Tom Lewry, CEO of Curbstone Financial Management Corp.

“Without Tom, I’m not sure where I’d be,” said Kabari. “He mentored me, treated me like a son and encouraged me to apply to Plymouth State University.”

Kabari, Lewry said in an email, “is a man who understands that love conquers all. When I met him, he was a pleasant, hard-working young man who would go out of his way to help others. These characteristics are why he became the youngest trainer ever hired at our very active YMCA location.”

Lewry said Kabari is “a member of my extended family,” and said that his own life “has been immensely enriched for having Kingsley in it. I am proud to have been a part of his life for two decades.”

Unfortunately, even Lewry’s mentorship and encouragement couldn’t overcome Kabari’s poor grade-point average. Plymouth State turned him down. With Lewry’s support and help, Kabari called the admissions office repeatedly to gain access. “I wanted to send them flowers so they’d see how serious I was, but I didn’t have the money. So I called and emailed every day.”

Kabari’s persistence paid off. He was granted conditional admission and placed in a bridge program. He was given one semester to earn a 2.75 grade-point average, which he accomplished with tutoring while still working 30 hours a week teaching fitness classes and doing personal training.

“At the end of that semester, [David McBride], the associate admissions director, asked me to lunch. I was sure that I was going to be kicked off campus,” said Kabari. “Instead, he started crying and told me, ‘This is the craziest situation I have ever been involved in. Giving you a chance at my old age is one of the best life decisions I have ever made. Congratulations — you made it, Kingsley.’”

McBride has since died, but helping people like Kingsley reach their potential “was what he lived for,” said Plymouth State’s Director of Alumni Relations Rodney Ekstrom. “I knew Kingsley as a student because my job at the time was to facilitate and assist students who had on-campus events. Kingsley regularly brought artists, poets and others to help PSU students understand where he came from and to raise money to help those still in the Niger Delta region. His success since leaving the university comes as no surprise.”

Launching a small business

Kabari’s challenges didn’t end after he graduated from college. He went to Georgia to further his fitness career but struggled to find work and “felt so defeated that I tried to cry — but I couldn’t,” he said. Even then, Kabari said God was looking out for him: A fitness client allowed him to stay rent-free in a 160-square-foot apartment, where Kabari “made more money training clients than I had as a trainer at a modern, fully equipped gym.”

Kabari’s comprehensive health and wellness facility, the Kabari Wellness Institute. (Courtesy of Kabari Wellness Institute)

Kabari eventually attended the New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls and earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree in 2015, and during this time met his wife, Dr. Alsia Kabari.

“I remember thinking on our second date that Kingsley was a special person,” she told Zenger News. “He was transparent, open and comfortable sharing his dreams and aspirations with me. I had never, and still haven’t, met anyone as driven and committed. His hard work, tenacity and decision to not let his past define him captivated and resonated with me.”  

It was also during this time that he founded the Kabari Wellness Institute in Seneca Falls. That business has since evolved into a one-stop health and wellnessfacility, with chiropractic services, a gym with classes, and 13 businesses renting from the institute. The latter include psychotherapists, physical therapists and a medical spa run by Kabari’s wife.

Throughout all the ups and downs of his life, Kabari says he always felt God was looking out for him.

“America was founded on a dream and the opportunity to succeed,” he said. “I’ve experienced racism, and I’ve experienced the opportunity to succeed in my dreams. Coming from frequently missing meals, having to hunt frogs in a refugee camp, to where I am today? That can only come from God, and I will never take what I have for granted.”

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)

The post Nigerian Refugee Turned Survival To Success As An Entrepreneur appeared first on Zenger News.