Robert F. Smith and Generosity by Example

Generosity is never wasted and always the right choice.

Robert F. Smith, the wealthiest black man in America, used some of his commencement speech over the weekend to announce that he would be paying off the student loan debt of every single graduate of Morehouse College’s class of 2019. The debt varies by student but is estimated to be worth $40 million. His surprise news was met with cheers and tears, making a memorable day an even more significant one.

Before this weekend, not many people had really heard Robert F. Smith’s name before, but he’s been a quiet philanthropist for years. The New York Times reports that Smith has a long history of giving, including major gifts to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in D.C. Back in January, Smith donated $1.5 million to Morehouse to fund student scholarships and a new park on campus.

“I’m putting some fuel into your bus, “ Smith told the audience at Morehouse. “I’m counting on you to load up that bus.”

When I read about this generosity – this extreme act of kindness – my heart was so full. Many of the students took on loans, with every intent to graduate and pay them back, and now they instead are charged with paying it forward. Finances aside, this is such a symbolic act that Mr. Smith and his family performed. He could have taken that same money and had a building named after him on campus, or a statue built in his honor. Instead, he found a functional way to use that cash that would have a significant, direct impact on the receivers. It was money he gave with no intentions of seeing it come back — money that he said he hopes is paid forward many times over.

Like many others, I was moved by this deliberate generosity — as a college graduate, a parent and an advocate for educational opportunity. It is important that those of us who have been in the trenches fighting for whatever our cause pay that hard work forward to the next generation. It’s why I am still so passionate about better school choice options for ALL children, even though my own children are grown and out of my home. I continue to fight for better educational opportunities because I quickly learned that they were all my children – the ones showing up to our community meetings with their parents, looking for better futures for their entire families. The children coming with us to the steps of the Capitol to petition for those brighter futures. The more than 11,000 children who have benefitted from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program since its inception in 2004.  They are all mine. All of their futures are my responsibility.

Robert F. Smith recognized this too – his responsibility to the young people who were not his by blood. He made the choice to improve their lives using the resources he has worked so hard to acquire – and the 400 graduates of the Morehouse Class of 2019 will benefit for years to come.