Shawon Jackson: Public Speaking Empowers Socially Conscious Black and Brown Leaders
Hi everyone, Spiffy here, your one and only interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. I’m thrilled to be talking to an entrepreneur working on UN SDG4: Quality Education, and making the world a more equitable place. Shawon Jackson, the founder & CEO, Vocal Justice, is amplifying the voices of socially conscious leaders. Are you ready to be enlightened?
Spiffy: Welcome Shawon, it’s so great to have you here today. Let’s jump right in. Can you tell me what challenges you’re addressing?
Shawon: Thanks so much for having me, Spiffy. Our mission at Vocal Justice is to empower undervalued Black and Brown youth to become socially conscious leaders through a culturally affirming public speaking program. We help students develop a deeper understanding of how they can use their voice to tackle the very injustices they have seen and experienced firsthand, along with the persuasion and storytelling skills to do so. Ultimately, our students will become justice-oriented civic leaders, who constantly use their voice to advocate for a kinder, more just world—wherever they choose to lead in life.
Spiffy: The voice is a powerful tool! What motivated you to focus on teaching public speaking skills to young people?
Shawon: When I was six, my principal called me into the office. I thought I was in trouble. But instead, my principal, a Black woman, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “I want you to give a speech for Black History Month.” Looking back, that moment—delivering a spoken-word piece in front of hundreds of people at a local community college—helped me feel confident in my voice as a young Black boy from an under-resourced community. I want to help other marginalized youth feel the same.
Spiffy: It sounds like a stellar way to pay it forward! Can you tell me how Vocal Justice is working to create a more equitable world?
Shawon: Well, Spiffy, at the beginning of 2021, we selected 15 high school teachers from more than 80 applicants across the United States to facilitate our program at their respective schools. We provided teachers with compensation and training to do so. Collectively, our teachers engaged over 200 students in our program this spring. Students who went through our program reflected on and shared their personal stories learned about social justice issues and honed their storytelling and advocacy skills.
Spiffy: Have you achieved any milestones you’re proud of? What kind of impact do you anticipate?
Shawon: Thankfully, I won the Social Innovation Fellowship at Stanford University, which provides $110,000 in funding and leadership coaching to advance my work with Vocal Justice. This funding milestone will allow our organization to scale our program next school year. We hope to engage over 1,000 students during the 2021-2022 school year. This funding will also allow us to hire a program manager, who will help us revise our program curriculum and improve our teacher training efforts.
Spiffy: I’m always curious about how entrepreneurs deal with failure. What about you, Shawon? Can you tell me about a time when you faced failure and didn't give up? What did you learn?
Shawon: I had hoped to survey hundreds of students to measure the true impact of our work this past spring. It was much harder than I thought to get people to complete surveys, and some of the surveys I did get were incomplete or inaccurate. Our team pushed through and gathered as many surveys as we could, though. I learned that you can’t rush any process; it takes time to do something right. I also learned that you can (and should!) ask for help; planning and executing on your own won’t get you far.
Spiffy: That sounds like a hard but necessary lesson. Thank you for stopping by to talk to me about Vocal Justice, Shawon, it’s been an honor!
Shawon Jackson is the founder and CEO of Vocal Justice, Before launching Vocal Justice, Shawon worked with a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic, and with Deloitte Consulting in the D.C. area. He went to Princeton University for undergraduate studies, earned his MBA from Stanford University, and an MPP from Harvard University. When he’s not working, Shawon loves to dance hip-hop, bachata, and merengue. (Nominated by GenUnity. First published on the Ladderworks website on June 22, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.