Russell Simmons is a hip-hop icon and global celebrity, but chat with him awhile and he expresses that even wealth, fame and power don't guarantee fulfillment if there's no inner peace, or one's environment is chaotic. So at a time when America is grappling with a rash of killings involving police and black civilians, the mogul is pushing to encourage peace and healing in communities nationwide.
"My heart is broken for the families of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and all who've been victimized at the hands of police, and for the law enforcement officers who've senselessly lost their lives," said Simmons, Chairman and CEO of Rush Communications. "While I am saddened and outraged, I realize that throwing my hands up in frustration won't accomplish anything. I want to be part of the process to build trust between police and the community, and provide meaningful gestures that will help with reforms."
In June, Simmons hosted a town hall meeting in Los Angeles to tackle police brutality and issues related to the criminal justice system. Among the panelists was Gregory A. Thomas, then-president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, known as NOBLE. The group, founded in the 1970s, represents some 3,000 primarily African-American chief executive officers of law enforcement agencies at federal, state, county and municipal levels.
Simmons was invited to address NOBLE last week at its 40th annual convention held in Washington, D.C. The conference drew some 1,200 participants from around the country and world for five days of plenary sessions, forums, workshops and networking. Speakers and special guests included U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch; her predecessor, Eric Holder; and Broderick Johnson, an Obama Administration cabinet secretary who chairs the president's "My Brother's Keeper" task force for young men of color.
Police and community relations dominated several discussions at the gathering.
"Some people think if you have conversations with police that perhaps you're a sell-out," said Simmons, an entrepreneur renowned for co-founding Def Jam Recordings in the `80s, and launching Phat Farm clothing in the `90s. Of late, he's penned best-selling books on yoga and veganism, marketed prepaid debit cards and more. "But as a spiritual man who loves everyone, I'm trying to be a bridge."
Now in his 50s and the proud father of two teen daughters, Simmons kicked off his NOBLE visit by speaking to hundreds of high school students who took part in the organization's yearly `Youth Leadership Conference.' Later, he addressed black law enforcement officials for dialogue that encompassed ways to foster more faith in police, reduce community deaths at the hands of law enforcement, and eliminate violence towards officers.
"Black officers have been upset and saddened by some of the sentiments expressed towards them," he continued. "We've been in this country hundreds of years, and what's happening is not new to them. Black officers can sympathize with the movements. And they have a unique role to play as liaisons between the community and their [white] counterparts."
Beyond the exchange of ideas, Simmons said he will partner with NOBLE on projects. The lifestyle impresario also re-affirmed his financial commitment to bolster efforts aimed at strengthening communities around the country. To that end, one of his business enterprises—the prepaid RushCard— will help underwrite innovative programs that promote positive change.
(RushCard recently settled a multimillion class action lawsuit that arose after reported tech glitches affected customer access last year; in a statement, the company's CEO, Ron Hynes, said the team is "dedicated to being a strong presence in our customers' communities.")
Among the community endeavors that Simmons is excited about is The PeaceKeepers, a national non-profit based in Columbus, Ohio that empowers residents (particularly in high crime areas) to patrol their own streets, de-escalate conflict, and serve as ambassadors for peace.
"These are very tense and violent times, but the one thing I think everyone can agree on is the need for peace," said PeaceKeepers founder Dennis Muhammad, a security expert who has guarded Nation of Islam leader Min. Louis Farrakhan and also conducted cultural sensitivity training with police departments around the country. "Peace transcends race, religion, social status, politics or gender."
Founded a decade ago, there are now chapters of The PeaceKeepers in 25 cities that include New Orleans, Houston and several boroughs in New York. Male and female volunteers—who wear signature orange shirts with the motto, `I AM PRESENT FOR PEACE'--are trained in CPR, First Aid, nonviolent crisis resolution and engaging youth. They pledge to devote at least an hour a week to do group patrols, dubbed "the hour of power."
"We are not the police and we're not vigilantes, but we are bringing a message that we must be vigilant," said Muhammad, who says his group holds meetings with local elected officials, residents and law enforcement to discuss mutual goals before coming into neighborhoods. From there, chapters operate fairly independently. "We have not had one incident in 10 years. I like to say we quash the beef, before there's grief."
Simmons, who has been a sponsor of The PeaceKeepers over the years, believes their presence can help uplift communities of color at a critical time. Meanwhile, he plans to continue pressing for improved relations between law enforcement and those whom they are duty-bound to serve.
"We have to make police understand the pain being felt in the community, and also make the community sensitive to their plight as they do their jobs. Ultimately, it's about trying to save lives."