"I grew up in a family that didn't have a lot of money, but I knew education was the path to success," says John Legend, musician and founder of LRNG, an organization that works to increate educational opportunities for young people. "We focus on teaching because it's such a critical aspect of how we experience learning." Read on for more on how Legend works to inspire teachers, keep kids in school, and grow the conversation about how education and preventing incarceration are intertwined.
Tell us about how your own childhood prompted you to take action to support other kids?
When I was young, I saw education as a pathway out of poverty. But I also saw so many kids not getting the tools they need to do well in school and continue their educations. Unfortunately, in America, there are many people who can't get access education because of the neighborhood they live in or what their parents do for a living. So I wanted to make sure there were options out that for kids to access regardless of their wealth.
What's one way that LRNG supports individual schools?
By focusing on teachers. Kids spend so much time during the week with their teachers, yet there's very little energy in the educational community spent on making sure teachers have the resources they need to innovate and actually incentivize education. I had one particular teacher who inspired my singing career. Before I even met her, I didn't think I had the creativity that I now use for my job every days.
Why did you decide to start your own organization rather than supporting one that already exists?
I don't think we can do anything by ourselves, but I wanted the flexibility to partner with other groups who we really believe are effective and doing the very best for the people that they help. Our strategy isn't, "we can do this alone because we have a great staff." Instead I wanted to use my position as a celebrity to give the cause a voice and amplify what others are doing to help raise money and be more effective.
You've also spoken about your support for the Show Me campaign's #FREEAMERICA movement, which is changing the conversation about incarceration in America. How are LRNG and #FREEAMERICA linked?
The reason I ended up doing #FREEAMERICA is because after I was working in schools, I understood how many of these children's parents are incarcerated. Because of that, the students are living in one-parent home, and not only has the imprisoned parent been locked up, they've also been taken to facilities very far away. So by not addressing it, we are perpetuating the problem.
What's has it been like spending time in some of these prisons?
I've been to men's facilities and women's facilities. I've spoken with prison guards, wardens, inmates, and their families. I've talked to organizations that deal with victims of crimes. So often we think of incarcerated people as thugs who were locked away to keep everyone else safe. But once you hear these people's stories and start to understand why they made the decisions that they made, you start to humanize them and you realize that we need more humane policies to deal with them.
How do you see your fans responding?
I have so much fun engaging with the people who listen to my music about this cause. We recently did a fundraiser at a school in my hometown of Springfield, Ohio. We raised money for an auditorium so that they could have a space to create a performing arts program. But the best way to get involved is to just listen to what's going on in your community. If you see that people are upset and lashing out, think about the policies behind why that might be. Once you understand them, the more you will be able to do to help make them better.
To learn more about this year's group of Shining Stars—and the causes to which they've pledged their unwavering support—pick up the December issue of InStyle, on newsstands and available for digital download now.