Hank Willis Thomas

Artist at Large, Photo Conceptual Artist, Contemporary Visionary

What is the significance of Black History Month to you?

“I think it’s ever changing, isn’t it? That’s the beauty of it. One of the things we’re becoming more and more aware of is that African-American history is just American history. There was a time in which African-American accomplishments and contributions to American history and culture were kind of undervalued and ignored and now it’s become part of the everyday experience of American culture in history. And Black history month is becoming a greater celebration of contributions of AA in a much broader sense.”

What was the most poignant moment in black history for you?

“I think every day. I think we sometimes forget that history is being made every day by people who aren’t famous. We’re all constantly making history. I think it’s important to not just highlight the “heroes” but to also recognize the people that are doing the work with their heads down. There are moments that are happening that aren’t celebrated that are just as important. I think it’s important to know that the time is always now.”

Growing up, who were the African-American icons that you looked up to for inspiration and why?

“It sounds cliché, but I would say my grandmother. She was a pretty pious and modest person. But she also had strength and courage and her capacity to love. Having grown up in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I learned about African American icons through osmosis. It was always “there”, and my father was a Black panther. I also think about photographers like James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks would be important. Also of importance would be contemporary peers of my mother like James Baldwin.”

With your success, Oprah’s, and others, where do you see the direction of black history?

“Living in this moment, having a multi-ethnic president of African descent, and recognizing that things that we thought were impossible years ago are a reality today. I would hope that African Americans stop seeing themselves as limited to things that the group is supposed to be good at or care about. Having come back from South Africa and Kenya, recognizing the symbiosis and condensation that has been going on at an international level with African-Americans across the Atlantic, I would like us think about things on a global scale. I think there is a greater connectivity with the history of progress with human evolution that I think African American history often overlooks. We tend to think a little bit about Mendela and apartheid but we really don’t pay much attention to African independence and African movements and progress made in the Caribbean and even Europe. I would hope that in the future we stop being so America-centric and see ourselves more as global citizens and realizing that just as Martin Luther King Jr and his peers had gained a lot of their knowledge through global perspectives, looking at Gandhi for example, that we start to think about ourselves in a global context.”


Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Hank Willis Thomas, a prominent photo conceptual artist, grew up surrounded by art and culture. His father, also Hank Thomas, dabbled in many career fields and his mother, Deborah Willis, is a renowned art photographer and University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Hank was consistently around culture and photographs but it was never his intent to pursue an art career.

“I’ve never really expected to be interested in art,” said Hank. “I actually, in a sense, fell into it.”

Hank’s interest in art intensified around high school. He joined the museum studies program which led him to study and receive his BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco.

“[These experiences] gave me a great foundation in critical thinking and thinking about how images can tell stories,” said Hank. “All of these different experiences combined to give me a foundation to a career where I almost kind of followed in my mother’s footsteps.”

His work has been featured in several publications including 25 under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers (CDS, 2003) and 30 Americans (RFC, 2008), as well as his monograph Pitch Blackness (Aperture, 2008). Running themes in Hank’s works revolve around racial and cultural identity, history, and pop culture.

“There isn’t really a formal process for me because a lot of the work comes out of research, and experimentation, and really involves me coming upon other materials and just pondering them for an extended period of time and formulating this interesting interaction,” Hank said.

His single and collaborative pieces have exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and internationally. Hank’s works have been showcased in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. He collects his inspiration from many different resources.

“I get inspiration from pop culture, I get inspiration from historical archives, I get inspired by everyday people,” Hank said. “Anyone who is open or vulnerable or exposes themselves to new ideas or exposes their ideas to the rest of the world is an inspiration for me.”


Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

One of his more recent collaborative works, Question Bridge: Black Males, is an innovative video installation that initiates a dialogue with over 150 Black men from different cities across the nation. The installation invites visitors into a space where they view an intimate exchange between the subjects of the project. Question Bridge constructs a platform for contributors to represent and redefine black male identity in the U.S.

“If you look at projects like Question Bridge: Black Males, it’s really trying to show that there is as much diversity in any demographic as much as there is out of it. It’s really trying to encourage us to listen to, and to applaud the people that go against traditional measurements of success and to recognize that we all have something to contribute,” said Hank.

Visit www.hankwillisthomas.com or Follow @hankwthomas

Marcus Stroud

Noted NFL Veteran, 3x Pro Bowl Selection, 3x All-Pro Selection

What is the significance of Black History Month to you?

“It’s the celebration of everyone who paved the way for me to be able to do the things I’m doing today. To me, every day we move forward is a celebration of the things African Americans have done to make progress. This is just the month where we officially take time to celebrate all of the great achievements.”

What was the most poignant moment in black history for you?

“That’s really hard to answer since there are so many moments. I think I would be doing in an injustice if I were to label just one. There are too many pivotal moments to be able to pick just one.”

Growing up, who were the African-American icons that you looked up to for inspiration and why?

“The most obvious ones that I looked up to were Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, for their leadership and for being able to unite people and get them focused. Even though both had different ideas fundamentally, they were able to get people to come together for the greater good.”

Where do you see the direction of black history?

“I still think we have a lot of history to be made. Our story is never done. There’s always somebody that will make a difference every day.”


A self-proclaimed “country boy” from South Georgia, NFL veteran and philanthropist Marcus Stroud remains humble and grateful for his experiences during and after the NFL. Marcus was the 13th overall pick in the 2001 draft and played for 10 years in the NFL for teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Buffalo Bills.

“I started playing football my junior year of high school,” said Marcus. “My goal was to go to college and obtain a degree first, and if I was fortunate enough to make the NFL, it was a bonus.”

His talents and leadership were quickly recognized. As a high school senior, Marcus was selected to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1996, when he committed to play college ball at the University of Georgia, UGA. Marcus graduated with his bachelor’s degree and remains a proud member of Phi Beta Sigma, a predominantly African-American Fraternity.

After being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Marcus made a name for himself as a rising Defensive all-star. He successfully earned a trip to the NFL Pro Bowl for three consecutive seasons.

When asked the most important lesson he learned during his tenure in the NFL, Marcus responded “Never take anything for granted. You always think you can bounce back from an injury or something like that and sometimes that’s not the case,” said Marcus. “So don’t take anything for granted, that’s my number one lesson.”

In 2008, Marcus was traded to the Buffalo Bills and became one of the team’s integral defensive talents. He worked hard to become the starting Defensive Tackle where he became one of the most dominant and versatile players until 2011 when he signed with the New England Patriots. In June 2012, Marcus signed a 1-day contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars to retire as a Jaguar.

“It was a no-brainer. [Jacksonville] is where I played most of my career and it was where I had most of my success,” said Marcus. ”Even though I embraced other teams like the Buffalo Bills, I’ll always be a Jaguar for life.”

Marcus has not only accomplished great success on the football field, but he also has a passion for entrepreneurial endeavors off the field.

“I just obtained my graduate degree, and now I’m studying to get my insurance license,” Marcus said. “I’m still trying to keep my options open, perhaps get into broadcasting one day.”


Given his successful career, Marcus also realizes the importance of giving back to the community. He has contributed countless hours to charity and in 2007, he established the Marcus Stroud Charitable Foundation to assist under-privileged youth in low-income single parent homes. The mission of the foundation is to raise support by improving and enriching the lives of under-privileged children by offering various academic and athletic programs otherwise unavailable to them.

“A lot of people helped along my journey, and I wanted to pay it forward and give back,” Marcus said. ‘it’s evolved so much, it’s now at the point where [the foundation] is about bringing awareness to the childhood obesity problem,” said Marcus. “It’s one of my focus and goals right now.”

An elite yet humble athlete, business-savvy yet philanthropic entrepreneur, Marcus continues to make impacts on and off the field.

Visit www.marcusstroudfoundation.org or Follow @marcusstroud99

Shawne Merriman

Noted NFL Veteran, 3x Pro Bowl Selection, 3x All-Pro Selection

What is the significance of Black History Month?

“Black History Month allows those that have been a positive influence on the world – those that I looked up to growing up because they were doing something big – to take a month and acknowledge the special things they’ve accomplished.

What was the poignant moment in Black history?

“If you’re talking about sports, then it would be Doug Williams, a quarterback in the NFL who broke barriers. In business, it would be Michael Jordan, as the owner of a NBA team and an all-around business mogul who transcended being just an athlete. Magic Johnson would also be in that conversation, overcoming his personal challenges and going on to becoming an owner of a baseball team.

Who were the African-American icons you looked up to and why?

“It was the athletes I just mentioned. I think every athlete always models their dream to other athletes growing up. It wasn’t until I was old enough to be in the position they’re in now to realize you can be more than just a player. You have the ability to be an owner. That, to me, means more than any dunk or Super Bowl. They’re owners of something now. They worked to stake their place in this world. “

Where do you see the direction of Black History?

“It’s going to keep opening up doors. Obama’s election gave people hope to enter many different areas that blacks weren’t allowed to be in previously. It’s incredible what impact the hope alone has done for people nowadays.”

From the gridiron to the boardroom, Shawne Merriman proves that there is life after playing professional football. Growing up in a rough and tumble neighborhood in Maryland, Shawne avoided the negativity and managed to channel his energy into something positive. He knew that there was more out there for him.

“We struggled financially and I definitely had a rough upbringing but it molded me into the person I am today,” said Shawne.


Shawne’s outstanding talent in football emerged quickly. He earned the nickname “Lights Out” in high school knocking out four guys in one football game as a high school sophomore. After which the name stuck with him through college and when he was a first round draft pick. Merriman then played in the NFL for teams such as the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills.

“I was blessed to even be there on this grand stage, and it was something I dreamed about as a kid,” Shawne said when reflecting on his career in the NFL.

He also dedicates his time to the “Lights On Foundation” which hold annual coat drives as well as specially community projects such as rebuilding home for wildfire relief in San Diego. As for life after the NFL, Merriman says his goal is to “Keep grinding and building my own personal empire and myself.”

He is working on completing his MBA, doing commentary work on NFL Network, and having roles in TV and movies. Shawne is also working on a lifestyle line aptly named “Lights Out” which features “athletic but still fashionable” apparel for men and women.

“The quote of the company is ‘push the limit’, it’s about doing everything to the fullest and giving 110%, and accepting nothing less”, said Shawne. “Right now, I’m working, having fun and doing what I love to do”.


After overcoming many adversities, the future is bright for Shawne. With multiple projects in the queue, along with a budding television career, he gives his advice to those who endure some hardships as he did.

“Keep looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, keep looking at people who are breaking down the barriers and doing stuff that 60, 70 years ago that couldn’t have been done,” said Shawne.

His recommendation for those that want to be the next Shawne Merriman… “Be better than Shawne Merriman, keep going, there are no ceilings. You’re going to have obstacles, you’re going to have adversities, but at the end of the day, don’t stop, just never stop.”

Visit www.shawnemerriman.com or Follow @shawnemerriman

Stefanie Brown James

CEO and Founder of Vestige Strategies, Founder of Brown Girls Lead, In charge of the African-American vote for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

What is the personal significance of Black history Month to you?

“It’s important to say that black history is American history and it’s global history. I was just in Morocco a few weeks ago and to see the influence of American culture which really is intertwined and often times shaped by black culture was amazing. From music, to dress, to slang to a lot of different elements, and so much of that has been influenced by those who helped to shape the culture and made sure that black people had a voice and were able to be unique in how we are. I’m particularly tied to the more social justice activists of the past. I think one of our proudest moments as it relates to activism was the young people during the civil rights movement that sacrificed a lot and they were only kids and I think it’s really important that we continue to let our children know about black history, where we come from, and continue to try to shape history even now.”

What was the poignant moment in Black History for you?

“The founding of the NAACP in 1909, and it was a multicultural group of people who were committed to seeing the advancement of black people in this country. At that time, the biggest thing they worked on was anti-lynching laws. Just the bravery that it took for these men and women across the country to form this organization and form chapters across the country was significant. These [people] were in the face of real danger and a lot of people lost their lives, many of who we would never know their names or their sacrifices. That bravery element just speaks so much. Almost anything we go through nowadays is nothing compared to what they went through. If they could do it, we could do it too. That’s always something very empowering for me to remember as I try to do the work that I do.“

Growing up, who were the African-American icons you looked up to and why?

“Not a shock that many of them are women. Juanita Jackson Mitchell was the founder of the youth and college division of NAACP and she was also instrumental in cases like the Scottsboro Boys case and was just a real pioneer as it relates to a woman who was involved in civil rights. Women like Ella Baker who helped to find the student non-violent coordinating committee who also was a field director for NAACP. She really helped to mold generations after her to be involved in civil rights.” Present-day, I continue to be enamored with Oprah. My husband’s probably so tired of me talking about Oprah. I love Oprah. I’m hoping to meet her one day. I like her business-savvy and now as an entrepreneur, she is a person who I look up to for being able to really do things her way.

Where do you see the direction of Black History?

“I think one thing that’s great with the space that I’m involved in now is to literally see my peers who are shaping black history every day. It’s very exciting for many unsung heroes who are working very diligently to continue to work towards the advancement of the black community and to work for fairness and justice. I think that there is so many more young people who want to be leaders and they want to make history, American history, world history and our job is to really give back to them. 1) to make sure they know their history and 2) to help them see how they can play a role in shaping what the country is, what we do, and how we’re viewed in the world.”


Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, Stefanie Brown James knew that a career in government affairs and civil rights was the path for her. She started to get involved in civil rights when she joined the Cleveland Youth Council of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She then moved on to a prestigious education at Howard University which led to a job opportunity at the NCAAP.

“I’ve always been a real history buff,” she said. “To know where we come from, and all the people who sacrificed to make it possible for us to experience the freedom that we have today, I wanted to be part of that legacy.”

As part of the field staff at NAACP, Stefanie became akin to working long hours and after seeing the dedication of everyday people, she knew that it was truly an honor to be part of the NAACP legacy.

“If you can work at NAACP, you can work anywhere,” she said. “The people I met along the way and who assisted me, the passion, the dedication, and what they taught me is probably my biggest takeaway from my experience at the association.”

In 2012, after a long hiring process, Stefanie was then hired to work for the most powerful man in the world, President Barack Obama, as the National African-American Vote Director for the 2012 Obama for America Campaign.


“To work for the 1st black president, it was an amazing god-given opportunity,” she said. “My experience in working for the NAACP prepared me for the position.”

Her duty was to organize the African-Americans for Obama program and also manage the national strategy to engage African-American leaders and voters to register and re-elect President Barack Obama.

“We worked hard, a lot of effort went into this campaign,” she said. “It wasn’t a fluke that African-American voters turned out in the highest rates ever.”

President Obama’s re-election campaign did not come without difficulties. Many members of the African-American community were perhaps skeptical or felt let down by what they thought the President should have accomplished during the first term. It was Stephanie’s job to change that mindset.

“At the end of the day, you have a choice… black people were energized because they knew how important voting was to their lives and that it made a difference,” she said.

Building upon her career, Stefanie is now the CEO and founding partner of Vestige Strategies that specializes in grassroots community engagement, public affairs and government relations as well as being the Founder of Brown Girls Lead, a leadership development organization focused on building a strong pipeline of collegiate, black women leaders.

Stefanie founded the program after a speaking engagement at her alma mater. The female attendees informed her that a career in government was not ideal because it wasn’t “attractive to men”.


“I was just blown away, this was not our legacy as black women at Howard,” she said. “After talking with my husband, we were able to form Brown Girls Lead to help collegiate women in their personal, professional, and public lives.”

As Stefanie’s endeavors continue to grow, she certainly recognizes the impact and importance of Black History Month to future generations.

Visit www.StefanieBrownJames.com or Follow @StefBrownJames