9 minute read

Steven Cleveland

"If you want to impact the world, you just have to be willing to walk in purpose and find your audience."




Q. Thanks for interviewing with us. Tell everyone who you are and what you do?

A. My name is Steven “the prof” Cleveland and I am a filmmaker, educator, and lecturer at Cal State East

Bay’s department of ethnic studies. I’m also an instructor in the department of history.

Also, currently, the chair of, Seeds of Joy Village, which is a pre-K program that I’m proud to be able to explore and play with. I keep all those hats, and do film making in my spare time.

Q. How does it feel to be the first of your family to go to college?

A. It’s interesting. I don’t feel like it’s an isolated experience, it feels like a continuum of what my dad did. My dad got a GI bill he was never able to use because of racism he faced in Alabama which wouldn’t allow him to register for college. So, at six years old, my dad told me I was going to get the master’s degree. I think the only reason why I don’t hold a doctorate is because that’s what he told me. After I was done, I was like, “Shoot! I’ve done when he asked me to do, my MFA.” For me, I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of my ancestors in general, but specifically walking into the footsteps of Jerry Cleveland, who was very clear about expectations.

Q. Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?

A. I’ve been fortunate to have

Charles Burnett who has inspired me to become a filmmaker as my mentor. It’s really exciting as a filmmaker to have both Charles

Burnett and Larry Clark, who are legends in the black arts movement; particularly they are part of the LA Rebellion which is a group of black filmmakers that came out of UCLA in late sixties, early seventies. It’s just really awesome to have them as mentors in that journey of telling stories that deal with and explore black humanity.

Q. As a male leader what has been the most significant barrier in your career?

A. I think one of the biggest challenges has been to stay leaning forward, which is the posture you must have as a leader.It is crucial to be leaning forward into the next thing, asking questions like “what’s next” and deliberating on how to answer those questions and how to move. The other barrier has been systemic racism. I think systemic racism’s most devious attribute is the fact that you can’t tell sometimes if your struggles are connected to your lack of ability, your lack of charisma, your lack of knowledge or lack of skills, or if it’s because people are racist.

The biggest headwind is when you don’t find success, I use that term because there’s no such thing as failures, all of those things that don’t go the way you planned them are lessons. You can’t really get that full lesson if you can’t discern a difference between, “hey, I just didn’t have the skills,” or “wow, that was racism in place.” I think systemic racism is one of those

ever-present beings that makes it difficult to do the process of triaging once you run into a roadblock. It’s hard to figure out “what do I do different,” when it’s not apparent how systemic racism moves.

Q. Tell us some goals you are working on accomplishing?

A. Right now, I have embraced building more sustainably. What

I mean by that is when I was younger, I tried to do all 1315 projects on my film slate, as well as all these innovative ideas I had around promoting black excellence in collegiate space. I think now I have a different approach. I realized

I don’t have to do all this stuff today, or this year. I can build things over the course of the next decade. For instance, a project I’m working on that’s exploring and amplifying the story of MLK’s five-day trip in 1959 to Hawaii is a way to begin to have conversations about what’s next for black folks in

America, by granting the youth of today access to the past and the stories of the past and lessons of the past, curated by us, who are leaders in the moment. I look at how to approach that project, which has all these different arms. A younger me, would have tried to do everything in year one. Now, I have a 3-5year sense of this project. I don’t know which of those many different legs of the project are going to take off. It’s really about being obedient and listening, not only to your intellectual truth, in terms of like what you think you know about how to make things happen or not, but also listening to that spiritual truth too, about how it feels and going with the flow and not trying to push, boulders up a hill that aren’t really going smoothly.

Q. What advice would you give to someone that wants to make

an impact in the world?

A. The one thing that’s clear to me about impacting the world is that you have to remove your ego. If you want to impact the world, you just have to be willing to walk in your purpose and find your natural audience.

Avoid saying, “I want to have a million followers.”

But instead say, “Hey, I want to do something in this particular field that matters.”

I think that’s the important piece of it - not being stuck on size. A mother who is a stay-at-home mom has an enormous amount of input and impact on the child that she’s rearing, as opposed to a person who’s a nuclear physicist who may have a smaller part in the evolution of thought in regards to a really big item. Secondly, walk in your purpose to be open to flow into your purpose. Do not do the thing that you think is easiest or the thing that you think is going to get the most likes or follows or money per se, but trying to find the thing that fulfills you, the thing that brings you joy. Pursue whatever it is that makes you feel good physically, spiritually, and intellectually. Walk in your purpose and accept the impact as it lands.

Understand that the journey and how you do things is more important than the destination and how other people may perceive it.

Q. Can you give us some books you can recommend on leadership?

A. I read this book called The

Dream Begins: How Hawaii

Shaped Barack Obama by

Jerry Burris. I don’t know if the book is on leadership per se, but it was interesting for me because it examines Barack’s leadership, who he was and who he became. It was really interesting to look at the influence of how Hawaiian culture is and how people are accepted for being who they are. To me, what I took away from this frame was an understanding of why Barack was able to have the success, the impact he had, and the impact actually came from the cultural norms that are in Hawaii. The way that diverse people interact is fascinating in how people hold onto that diversity as opposed to losing it. Whereas, the one-drop rule made it such that if you’re a black person in America, then that becomes the primary intersection for you, your primary identifying marker. Barack was in this place where that wasn’t a requirement. His choice to embrace his blackness as opposed to being forced to embrace his blackness, really led him to be a different type of leader. To me, this book really gave me an insight on leadership for black folks. It’s really shaping some of the work I’m doing in terms of A King in Paradise, now looking at ways that I can support and create that kind of space where people can choose into their Blackness as opposed to being forced to be Black.

Q. What are you most grateful for?

A. I’m most grateful for having a mother and father who were present for me. It’s one of the biggest blessings I think I’ve had in this world. I’ve also had the favor of people and been cared for. I’ve had

Ma and Pa Lewis, who were my best friend’s mother and father, as well to be there. I’ve been fortunate to have Ms. Faust-Whitmore who was my dean in high school. I had so many people, I apologize for those who I didn’t mention. It was just this amazing list of folks that I was fortunate enough to be around, but it all started with mom & pops.

I think they’re the ones that held

the space for me and lifted me up in a way that really helped make the things that I was able to achieve possible.

Q. Are you working on any new events or upcoming projects?

A. Yeah, I talk about this A King in Paradise project, and it’s got so many different legs to it. Our initial launch was going to be with a lecture series, and we actually launched it in the spring and are relaunching again for the school year. It is going to explore topics like financial literacy, health literacy, police & protest, and explaining to people what critical race theory is. Plus, there’s a virtual gallery exhibit that we’re going to be launching in January. This exhibit will challenge the notion of what people think about

Black humanity and shows that we’re not a monolithic people by highlighting Black

Hawaiian’s stories and their articulation of the impact of space and place on their sense of who they are. That is all part of the A King in Paradise project which will be rolling out over the course of the next 3-5 years. It also will include a curriculum that we’re launching in partnership with Chaminade University, a summer summit which we’re developing to bring together black students from all over the country, a documentary film, and a VR experience where you get to see MLK perform his speech in Hawaii. You have all these wonderful pieces of that. That is one big piece of what I’m doing over the next few years.

In addition to that work, in terms of scholarship, I’m exploring Black excellence. Black excellence and the upside of it being that the idea that we feel that we have to work 10 times harder means that it pushes us to be excellent at things. However, sometimes that excellence returns results that are viewed as regular results. We shouldn’t have to work exceptionally hard to get regular results. This project is going to be exploring that through the stories of Black students who graduate in two years as transfers and four years starting as freshmen. These students are beating the gap in terms of numbers of Black students graduating in these timeframes. We’re going to explore these stories as a way to understand, what works and what are the challenges to helping them achieve these goals. Also, the notion of “do they have to be exceptional to be able to achieve these normal goals?” The idea of graduating in two years as a transfer and four for a freshman, it’s what we would hope to be likely scenarios, but, for black students in particular this goal is not being achieved as frequently.

Q. Where can the readers follow you?

A. They can check me out on

Instagram & Facebook @ theproflife or @akinginparadise to learn about that project, they can also visit my website akinginparadise.com.