Editor-in-Chief/ Co-President of GlobalGrind.com and Political Director to Russell Simmons, Michael Skolnik is engaging diverse audiences in news, entertainment, fashion and politics, providing a platform for the multicultural society we live in.
Rachel Goldstein: What inspires you most?
Michael Skolnik: I am deeply inspired by the courage and achievements of young people who didn’t have the safety nets I had growing up. I have been fortunate to travel our country and the world and meet amazing young people who are doing extraordinary things with very few resources. When a young person is not eating three meals a day but still getting perfect grades at school, or when a young person deals with trauma at a young age yet still makes it to college, these are the things that inspire me. I know how good I had it growing up. I am not ashamed nor have any guilt of the hand I was dealt; however, I have tried my entire life to play that great hand not just for myself but for the benefit of all of us.
RG: What makes you happy?
MS: I remember in 2005, I was flying home from South Africa. I knew that I would be spending my entire birthday on an airplane. I had been in Swaziland and South Africa filming a movie about King Mswati III, the last ruling monarch on the continent. And here I was, flying home, after spending an amazing ten days in southern Africa filming a movie that I was getting paid to make. And on the screen in front of me Akeelah and the Bee was playing. I looked out the window, and I started to cry. I couldn’t believe how good a life I had. My grandfather, who passed in 1997, would always remind me of the Mark Twain quote, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I have been so damn lucky to be able to do what I love my entire life. I never take that for granted.
RG: What makes you vulnerable?
MS: I am certainly vulnerable when I sit down with parents who have lost their children to gun violence. The emotion that they experience is so foreign to me that I find it very hard to say the right things.
RG: What was your first encounter with Russell Simmons, and when did you know you were going to work with him?
MS: I remember when I was eight years old, walking to the bus stop. I had a cheap Walkman, one of those that only had a fast forward, so you had to take the tape out and flip it over if you wanted to rewind. Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rocked rhymes — I repeated over and over again. I tried to repeat the lyrics until perfection. I was eight. I was hip-hop. I was white. Run-DMC was my first introduction to Russell Simmons. Then it was the Beastie Boys. Then LL Cool J. Then Will Smith. Then late at night, if I could stay up, I would see this guy say, “God bless and good night” at the end of Def Comedy Jam on HBO.
I didn’t meet Russell until 2003 when he asked my friend, Rebecca Chaiklin, to film a documentary about his quest to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws. She asked me to co-direct the movie with her, and I happily accepted. We made the film, Lockdown, USA and spent three years filming Russell and his crew.
After President Obama was elected, I knew that I wanted to part of that movement. Not necessarily to move to D.C. and work for the administration, but I had to be part of where this country was headed. Russell and I met, and he asked me if I would be his Political Director, as well as work with him on GlobalGrind.com, a website he had just started, targeting the Obama generation, this new American mainstream: multiracial but singular, cultural. What we now call hip-pop. I left the film business and have been rockin’ with Russell ever since.
RG: Tell us more about GlobalGrind.com?
MS: What attracted to me to work with GlobalGrind was the potential to reach an audience that was eager to push this country forward. We cover entertainment, celebrity news, music, style, and fashion but have a strong passion for social justice stories as well. I tell my staff that we want to become the voice of the generation. It is OK to want to fight for justice for Trayvon Martin but also care about who wore what on the red carpet at the MTV Music Awards. Fighting for social justice is not about leaving the mainstream. It is about being right in the middle of it.
RG: Given your past as a filmmaker, what issues did your films cover?
MS: The films we made were always about young people and those in struggle. I wanted to tell stories about people who didn’t have the chance to tell their own. I remember sitting in a juvenile detention center back in 2003, developing a film about young girls in struggle. There was a particular girl who seemed like she was never getting out. Nobody wanted her; even the system didn’t want her. She was a fighter. But as we did our theater workshop with her, she opened up, stopped fighting, started to dream again. I asked her, “If there were one place in the world that you could go, where would it be?” And she said, “Paris.” Two years later, I was in Paris premiering the film On the Outs, which I co-directed and [which] was inspired by the work that we did in that juvenile detention center. That young girl couldn’t get to Paris yet, but her story was playing in front of thousands of people.
RG: What is the Dot2Dot Summit?
MS: I felt that there was a neglected space for young leaders from all walks of life to come together with the goal of building life-long relationships and partnerships that can inspire great work together. I felt so lucky to have so many interesting friends, but there wasn’t a place to bring them all together. So, we created this group called Dot2Dot, which is an annual summit, this year being our fourth, that allows for two days of intense but always respectful conversation about the future of our generation. It is the most diverse room I have ever been a part of. I respect the Clinton Global Initiative and the TED conference, but those weren’t built for us. We needed to build our own, and we did. We are going to expand it in 2013, with more programming and more members. It is the most important work I have done in my life.
RG: How would you guide the youth of today in hopes of providing a platform for a healthy future for our country?
MS: Stop the bullsh*t. Stop drawing lines in the sand like previous generations [have done]. Some of my dearest friends are Republicans, and some of my dearest friends hate politics. I love the Dave Matthews Band as much as I love Biggie Smalls. And that is OK. We can live nuanced, complicated, exciting lives with no reason for limitation. I love this generation so much. I think we have the potential to connect the world in a way that can save hundred of millions of lives. That should be our goal. Let us not aspire to four-year goals but rather forty-year goals.
RG: What does “social justice” mean to you?
MS: I believe that it is my job to fight for the rights of others to have the same rights that I take for granted. As a white, American male, I have had it quite good. I recognize that and fight every day for everyone to have the same opportunities that I have had.
RG: What local steps do you take to make a global impression?
MS: I just try to walk the walk. I try to live every day with the utmost honesty and integrity to myself and the people around me. I think leading by example is important, as I know the next generation is watching us. My grandmother taught me two very important lessons before she passed: hold the door for everyone and always say “thank you.” That means to treat everyone the same, no matter if it is the President or a homeless mother begging for food. And never forget to thank those who have helped you, whether it is the person serving you food at a restaurant or your third-grade teacher who taught you the multiplication tables.
RG: What advice would you give your future children to help them stay balanced?
MS: Listen to Dave Matthews and Biggie Smalls. Do ballet and play football. Sing and dance. Laugh and cry. Go to countries where you don’t speak the language. Eat food that looks like you may not like it. Read all of the holy books. Damn, you got me really preparing to be a dad right now. I hope when we have a child, he or she will be proud of our work. My girlfriend, the amazing director, writer, actress, and activist Paola Mendoza, has been with me for thirteen years and has been a huge inspiration to me. I know our kids will be OK, as long as they listen more to their mother than to me!
RG: If you were in political office one day, what would your platform look like?
MS: I love my job, and I love learning every day from the guy who helped create the culture I grew up in. That is an absolute blessing. I am focused right now on the work we have to do today. I see the urban community decimated by the “War on Drugs.” I see a lack of vision and commitment in this country to eradicate poverty. I see our education system failing our young people in poor neighborhoods. We no longer dream in this country. We have a brilliant and compassionate politician in the White House, yet his colleagues in Congress want to defer our dreams to score political points. We must change the culture of politics first.
RG: When you go to sleep at night, do you feel accomplished that you are making a difference in the world?
MS: I wish I could be more satisfied with the work that we have accomplished, but when I see others still struggling, I am reminded that our work is not done. I will go to my grave wishing that I did more. Wishing that I didn’t sleep as much. Wishing that I didn’t waste so much time. Wishing that I fought harder. I don’t focus on the results. Put my head down, put my hoodie up, and do the work. By the way, I haven’t said it once in this interview, but let me close by saying, “Justice for Trayvon Martin.”
RG: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
MS: I only go to the gym and run four times a week so I can eat Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream every night.