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Best known for his high-profile relationship with Oprah, Stedman Graham has quietly built a reputation for community service

Kam Williams
Best known for his high-profile relationship with Oprah, Stedman Graham has quietly built a reputation for community service
Athletes Against Drugs (AAD) Founder Stedman Graham is pictured with local participants of his youth empowerment program. (Photo: Larry Englehart)

Best known for his high-profile relationship with Oprah, Stedman Graham has quietly built a reputation for community service

Stedman Graham was born on March 6, 1951 in Whitesboro, N.J., a community founded in 1901 by a group of prominent African Americans that included Booker T. Washington and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Stedman attended Middle Township High School where the 6’6” phenom starred on the varsity basketball team. After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work from Hardin-Simmons University, he played professionally in Europe for a few years before returning to the U.S. to work on his master’s in education from Ball State.  

An enduring, high-profile relationship with Oprah Winfrey has perhaps overshadowed the long list of business and charitable accomplishments accumulated over the course of Graham’s impressive career as chairman and CEO of S. Graham and Associates, a management and marketing consulting firm specializing in the corporate and educational fields. A prolific writer, he is also the author of 10 books, two of which became New York Times bestsellers. And he has taught at several colleges, including a course on leadership at the University of Illinois and one on strategic management at Northwestern.

Most importantly, Graham has exhibited a lifelong commitment to community via Athletes Against Drugs (AAD), a nonprofit organization he founded in 1985 which remains dedicated to developing leadership in underserved youth through scholarships and education. Recently, Stedman talked to me about his work with AAD and other projects.

Tell me what’s going on with Athletes Against Drugs?

The focus of the organization, which is really known now as AAD Education, Health and Sports is the positive, not the negative. Being in this business for 25 years has taught us that it’s not about the drugs, but about providing positive choices, keeping yourself active and keeping yourself busy with activities, the proper curriculum and special events like taking kids to games. That’s how you keep our youth off drugs.

Where is the organization located?

We’re operating out of Chicago. That’s our home base. But we do programs all around the country in coordination with various teams and various athletes. We provide programming in the schools, class curriculum, tutoring and sports field trips. And we have athletes come speak in the schools. We’ve done all that for years. So, we’re really strong in terms of programming.

Didn’t you have a big event recently?

Well, we had our annual golf tournament where we bring in a lot of athletes. It’s one of our fundraisers. This year was our 25th anniversary celebration.

I told my readers I’d be interviewing you, and they sent in a lot of questions. FSU grad Laz Lyles says she heard that you teach at Full Sail University, which she says is an amazing arts college. She wants to know, what attracted you to this school, and what you’re teaching there?

I teach identity education and development. I teach people how to find their passion. I do it using a nine step plan. I also teach them how to develop a bigger vision once they have that passion. The thing that attracted me to Full Sail is that they have their passion already. So, what they needed was the other eight steps.

The curriculum that I teach encompasses all that. It’s especially pertinent to folks who already have an identity in terms of their job, their future employment or career path. [For more info, see Stedman’s book, “You Can Make It Happen: A Nine Step Plan for Success.”]

Do you support early childhood educational programs which help young African American males bridge the achievement gap, even before the first grade?

Totally! I have a 10-week program in the high schools, which we’d like to push down to the middle and elementary schools. And we also have a program for parents and teachers. So, we’re very much proponents of helping kids develop an identity as early as possible in their lives.

What is the lifestyle you see for yourself in 10 years?

I’d like to be able to travel around the world working with organizations and institutions to help educate as many people as possible about how to develop an identity for themselves and about how to find out who they are. And I’d like to teach them information making it relevant to their own development.  

Do you have any plans to come back to your hometown, Whitesboro, this summer?

I’ve been going back to Whitesboro, working in the community where I grew up, for the last 21 years. I haven’t missed a Labor Day celebration yet. And I don’t expect to this year.

What is your PR firm’s specialty?

We have a marketing and management consulting business. What we do is focus on the books that I’ve written and the content that I have, and other projects and ventures, including seminars, speaking engagements, online training and development, and on serving our strong existing client base to set up win-win situations.  

What’s your goal for the future?

My big goal is to develop a strong operational structure and alliances with our partners to build a better distribution network to deliver our content.

What advice do you have for those who’d like to start their own business in this challenging economic environment?

I would say, make sure you focus on what you love and what you’re passionate about, so that when times get tough, you can overcome that obstacle.

Are you still associated with Armstrong Williams and do you share his political perspective?

I’ve known him for a number of years. He’s been a friend of mine. I try to not allow my personal relationship with him as a friend get mixed up with his political aspirations. Also, I don’t make judgments about people just because they may have a different point-of-view from mine.

What is your most powerful, spiritual source of strength?

My most powerful, spiritual source of strength is knowing that God is love. So, when I focus on love, and put that in my heart, then I have the power of a strong, spiritual base and foundation.  

Do you think President Obama has handled the BP oil disaster well?

I think Obama has done a great job, based on what he was handed at the start of his administration. I also believe that he needs the support of the whole country. There are so many people trying to tear him down. America needs to come together as a country to figure out how we can support him as the president, including the BP disaster  

Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?

No, but that’s the toughest question I’ve been asked.

Are you ever afraid?

I try not to be.

Are you happy?

Happier than I’ve ever been.

When was the last time you had a good laugh?

Just today.

What was the last book you read?

“How the Mighty Fall” by Jim Collins.

What are you listening to?  

The last thing I listened to was a CD that came with Success magazine.

What is your favorite dish to cook?

Spaghetti!

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

I see hope!

If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

For all the people who have dropped out of school and who don’t think they’re good enough to understand who they really are and that the process for success is the same for everybody, if you understand it.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

I was running in the backyard and scraped my leg against a sharp edge of a rusty chair that severed a big piece of meat out of it.

How introspective are you?

I’m a Pisces, so I’m all internal.

What do you want your legacy to be?

That I succeeded in teaching people how to maximize their potential as human beings.