Where to start with Richard Haberhsam? From a role in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” to special assistant to Peter Jennings, Richard’s storied and vast background is going to be an amazing conversation. Join us! Inter view with Richard Haberhsam, co-founder of Solutions NOW providing immediate support to local underserved communities, seniors and individuals experiencing food, housing and economic insecurity.
“…and whether it’s Plato, Socrates, or any of the major philosophers, they all agree upon one thing: the people who are the happiest are the ones that spend the most time with friends and family, and the ones that give back. Once I really realized that was true, it became pretty clear to me what direction I should be guiding my life”– Richard Haberhsam
Ok and we are live on August 18, 2020! All right, we’re hot. Hey everyone. Welcome to another 20 Minutes in Lockdown, live from a gorgeous day in New York City; as gorgeous as it can be where we are still pretty much shut down, you know, but it’s sort of, sort of made it sort of made a normal here. You’re up in Washington Heights right?
Up in Washington Heights and, um, it’s beautiful up here as always. Let’s introduce you first, then we can talk about- I’m probably staring at your place. I’m on 50 I’m on 42nd on the West side, but on the 56th floor. So I’m, I’m looking out on a gorgeous day. up to the bridge and beyond. So yeah- If I went on my roof I could probably do one of these numbers, then I’m looking at your place on my roof and you’d be all there, there’s that guy.
Talking to Richard Habersham. Let me tell you about a little bit about Richard, other than the fact that we went to high school for about a year together, which is kind of pretty cool, which we both didn’t realize until just now, um, This guy’s pretty amazing. He went to a, he went to LaGuardia, graduated from Dwight, which is another great school in the city. He was in August Wilson’s drama Joe Turner’s “Come and Gone”. He’s played principal characters and Spike Lee’s movie “Do The Right Thing”, and “The Long Walk Home” with Whoopi Goldberg. He earned a bachelor’s degree in American History from the University of Virginia, then returned to Harlem working for the New York City Public Schools I love that. But then he wrote a political column for the New York Beacon, which caught the attention of Peter Jennings, who hired him as a special assistant at ABC World News Tonight. Working as an op-ed reporter for ABC news, he covered stories on racial profiling and police police brutality, long before those were mainstream words. He was then at New York One where he covered the U S Senate race, he presidential primaries, the 2000 elections, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley, the list goes on and on. After 9/11, he came back to Harlem and started seeing that all the, all of a sudden, the Harlem brownstones were costing millions of dollars and people were losing them and they’re, they were being kicked out. So he went back to school, got his masters from Colombia in Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. This guy has done more than I could ever imagine. I mean, he’s, he’s as busy as me, he has ADHD like I do. He’s written books, he works on public policy issues for mayor control, he’s part of the people responsible for Universal Pre K. So it is an honor to have you here, man. You’ve done. damn.. Yeah. Welcome Richard, how are you?
Peter. If it’s an honor to be here, I was telling you a little bit before we got on here and I’ve been so inspired by some of the stuff that you’re- happy belated birthday actually, I heard it was your birthday recently and I saw your birthday message and I thought about my son who’s in the picture behind me and, um, and you were said that, you know, that, that, that the world would be dimmer if those of our loved ones that we are loved, there was such a positive message. And, and when I’ve really found out that I was coming on your show, I was getting all excited, reading about you found out that we share high school, shared we have the same high school, but thanks for having me on and on. Thank you for all the work that you do. I’ve been looking at some of your shows. It’s amazing, amazing stuff that you do my friend.
Trying to have some fun, you know, you gotta, you get, especially in today’s day and age, you gotta have some fun. So it looks like you’re having a that’s the, you know, I, I, I was at least smart enough to wipe off the silver glitter lipstick that my seven year old daughter put on me about a half an hour ago. So at least I remembered to do that. I’m sure she was saying you look pretty!
So, you know, you you’ve had a ridiculous career. You went Broadway to Hollywood to well, Spike Lee’s Hollywood, so Brooklyn Broadway to Brooklyn to, to back to school. What, what is it that you just keep getting excited by new stuff?
Yeah. You know, I’ve been called everything from, you know, a dilettante to a, you know, to somebody who just can’t figure out what, you know, what they want to, what they want to do with their lives. You know, one of my mentors is John Me…. and he once said to me, Uh, that there’s now, and the rest of the day until you die, what’s going to give your life meaning, what are you going to put in the middle? What’s what are you gonna do from now, till you’re outta here to give your life meaning? And I’m constantly asking myself that question and I think that that’s, what’s been, you know, that that’s, what’s taking me on so many journeys. Um, some of the ones that you described and, you know, and given me such a, you know, a diverse or varied, you know, experience and outlook on things because I have done so many things or, or titter-tattered in so many things that, um, that it gives me a perspective and now I’m trying to figure out how I can share that perspective with someone else, you know, someone else besides my son. So that’s sort of the long and short on that.
I think one of the two things that- we have several things in common, one of them is that we both seem to get sort of a thrill and an innate thrill of giving back, right? Out of, out of seeing what, what, whatever talent we have, how can we share that with the rest of the world and how can we make the world a little better with that. Why do you think that that desire is not that, that, that desire is not more mainstream?
Well, I think, you know, you know, when I look at my background before, you know, you know, I grew up black in Harlem, you know, coming from a very privileged background for an African American or a Black American, I gotta say, um, You know, and I think that, you know, most of my upbringing, I went to private schools because the schools in my neighborhood were absolutely horrible and my mom had the foresight to sort of take me out of that situation, which, you know, probably, you know, expanded, you know, you know, my, you know, the possibilities of my life, but what I was able to accomplish. But I think that in those schools, and I think in society, in general, everything was about money, you know, and I think it was at the point, at least speaking for myself, when I decided that, you know, that I knew a lot of people that had a whole bunch of money. I knew a lot of people who were, you know, who just had everything that one could want, but there was something missing and once I stopped saying, okay, I’ve got to make a million dollars. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to, I want to, you know, fear a healthier and I’ve sort of said, Again, what’s going to give my life meaning; that was when I took a lot of pressure off myself. I feel like and said, you know, obviously we all know that, you know, they’ve done a thousand studies and whether it’s Plato, Socrates, or any of the major philosophers, they all agree upon one thing and I’m sure you notice Peter, is that; the people who are the happiest are the ones that spend the most time with friends and family and the ones that give back. And once I really realized that, you know, someone can tell you that, but once I really realized if that was true, you know, it became pretty clear to me what, you know, what direction I should be guiding my life. I feel like I’m on a wild horse and I’m just trying to guide it in a general direction, you know, and you know, and that’s where, that’s where it comes from.
What’s interesting is you don’t have this in your bio, but you- are you running for Congress?
I was running for Congress. So, and that’s probably critical to sort of, that had to happen before I got to here where we are really where solutions now, because, you know, I thought, you know, once I, once I started doing work in prisons with, with my mentor, John Wareham, and that just opened my eyes up, know tremendously to, you know, so many of the issues and so much of the talent that we have is just locked away. I saw one of the interviews you actually did with a former prisoner, um, a guy who had done some time and I really enjoyed the hell out of that! But, um, I say that to say that- once, once I got bit by the bug, to continue on what we were saying before, it really should; well, what can I do in my community? My community has given me everything. This city has given me anything, everything. We were talking about, LaGuardia high school, I wanted to be an actor. Well, my mom wanted me to be an actor. Well, all I had to do is go and the city has something for me to, you know, a place where I learned, you know, an amateur theater where I learned how to act and before I knew it, I could go to a high school where I learned Drama skills, which we shared, and then, you know, and before noon I was on Broadway. I mean, this is, what’s so wonderful about this city, that there’s such a tremendous amount of resources and my heart breaks as to what it’s going through right now and I pray, I’ve ready some really dark articles about where we’re heading and I’m just praying that we can avert some of the doomsday sort of predictions. But I say that to say that, you know, it personally, uh, you know, this city has given me so much and I feel like when you’re given as much as I’ve been given you have to give back. And there’s so many people in my community that are in need. You know that already one fourth of the kids in the district don’t graduate from high school, the women’s mortality rate in my it’s like similar to Syria. A third of the people living in my community are under the poverty line, had the highest among the highest asthma rates in the country, highest second highest cancer rate. Uh, unemployment was at 40% pre pandemic is some parts. Excuse me. So there’s, you know, so when you think to yourself, how can I make a difference? You know, I thought, and, and then I know one can make a difference by running for political office, but that’s the genius.. but that’s not, but I’ve also also been an instant gratification kind of guy. Right. You know, so you can fit in at Harvard, I mean, ADHD yeah, yeah. Listen, I’m part of that too I guess and I really, you know, I really wanted to, do you really want to do things and you want to get things done quickly, that’s really not conducive. And I think that’s the lesson learned from my run for Congress. That’s not really conducive to going to Congress almost. It’s almost as if how so the idea was, how do we set up something that can give that can do things in real time that can really solve problems. You know, you know, in an acute sort of way, and that’s sort of the birth of solutions now.
So a couple of points here. So, you know, I was when, when 2018 happened and the elections happened, you know, I’ve looked at, and I live in Hell’s Kitchen, I’ve seen, what’s been going on here over the past six months and you’re right, I mean, it feels like, it feels like the late seventies again, and it’s going to take quite some time-
Only guys like us to know what that means, like, you know, so many people here who would never move up for that here….[talking over each other] cause they watch Sex in the City and they thought, Oh, that sounds cool. Right?
Yeah, exactly. That’s that crew that never sold like, oh, like if it was discovered, like no one knew about New York before the 90’s, but you know, so, so I know what you mean!
But the interesting point is, so I started talking to some friends of mine who work in, in politics either directly or by association um, a friend of mine, uh, was the head of the, um, was the head of the Iron Workers Union for New York right, and people like that are connected. And I said, I said, look, I have the time I said, should I run for something? And he said, no. He said, because running for something very rarely, even if you win, very rarely allows you to affect change. He said, if you want to affect change, create a small little, two person pac. He said, start finding the person that you think is going to win, who you can back. Bring money into it and get involved. And while what he say makes perfect sense, touch on the fact that is that really, really the best way for our democracy to thrive is that- bring in money and get it done. And I, you know, that left a bad taste in my mouth in a way.
Well, I, I, you know, I’ve gotten similar offers now. Like it’s funny, like those are the race happened. Like this spring, the pandemic basically shut us down. Um, you know, and then, but Congress comes up every two years and to your point, you know, it’s almost as if, you know, if I were going to run again, it would almost be like around Thanksgiving, this thing really just start to get and what I learned from running was that one thinks it’s like, you know, left wing or, but, you know, I mean, it’s honestly think about being put in a room for eight hours and giving a, you know, a phone book and say, call every number on this, on this list and, and beg for money. Now, there are certain people who I hear are rock stars at it. You know, I mean, there’s, you know that Schumer loves it. Yeah. Boom, boom, boom, boom. But that’s a little bit different than what we are, what we’re brought to think about what we’re brought up to think about what politics is. I wasn’t sitting around writing policy papers or gee, I wonder how we’re going to fix the schools; this is about the fundraising. And unfortunately, once people who are not independently wealthy, um, and even they wanted to, you know, realize what this is really about, which is really about raising the money. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy because you’re raising the money, but you have to spend the time to raise the money, right. So, um, you know, and, and so now when it comes, I don’t, again, people have been telling me start a pac because maybe you can get young, you know, uh, black and Brown folks, you know, in communities that are at risk, you know, underserved, maybe you can support with them. And I’m thinking about a lot of things, but they’re a hundred percent. Right. And that’s what I think I thought was brilliant about solutions now, was that, you know, here we have, we live in a city, right? Where you have 60 billionaires that live below, you know that live in one Island in summit, one, maybe one in Brooklyn. I mean, if you go, I used to go to nursery school on 90th and Park. And when you go to the 96th street and Park Avenue, it’s the most stark sort of scene in the city. It’s like you go from some of the wealthiest people in the world to some of the poorest people in the world. This is a one block, one block radius and I’ve always been confounded by the idea. I never understood why I know there’s so many good people who have money who are wealthy, um, there there’s so much talent in the city. We have some of the greatest museums in the world. We have some of the greatest research universities in the world. We have some of the greatest law firms. We have there’s some of the greatest marketing firms, Facebook, Google, everything, all of this talent. And I know there are people like me and you who want to give back, like but hey just don’t know how to do it. Why can’t we figure out to have somebody from the Met come and speak to a class about Art or about, you know, or, or, or about, you know, why are we not harnessing this talent better? Unless it’s…
Right. I know it has to come from, from private connections. It’s interesting you say that because my mother -who is probably watching this cause she watches everything I do- has retired as Director of Performing Arts for the New York City Board of Ed, back when it was the board of Ed. She worked, she, she was the, she, she wrote Blueprint for the Arts. That’s her. That was her baby.
And your mother might know my mother, my mother was 30 is one 10 Leminton Street, I mean, 25, 30 years in the system and we got to connect them, but I’m sure they do.
My mom started off for 29 years teaching in the South Bronx at a junior high school. Um, IS 139 on Brook Avenue and 145th Street right. not the place where a small Jewish, white woman was going to go every day in the sixties, but she did. Right. And she taught kids and then taught their kids 20 years later. Right. And it’s this incredible. She always had this desire. To give back to the city that gave her so much. She also, she went to Music and Art back when..
..my mom went to Performing Arts on 45th before they combined! I mean are we like.. But it just feels like there’s that, that back then you could make change. Right? There’s a great, um, I think it was the movie. I think it was the movie Dave, where Kevin Klein asks the vice president. He goes, how’d you get into politics? He goes, I got pissed off one day. And so I went into town and I filled out a form, next thing I knew I was an alderman. Right. And it was, it seemed like it was that easy back then. And it just seems like the ability to make change is a lot harder. It’s still doable, but it’s a lot harder and it takes a lot more money now. And that’s a bummer, you know, I think, and I think that one of the things that Solutions Now, you know, and, and other groups like yours have you built to do is affect change a lot quicker, right?
What are you going to do? Are you going to wait a million years for a builder to, I mean, a gap. And like I said, it’s an instant gratification thing we set out during the pandemic found from a woman who was a tenant leader of the Douglass houses, which are the houses right across in Park West village, you know, uh, right on the hundredth street and Columbus Avenue and she said, Hey, listen, you know, we got somebody who wants to give us food. Well, we don’t have a way of getting the food from the East side to the West side. I said, okay, let’s we can be me and my co founder, Aaron, we called a couple of trucking companies, two guys, you know, two companies said, sure, what days of the week do you need us? They went, they picked up, they picked up the food, they delivered it to Douglas. And then she said she dropped like six other housing projects that we needed to go to because, because that service could help. And then all of a sudden we deliver 80,000 meals over a seven, eight week period. But again, to your point, Peter, you know, it’s like, The government can, sometimes the government can’t do it. Right. It’s just, there’s so much bureaucracy. And it just took a pandemic where there’s complete chaos, you know, to even, I mean, I’m sure it might’ve been, this, this was normal times, you can’t do that because you’d be violating such and such, you know? So we are about hands on things. How do we do, how do we make an instant impact in people’s lives? And, you know,
And we gotta make sure that we keep that mentality because I’ll give you an example. I reached out about two months, three months ago now to the Lincoln Project when they were first starting. Right. You know, just because their whole thing is let’s troll Trump, but I freaking love that. Right. Yeah. And, and like, look guys, my hands are not traveling cause of COVID. I have a lot of connections. I’m in marketing, I wanna help what are we going to do?
What organizaion is that? Oh they are former Republicans that are going to there, got it.
I want to help you guys. I love what you’re doing. I have time to kill. Let me get involved. I reached out to them four times. I never, I heard back once the guy said, Oh, we’d love to have you give me a call on Friday. I called got his voicemail. Never heard back again. I’ve been trying to reach out to Corey Johnson now for over a month and a half. No response. I’m like.. I’m giving you, you know, my time, I want to give you.. so, you know, don’t lose that.
If Solutions Now is very much about getting on the ground, don’t forget about that when people come to you and say, hey, we can help!
I know. And from organizational wise, it’s also. You know, you can read my, my, my mentor, John Wareham, where I’m like, this is one of the greatest organizations, organizational, like managers ever, you read these things and you think, Oh, how I can manage. I know if I was managing something I’d be a great manager, but I can say from the other side, just saying. Sometimes it’s tough. You get people coming in, you don’t know how to process them, what are they going to do? We’ve got like, people want to volunteer. And that is what we are working on organizationally is how do we take the harness, that energy that you just had, right, about wanting to help the Lincoln Project and you know, how do we we, we, we get those people who want to work with us into there. Luckily we’ve been doing an alright job at that, but Peter that’s, you know, that’s the bottom line and there’s a thousand of you out here that want to do everything from political, to art to, you know, want to teach, you know, you know, design, want to mentor lawyers want to mentor young doctors, you name it? I mean, look at all this look at all we have here in the city. It’s just, there’s more people like us. You can’t tell me there isn’t.
And considering how much time we have now, because nothing else in the city that we want to do is actually available anymore. You know, I, I joined, I, I, the, the, the, um, playground next to next to my apartment, um, It’s supposed to open at six. My daughter’s an early riser like I am. We get there at six half the time and it’s locked. They don’t show up till quarter to seven, right? So I called the Parks Department, it took me three months of calling the Parks Department before I was able start a “friends of” playground group. Right. And we went and took flowers and we cleaned the place up and it’s awesome. And at the end of the day, you know, I’m like, look, I just want a key, right? Instead, I just bought bolt cutters from Amazon, but right?! But my point is..
That’s old school New York right? Like, where am I from!?
But at the end of the day that’s…
A couple of questions from the since from the group, I want to ask I’m Spencer Rosengarten posted this. Given your experience with political fundraising, are you for the public financing of political campaigns?
Of course, of course. I mean, that would be really, really helpful I think to all candidates and I think it would, you know, lower the bar, the bar of entry, it’s a high bar to entry, you know, I know luckily, you know, based on the amount of careers I’ve been in, I know a couple of well-heeled people and that amount of things, you know, I started out with sort of an advantage to somebody just walking off the street. But even for me, it was very, very challenging. It’s very challenging to call people in and beg them for money all day. You know, it’s really, really, you know, that if, if that’s not something that someone is comfortable doing initially then this is probably not the right job for them, unfortunately.
One last question -oh by the way, my mother’s watching, I knew she was- One last question, because I want to be respectful of your time:
Richard, I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to work for Peter Jennings. How do you find the production and focus of TV news programming today, compared to when you worked for ABC?
Oh, it’s so much different, you know, back then, I think we, you and me, Peter recombine that last era that remember like the three channels, you know, ABC, CBS, NBC, those were the, you know, the evening news was still sort of, you know, so, you know, almost like where most people got their news. Now news is so opinionated, you know, you go to a place where everyone thinks the same way that you do, whether it’s MSNBC or whether it’s Fox and they, and they sort of like massage you for three or four hours and then, you know, and it’s sort of, they give you the talking points, you know, that you might talk about at your dinner table? So it’s, so I guess what I’m trying to say is not the level of objectivity people don’t seem to want objective activity anymore. They want to know how the people who feel like they feel politically feel, right? And I think that’s from that short of where, where we are right now. And I think that’s why the country’s so divided.
Um, people can find Solutions Now what’s the website? https://www.solutions-now.org Listen, anybody that wants to volunteer, you know, we’re we’re we were try to build a garden in Douglass houses, you know, some of the stuff like, like you were saying, what you’re doing with your daughter. We’re just working on so many creative projects and, you know, wherever there’s a need, or if you know somebody that’s in need something, that’s something that you think that we might can find a solution for, cause we project managed solutions. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us and you can get in touch with us through our website.
I love it. Thank you so much for taking the time guys. Thank you for watching! Richard stick around after we end this one, talk to you guys. We’ll be back. I think tomorrow. I think my cohort, my co-anchor Gabby has an episode tomorrow.
We’ll see you in a few days. Thank you so much for watching. Go out and do something nice for someone we’ll talk to you soon.