A Conversation With Cornell Jones | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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A Conversation With Cornell Jones

Cornell Jones, 28, of Penn Hills, recently left his spot as vocalist for the soul band Mi Sandz to dedicate more time to Urban Youth Action, where he's program manager. UYA is an after-school program for city high school students that was created 37 years

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Do you ever feel pressured to fill your father's shoes?

I don't feel pressured. A lot of people say, "You have a lot of work to do to get to where your father was." But my father always told me, "Don't be like me; be better than me." He was a mentor-and-a-half for me. I loved so much of him and what he was doing that I wanted to continue his vision. He's my six-foot-five hero.


Most of the people running UYA are in their mid-20s, including the executive director. Why is that?

This is the youngest the staff's ever been - definitely the youngest executive director we've had. It makes it easier to relate with the kids. We've seen lots of the same things, even though they still see us as ol' heads. One special thing about [executive director Karris] Williams and myself is we're both UYA alumni. In fact when we were in the program, she was youth director and I was her assistant.


UYA's monthly "Poetry Explosion" allows the kids in the program to have their work heard. Why do you feel poetry is so important to their development?

One thing I've seen when working with youth with problems is no one had a consistent way of expressing themselves. No one had a way of venting. From being around brothers like [poets] Luqmann and Kibwe Lebna, they enlightened me so I could see how youth are expressing themselves through writing and feeling good about themselves when they actually can let people hear it.


As community coordinator for the NAACP, you're working to unite communities as part of the "Strategy '95" plan to stop youth iolence. How's that going?

This is probably one of the toughest projects of my life. It's extremely irritating when you put out press releases and contact people and you send out letters to all the major black churches but get very few people to participate. You get the same people that you see at every meeting. Anyhow, the process for Strategy '95 isn't moving as fast as I wanted it to, but it's making progress. I feel that people need to start looking at the situations that we're going through as emergencies rather than passing it off to the side. The youth see us passing stuff off to the side and it makes them think that's what they're supposed to do when an emergency happens in their lives.


What's the biggest misconception about black youth in Pittsburgh?

That black youth are bad, they're thugs and they don't want to succeed. A lot of times we hear people say, "They don't want help," but youth don't know how to get help. Things are hidden from them on purpose so they can't find help. We're letting TV raise our children and I blame that on the adults. We all think that black youth are lazy, but one thing we've found at UYA is if you give them something they enjoy like art or hip hop, they'll work their butt off.


Do you ever find that older people don't take as you seriously because of your young age?

There's lots of people who see me as li'l Cornell or Bernie Jones' son. It's hard gaining respect from them lots of times. I laugh it off 'cause it's gone on so many years, but it motivates me to work harder.


What's one thing your father instilled in you that you try to live but every day?

Biggest thing my father put in me is taking care of responsibilities as a man and a man of God, which means taking care of your home, your body, your wife and your community. He always said "build strength" - that's on his tombstone - and the day he had his stroke that took him out, he told me, "I want you to keep building strength 'cause I won't be around here forever." Then it really kicked in that we gotta keep what he worked so hard for growing.

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