'Boy Next Door' actor making mark in black history

Posted at 9:01 AM, Jan 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-06 22:13:55-05

One thing is clear about Hill Harper: He’d be a great person to run into on the street.

The actor, author and enthusiastic philanthropist best known for his role on “CSI: NY” has a deep love for helping people to embrace their best self. He showcases that mentality in his work with the Manifest Your Destiny Foundation, which he created in an effort to stop the high school dropout rate of underserved youth.

Harper has expressed the passion he feels for motivating others in a number of ways, including by authoring a series of bestselling books. Among those books is “Letters to a Young Brother,” “Letters to a Young Sister,” “The Wealth Cure,” which chronicled his journey with cancer, and the most recent, “Letters to an Incarcerated Brother.”

A staunch opponent of recidivism, Harper believes the overwhelming number of people in our justice system tell a tale, and it’s not one of successful rehabilitation.

Scripps National Desk spoke with Harper in a telephone interview about civil rights, Ferguson, Black History Month and why his latest film “The Boy Next Door,” in theaters Friday, is an important acknowledgement of diversity. That conversation is condensed below.

As a public figure, you’re a role model for many. Is that a lot of pressure? How do you deal with that?

I never think about the idea of pressure, of being a so-called role model. For me, its more about attempting to walk the walk of what I talk about, and being authentic to that. I aspire to live a life of potential, a life of destiny. I feel like I should try to live out my dreams, make good choices, try to uplift other people — and still have a great time. Enjoy life. Live life to the best of my ability.

Who is an inspiration to you?

I meet people every day who inspire me. People working two or three jobs to feed their families, people who passed away, like Dr. King.

Every day, if I’m open to it I’ll meet people who inspire me.

How do you celebrate Black History Month?

It’s really about celebrating those people whose shoulders we stand upon now, and who created the opportunities that we all enjoy. Its not just so-called "people of color" who benefit from the diversity of our country, from the emancipation of slavery to the civil rights movement. Everybody benefits from diverse thought and diverse interactions.

How did the Michael Brown case in Missouri and the Eric Garner case in New York affect you?

I was invited by a pastor to come to Ferguson shortly after it happened. I met Michael Brown’s father, and did some motivational talks to youth and groups of adults in the Urban League. The loss of life in young people is tragic no matter who they are, where they’re from. The people that are charged with protecting and serving should protect and serve. Militarized policing doesn’t help, and doesn’t work. Community-style policing works.

As an actor on “CSI: NY" I got to interact with so many police officers. The vast majority of officers I know are great cops, and they serve well. 

What we need to keep in mind is that wanting to witness certain reforms in policing and police activity is not anti-police. In Ferguson, the vast majority of police officers there didn’t live anywhere near the community, and didn’t belong to the community — it generated an us vs. them mentality. The hiring and the policy procedures need to be fixed.

I’m anti-violence on any side of the ball. There’s a way to be smart on crime, not necessarily tough on crime. That’s what my goals are. That’s why I’ve being doing a lot of work against recidivism and incarcerating.

You’ve written a few books — can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind “Letters to a Young Brother,” “Letters to a Young Sister,” and “Letters to an Incarcerated Brother?”

I’m very proud of all of these books. Young men would reach out to me and ask about making choices for that journey from being a young man going into manhood.

My goal was to write this book that could be helpful in navigating the choices that you make when navigating manhood.

“Incarcerated Brother” is a continuation of “Letters to a Young Brother.” I started getting letters from young men that were incarcerated that were reading my book and wanted advice.

That got me into looking to impact recidivism rates. Our country has 25 percent of the world’s inmates, and 5 percent of the world’s population. We have 2.3 million people incarcerated. In some places, it can cost $75,000 a year per inmate to keep someone in jail. To educate someone, to teach them what not to do, the average cost is $10-12,000. It’s a horrible waste of human capital in this country. We need to have a focus on education, not incarceration.

Is there a key piece of advice from one of the books that I could share with readers?

One of the messages that is important is the idea that we have the ability to be active architects in our own life. We can create the exact life that we want. We have to approach it like an architect approaches a building — from the ground up. It’s not there yet.

But with the right plan, the right design, we can build whatever we want to build. A lot of people fall prey to thinking that tells them if they don’t come from a certain place, or have certain advantages, they won’t accomplish anything. I call that FEAR. False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s limiting beliefs that stop us from creating the blueprint from the outside. No matter who you are or are you are from, you can accomplish what you set out to do.

You’re involved in a lot of great causes — what is your favorite way to give back?

My favorite way is speaking out, and getting with young people. Most people, young or old, already know what the right choices are, but we have a tendency to get in our own way. I like to help people get out of their own way and make courage-based choices.

Can you tell me a little bit about “The Boy Next Door”?

“The Boy Next Door” is an amazing psychological thriller. I consider it a throwback film. It’s kind of like a reverse “Fatal Attraction,” and Jennifer Lopez is so amazing as the lead.

We were talking earlier about diversity — the movie is a great example of diversity. The film has two Hispanic leads, and the story isn’t about being Latino or Hispanic, the characters are just characters. And I’m a principal; my character in the film ... the storyline has nothing to do with being black.

This is the type of movie Hollywood needs to make more of — not about being Latino or black, but about playing characters.