Cyril de Grasse Tyson is eighty. If so fortunate, most of us have encountered truly extraordinary human beings in our travels through life. It doesn’t happen often and, if the encounter has any substance, the experience never leaves us. It becomes part of who and why we are. Cyril Tyson, whose friends simply know him as Ty, is a force of nature who came into my life in the 1960s as we both – he as its first executive director and I as one of its principal officers – gave our heart and soul to Newark’s United Community Corporation. He was young and fresh from a stint at the groundbreaking Haryou-Act bringing his considerable experience and talents to a city in deep distress and a fledgling (the first funded under the 1994 Equal Opportunity Act) anti-poverty program that desperately needed a powerful jump start. We bonded instantaneously and I, even younger, found in him not merely a wonderful lifelong friend but a masterful teacher. Ty is the consummate teacher with a mind that keeps on churning 24/7 spewing profound lessons for anyone who will listen and most importantly hear.
Ty’s message has always at been consistent and constant. It can best be characterized by the well-worn cliché that if you want to feed people don’t give them food but teach them how to plant a garden. It was that incendiary philosophy that he brought to the UCC in those infant days of the “War on Poverty”. He had no interest in philanthropic handouts but in building institutions of change that would empower a generation, many yet unborn, to take hold of their own lives and determine the direction of their community. The UCC was not merely the administrator of programs, but an incubator for governance. It was the only place where the powerless of that blighted city, albeit already a numerical majority, would be in control. The logic of his ideas were unassailable, the execution bound to be bumpy. Those in control – a combination of corrupt public officials, the business and religious power structure and, not inconsequentially, long entrenched black leaders – were in self-protective mode. They knew where this grain of authentic democracy was heading. The powerless were hungry for change and for self-determination, some of their nascent leaders already showing the promise that would one day carry them to public office.
With the now infamous riots that followed so soon afterward, some will suggest that the best we did was to stir the pot adding just another incendiary spark to the combustible dry wood that lay strewn on the streets and alleyways of Newark and other major American inner cities. They would be wrong and principally so because Ty, unlike most of us in this instant gratification obsessed country, thinks long term. He assuredly had no illusions about the then present state of things nor, despite his own education and sophistication, was he untouched by the extent and reach of baseless discrimination that frustrated so many of his people. I remember him telling me of being pulled over by the Newark police who routinely harassed black men behind their wheels not for what they had done (in most cases nothing) but for who they were. Ty wasn’t looking for overnight miracles nor, more importantly, for the ephemeral tokenism of one-off leadership. He was demanding fundamental change and willing to wait out the unruly and often ugly process required to make it happen.
In Newark’s case it took almost four decades and a series of highly tarnished black administrations before the bright star of Cory Booker could take hold. It may take many years more before that young mayor’s dreams morph into a modicum of reality. But without Ty it never would have happened and, for that matter, without people like Ty who have been at the vanguard of leadership and co-agents of change, it’s unlikely that Barack Obama would stand before us as a viable Presidential candidate. I’ve often heard actors interviewed by Charlie Rose or James Lipton talk about how significant a role luck has played in their career successes. Perhaps, but when it comes to the affairs of state luck has nothing to do with it. It takes vision, work and a great deal of patience. It takes people like Ty. They attack the job with purpose and with a doggedness that simple mortals like you and I so often lack.
Ty’s tenure in Newark was intentionally brief. His objective was to prepare the ground and sow the seeds. His planned departure was written into the agreement. His succeeding career, which included high office in the Lindsay administration in New York, continued to be characterized by the same laser focus on empowerment of the disenfranchised and substantive change making. His good friends, I among them, came to a Westchester hotel last weekend to celebrate his longevity. The room was filled with people who have walked (or in his early years run) arm and arm with him. His remarkable wife and three accomplished children paid tribute not merely by what they said but by who they are. Too few Americans even know the name Cyril de Grasse Tyson, and they are poorer for it. Many, and not merely African Americans, unknowingly are the beneficiaries of his lifelong work, advances and change that they now take for granted, see as their birthright. In a world where we prize what was invented here, invented by us, many with Ty’s talents might resent their sense of entitlement, of unacknowledged accomplishment without struggle. I'm certain that Ty revels in it, that he is satisfied most by what he has done not by the deserved (in my view far too limited) recognition that he has received over the years. Race remains a meaningful unresolved presence in our national room and poverty a cancer whose cure still eludes us, but the train has left the station and Ty remains one of its most distinguished drivers dragging it and us toward the destination that, however far off, lies ahead.