People always ask what does it truly mean to be an icon, and what does it take to become one.
Well, the founders of the Icon to Ican Foundation and the creators of Icon Talks, John Burns and John Hartsfield would say that it is about the positive change and impact that a person has on their community and their selfless acts of service that would identify someone as an icon.
John Burns (JB), an established attorney, legal analyst, community activist and contributor on networks like MSNBC, TV One and Black Entertainment Television, is no stranger to community service. He has not only served the community himself, but he also comes from a mother who has a legacy of community service and who has managed to raise two sons while becoming a successful physician. And John Hartsfield (JH), a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist and dedicated community servant, has paved the way for so many in his community by leading by example through is work with underserved youth and people from all demographics. He has been able to glean from the example his own mother set while working a full-time job, going to night school, and raising her son.
The correlation in this is that we all have a story we can share that can inspire others. And that no one gets to where they are alone. Through the Icon Talks, JB and JH provide a platform for celebrities to share their stories with the audience. They talk about where they came from and how they have overcame obstacles. Those who hear these stories are inspired and gain insight into the lives of the celebrities they see on television and on social media. And the Icon to Ican Foundation reaches the youth on the ground level and allows for hardworking men and women from all different professions to come in and share their stories as well. JB and JH go into more detail about this in the Q & A interview below, and they give some candid responses about the obstacles they’ve had to overcome and those who inspired them.
JOHN BURNS: Someone who has received some type of professional success but is really committed to leaving the world in a better place than they found it. And that’s how we kind of really formed the organization—to acknowledge individuals who are doing great and have a platform, whose greatness is not limited to that platform, but whose greatness is identified by the work they are doing to make the world a better place, and really uplift and empower other people. And I think what it takes really to become an icon is having that innate spirit within you to understand the importance of civic engagement, giving back, and empowering your own community. And so I think that’s what it takes to become an icon.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: And you JH?
JOHN HARTSFIELD: I think an icon is someone who is a leader, not only within their own self or profession but someone who leads by example in their community and gives as well philanthropically, but is selfless. You know, puts others before themselves, removes self from the equation, and truly has a passion to serve others.
What was the inspiration behind you two joining forces to develop the foundation Icon to Ican?
JOHN HARTSFIELD: Three and a half years ago or so, JB lost his grandmother and we were at the funeral. After the funeral, we went to have a couple of fellowship, having dinner. And our family knew each other and we have followed each other. Him being an attorney and successful, and me being an entrepreneur and successful, but we had never come together. So at that moment, he was like, you have done a lot of great things within the community, helping athletes get involved with their non-profits, putting on events for the underserved—[And JB has] done a lot of correspondence work and represented a lot of entertainers and celebrities in the entertainment/legal field. What if we were to do something engaging and impactful to serve others and have a speaker series, to where we’re serving the community and we’re giving back to the underserved, but yet everybody, whether it’s entertainers, politicians, businessmen or women, everybody has a story.
And what’s often not told is, yes, you see the Oprah Winfrey, you see a Tyler Perry or Jamie Foxx, but the stories that’s never told is how did they get there. We give them a platform to talk about, you know, that we came from the same background, same obstacles you had to overcome and really speak to that person that may be in the audience or maybe hearing that story, and say hey I went through it too, but I was able to overcome my situation or my demographic to achieve great things. We started the Icon to Ican Foundation to create mentorship and empowerment programs for underserved youth and underserved communities. And around that, we have the for-profit, the Icon Talks, which JB can speak more to.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: Alright, so JB. Talk to us about the Icon Talks.
JOHN BURNS: Yeah, absolutely. And to kind of piggyback off of what JH said, Icon Talks is a platform that provides celebrities and individuals who are celebrated for their professional success on the screen or with whatever they’re doing, giving them a platform to tell their stories. So, we have these amazing, really empowering and inspirational conversations with recognizable thinkers, like Omari Hardwick, to T.I. to Chaka Khan, to Keyla Johnson or Kathy Hughes—individuals who are pioneers in their field. But, the concentration of the conversation is not necessarily on their professional success, but it’s about their triumph and their trials, really about what they had to overcome. Just an insight into that individual that you might not necessarily realize what they’ve gone through. And what John mentioned to is that their stories are similar to your stories and to my stories in terms of what they’ve gone through. I really think that it provides an interesting perspective to share with the youth, and with adults as well, who can gain some type of inspiration by learning that, hey, this figure that we look up to has the exact same story as I have and went through the same trial that I went through. And it provides means for inspiration and empowerment.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: I did see that you both host celebrity events that support youth causes. So why do you think it’s so important for celebrities to get involved with the development of our youth?
JOHN BURNS: I think, especially for black and brown kids, with our organization, we really honed in on African American and other minority young people because certain images that they see often times are of celebrities, right. They look up to those individuals. I think the emphasis for us is because we have this platform and we’re able to have this connection with different celebrities and influencers we want to use that platform for these individuals to provide a perspective into their life that often times these kids don’t see. And so it’s a different perspective and I think it’s important to show different perspectives because it allows that kid exposure to the real. And often in our communities, we don’t get exposure to the trials of these individuals. And for a Chaka Khan, Omari Hardwick or a T.I. or a number of different artists that we work with to come and provide an introspective look into their life and these young people can hear from them their testimony the life that they’ve lived and gain some type of insight or perspective into their own life, I think is really-really telling because these are their idols. These are the people they look up to, so it’s important that they [celebrities] give back and come back, and really speak to their own experiences.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: Do you find that these talks are also helpful for adults as well, even though I know that they’re geared to the youth? But, do you find that they’re useful to adults too?
JOHN BURNS: Oh yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re geared to the youth. I think they’re geared to anyone that needs inspiration. I think that could be a ten-year-old boy or a seventy-year-old woman, because if you come to our events, there is one consistent theme that resonates with everyone who attends. They all leave impacted by “the story.” And so it could be a young person, it could be an older person. Everybody leaves impacted. I think everybody can gain some insight from everybody’s own personal experience, regardless of your age.
JOHN HARTSFIELD: Yeah, and I’ll just piggy back off of that. It’s not necessarily tailored for the youth, um… more so our non-profit is tailored for the youth and creating mentorship and empowerment. But Icon Talks, like JB was saying is geared towards inspiration. So, it’s for all walks of life, all ages, demographics that come. But each event we do tie in with the underserved youth in that city or state that’s similar to our mission. And we allow them like a “make a wish” type experience. And I’ll let JB speak on it a little bit and share of the experience and the moment that happened at the Icon Talks LA with Omari Hardwick and one of our youth that was there. But, on the ground floor here, we have a mentorship program. And, so Icon Talks, we do live in a social media reality TV world…But really, everyday Icon is the one we bring in every Monday. We have a mentorship program with MLK academy here in San Antonio, TX where we’re from. And we bring in people like yourself, JB, a doctor, lawyer, a school teacher, a truck driver, a manager at Walmart because we want them to see that there are many different professions. But these too are everyday icons. They’re providing for themselves, their families. They’re pillars in the community. And growing up they teach you in school that you can be a doctor or lawyer or school teacher, what have you, police officer, firemen. But they don’t tell you that you can be in marketing and advertising. They don’t tell you that you can be an entrepreneur and so forth and so on. These are the things that are not taught in school. And so to let them know that hey, this person that’s coming to speak to you today, they came from the same background as you. They have overcome these obstacles to achieve great things. And these are the professions that they are currently doing and these are the opportunities that are readily available to you at this early age. To expose their mind at an early age to what is possible.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: JB, did you want to piggyback off of that?
JOHN BURNS: No, I think JH makes a great point in terms of providing additional exposure to young people to other things that exist in terms of professions or ways to make a living. I think it’s really important because we always live by the firm belief that you don’t know what you don’t know. And often times these young people, especially in minority communities, don’t know because they’re not exposed to these different types of professions or opportunities. I think it’s really… that we pride ourselves with trying to showcase with these young people and bring individuals really are different and have different types of professions so they can get some insight into that. So, that’s really important work that we’re doing.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: I wanted to ask this question and again both of you can answer, how can we bridge the gap between our senior voices and the voices of our youth without losing the opinion or important messages sent by both?
JOHN BURNS: Yeah, we talk about this a lot with the organization and with a lot of friends that we’ve worked with and … we’ve worked with some of the more established organizations like the NAACP to actually network amongst others and we’re really good friends with Tameka Mallory and Angela Rye. And that everyone serves such an important distinct purpose and I think without the older organizations who were really our trailblazers and who did so much, then we would obviously not be where we are.
What some of the more established organizations are trying to do, though, and I talked to Rev. Jesse Jackson about this not too long ago about one of the benefits of having a younger base, really energizes the more established movements. What’s going on right now is that you’re beginning to see this younger base of leaders and activist come out and really kind of use their platform in the same model of some of the older organizations that really were doing grassroots types of organization. I think it’s interesting, but it’s really happened over the last year or two where they are going back to some of the older ways of really instituting and effectuating change.
JOHN HARTSFIELD: I truly believe that the older organizations and the younger… I think now what’s happening is there is an innovation of the two. A little piece of the old mixed in with a little piece of the new, right. And them coming together in the form of commonality. If we all come together for the common good, it’s for the better.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: I have a specific question for you, JH. I was reading your bio and I saw at the end of it a quote that said, “In life we get caught up in self, self-gratification, self-fulfillment, and in self-achievement. However, I believe that the true mark of a person is how many people and lives you can impact and help to achieve their goals.” So I thought it was awesome. And I think it embodies everything both of you stand for. So what type of negative impact does being mainly focused on self have on our community and then maybe go into talking about what steps to take to be to be more involved.
JOHN HARTSFIELD: Yeah, we live in a self-absorbed society. Especially now that social media has taken over the world—everybody U. We live in a generation and in a day of selfies and everybody is just so self-consumed, right. And even myself, years ago before I got into the philanthropic endeavors ten plus years ago and that’s what I tell people. They’re like oh you’re so successful, oh things are going great for you and your brother and all like that. But I tell them the moment that I removed self from the equation, that’s when everything started to change. The moment I removed self from the equation and I started every weekend looking in the paper and seeing what can I do to be involved in my community.
I started to volunteer and I remember some of the same people that want to come to our events now and want to be all about Icon Talks, this that and the other, I remember at that point ten plus years ago they were asking, why are you volunteering? You’re not getting paid for this. You’re not benefiting from this. You’re not getting paid or getting any recognition. But I’m doing God’s work. If I can put a smile on somebody else’s face, if I can help somebody else feel better about themselves, and me I feel better about myself because I’m impacting someone else or somebody—something other than myself for the greater good. And the moment that I started to do that and started getting involved with other non-profits and organizations, that’s when my whole life changed. And I’ve dedicated my life to service and to the service of others. And that’s truly what I try and live my everyday by. I try and be better today than I was yesterday. You know God has truly blessed us.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: We talked about celebrities and those that you get for the Icon Talks. And how important it is to talk about how you’ve overcome. Can you talk about some of the obstacles you’ve both had to overcome to get to get to where you are today?
JOHN BURNS: Absolutely, that’s a great question. I think we always say that if it doesn’t challenge you then it doesn’t change you. You know that kind of one of the quotes that John and I have both always said. We kind of said at the very beginning of Icon Talks about how important it is to go through some of the trials and tribulations to understand the importance of the victory. So, for us, you know from childhood things like a father who wasn’t always around and some of the abuse both verbally and physically, to some of things you deal with kind of going to school and then going through college and then ultimately going to law school and trying to figure out all that stuff and navigating in a world for me which was like the only African American you know, from high school, to middle school to college and on.
And to John’s point, always said it to myself, when I got to a point in my life where I was established and I felt like I had a platform to give back and really uplift and empower, I would do that. And so immediately when I got out of law school, I started volunteering and sitting on boards and working with some of the kids within the community. I thought we could share and really learn from my perspective. I volunteered with other black men and became the vice president of the organization and things like that. I think for me, going through some of the things and kind of seeing and getting the reality of what exists out there from like an exposure standpoint, really lead me to really push back and make sure that when I got to a point in my life to give back, I wanted to give back.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: And JB?
JOHN BURNS: Yeah, it was say a pivotal point. I was sixteen years old and in a three-month span I lost my first cousin who was like my twin. She was nineteen years old, lost her to leukemia. A month later, my dad passed away right before the start of basketball season that year. And then my grandmother past away. So, you know I lost a cousin, dad, grandmother and I was at awe. And I remember growing up that people would always tell me, oh you’re too slow to pay basketball. You’re not gonna go to college. You’re not gonna do this, you’re not, you’re not. And everybody was always telling me in my life what I wasn’t going to do that I always had a drive inside of me to overcome, right, and to do these things. So I went on, received a scholarship, played college basketball, was the captain of the team. Graduated double majors. But, oh you’re not gonna get a good job. And God had truly blessed me in my life to be an entrepreneur and make all my businesses thrive. But I always said that when I get to a position that I wasn’t gonna be like all the naysayers were to me. I was gonna tell my children, my friends, my colleagues that you can. Not you can’t, but you can. That’s really the mantra that we started the non-profit, the Icon to Ican. Essentially, you are the icon and you’re telling the kids you can because you’re at a place of achievement. You did it. You’re reaching the hand back and you’re pulling them up, letting them know that I if I did it, you can too. And so, Icon to Ican! You can achieve.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: JH, I see that your faith in God is a driving force and inspiration for you, but I want to ask you both, what or who has been an inspiration to you throughout your life to inspire you to be who you are today?
JOHN HARTSFIELD: Yeah, I mean it’s so many people. My mother having me at twenty-two years old, being a secretary, divorcing my dad. And then coming to me at four telling me that you know hey, there’s going to be some sacrifice for the next four years. I’m not going to be able to pick you up from school or take you to school. I’m going to wake up in the morning and drop you off at your grandma’s, because I have to work a full day and then I’m going to go to night school. I’m going to night school and I’m not going to be able to go to your games.
And then I remember being the only child at the game with no family members there to cheer them on. And catching rides and other teammates and so and so forth. But, she did that because she wanted to provide a better life, right. Her work ethic. Her waking up at 5:30 a.m., dropping me off at my grandma’s and then not seeing her and me being already sleep. She would pick me up from my grandmas at 11:30 p.m. because she worked an hour away and that’s where she would go to night school and she would drive back to El Paso. Pick me up, we would go home. We would get up in the morning and we would do it all over again. She did that for four years. And then after four years, she went on to get her Master’s. And now, she is the senior engineer for Raytheon. So just to see that work ethic and for her to have me at such a young age and it was just me and her. She wanted to provide a better life than what she had. And she’s just truly an inspiration.
JOHN BURNS: Yeah, and definitely for me, my mother as well. My mother is a testament to perseverance and really overcoming every possible obstacle. I mean she grew up in Mississippi in the South, you in the 1960s you know, so to imagine Mississippi. She was born in the 1950s so growing in Mississippi in the South during that time the civil rights movement, she was such a pioneer. For her, to overcome so many obstacles, I mean, she always tells stories of her senior year in high school. She was asked to integrate into the all-white high school. Her along with five other young ladies and young men were asked to integrate, or move from the all-black school to the all-white school their senior year. Imagine that and that was 1966.
So, I can only read the history books of what that must have been like. But, she’s spoken so in-depth with me about never being invited to anything and not going to prom. Just being called names every day at school. And kind of reflecting on that and seeing the challenges she went through in high school. And then to go on to college. And then to go on to medical school and just do amazing things. That really inspired me and she inspired me every day. But, I really gained the most inspiration from my mom in terms of what she provided for my brother and I. With a father that wasn’t really there and a father that was trying to take more than give from brother [in our childhood] and also from the relationship he had with my mother as well. And so she was able to not only be a great mother and become an incredible physician, but she grew a pediatric practice in the state a Texas, to be the largest pediatric practice in the whole state of Texas. Which for a black woman from Mississippi to do in Texas is pretty incredible. And so she continues to inspire both me and my brother. I think we get our sense of ambition and just our stick-to-it-ness from our mother. And one of the things she always told both of us really, really early on, and not only told us but showed by example, is the importance of civic engagement, what is the importance of community service, what is the importance of giving back.
So, if you look at my mom’s track record, yeah, she has done amazing things in terms of growing her practice and building a great medical practice. But when people speak about her, they speak about her giving back to the community. People say she is an amazing physician and has done so much in terms of advancing medicine. But people really speak about her as an advocate for the community, an advocate on the ground really doing the work that matters. And so we really gain so much inspirations for her.
MONARCH MAGAZINE: I think it’s important for people to be able to hear your foundation and how you got started and those who inspired you, just so people know they can to get to certain places in their lives. As I’m listening, I’m inspired too and I appreciate you being transparent about that.