John Legend on Why He Supports Educational Opportunities: "I Grew Up in a Family That Didn't Have a Lot of Money"

For InStyle's December issue, on newsstands and available for digital download now, we spotlight the inspiring celebrities who cast a light on causes that deeply resonate with them in our annual "Shining Stars" feature.

"I grew up in a family that didn't have a lot of money, but I knew education was the path to success," says John Legend, musician and founder of LRNG, an organization that works to increate educational opportunities for young people. "We focus on teaching because it's such a critical aspect of how we experience learning." Read on for more on how Legend works to inspire teachers, keep kids in school, and grow the conversation about how education and preventing incarceration are intertwine.

Tell us about how your own childhood prompted you to take action to support other kids?
When I was young, I saw education as a pathway out of poverty. But I also saw so many kids not getting the tools they need to do well in school and continue their educations. Unfortunately, in America, there are many people who can't get access education because of the neighborhood they live in or what their parents do for a living. So I wanted to make sure there were options out that for kids to access regardless of their wealth.

What's one way that LRNG supports individual schools?
By focusing on teachers. Kids spend so much time during the week with their teachers, yet there's very little energy in the educational community spent on making sure teachers have the resources they need to innovate and actually incentivizducation. I had one particular teacher who inspired my singing career. Before I even met her, I didn't think I had the creativity that I now use for my job every days.

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Why did you decide to start your own organization rather than supporting one that already exists?
I don't think we can do anything by ourselves, but I wanted the flexibility to partner with other groups who we really believe are effective and doing the very best for the people that they help. Our strategy isn't, "we can do this alone because we have a great staff." Instead I wanted to use my position as a celebrity to give the cause a voice and amplify what others are doing to help raise money and be more effective.

You've also spoken about your support for the Show Me campaign's #FREEAMERICA movement, which is changing the conversation about incarceration in America. How are LRNG and #FREEAMERICA linked?
The reason I ended up doing #FREEAMERICA is because after I was working in schools, I understood how many of these children's parents are incarcerated. Because of that, the students are living in one-parent home, and not only has the imprisoned parent been locked up, they've also been taken to facilities very far away. So by not addressing it, we are perpetuating the problem.

What's has it been like spending time in some of these prisons?
I've been to men's facilities and women's facilities. I've spoken with prison guards, wardens, inmates, and their families. I've talked to organizations that deal with victims of crimes. So often we think of incarcerated people as thugs who were locked away to keep everyone else safe. But once you hear these people's stories and start to understand why they made the decisions that they made, you start to humanize them and you realize that we need more humane policies to deal with them.

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How do you see your fans responding?
I have so much fun engaging with the people who listen to my music about this cause. We recently did a fundraiser at a school in my hometown of Springfield, Ohio. We raised money for an auditorium so that they could have a space to create a performing arts program. But the best way to get involved is to just listen to what's going on in your community. If you see that people are upset and lashing out, think about the policies behind why that might be. Once you understand them, the more you will be able to do to help make them better.



Learning Without Limits: John Legend’s Sound Investment

HIGHER EDUCATION The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter celebrates teachers who inspire students to be tomorrow’s innovators.

John Legend knows the value of a great education.

“I was from a pretty small blue-collar town in Ohio, and it if it weren’t for great teachers and counselors and people who really cared about me at my school, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Legend, who calls education “my connection to the world.”

Creativity in the classroom

Now the nine-time Grammy Award winner, who also has an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, the BET Award for Best New Artist and the special Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, is working to inspire teachers and students to be creative inside and outside the classroom.

“I always enjoyed the teachers the most that had interesting projects for us: things that connected the curriculum to our life experience; things that inspired our creativity; things that allowed us to be individuals and not just memorize things,” says Legend, who liked math, history and social studies as a student and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied English and African-American literature.

“We’re certainly tapping into demand from the young people to have an education that’s really suited to the 21st century and to the needs they have.”

“Those were the teachers who were really memorable and inspired me the most. The more we can encourage teachers to be those kinds of teachers, the better off our young people will be.”

Celebrating teachers

The “All of Me” singer is working with the LRNG Innovation Challenge, a grant competition initiative, led by the MacArthur Foundation and the National Writing Project and Legend’s Show Me Campaign, which aims to use education to break the cycle of poverty.

LRNG (pronounced “learning”) is focused on celebrating, elevating and supporting teachers.

Through the LRNG Challenge, teachers who focus on creating time and space for deeper learning receive grant money to work on educational projects that are innovative and stimulating for students and other teachers.

“We’re trying to harness the teacher’s creativity, harness the student’s creativity, account for the fact that different students have different strengths— things that excite them, ways to see what excites those young people,” says Legend. He adds that the point being to “really give teachers the opportunity to not just give them what’s on the curriculum but light a spark in the students and make them really love learning.”

Exceeding expectations

With a theme of “No Bells, No Walls, No Limits on Learning,” the LRNG Challenge is re-imagining classrooms and hoping to shape students into “the innovators of tomorrow.”

SPEAKING OUT: Legend urges, “Many of our schools are literally and figuratively crumbling, and we’re not giving kids, especially low-income and minority kids, the chance to succeed.”

“We’re certainly tapping into demand from the young people to have an education that’s really suited to the 21st century and to the needs they have,” explains Legend.

At an event in Los Angeles this October, he will honor teachers and recipients of the recent LRNG Challenge for being education innovators.

In LRNG’s first year, teachers and students used tools like writing, science and technology for projects including: creating a multimedia online community for immigrant teens in New York City, a game design center for after school and weekends in Los Angeles and a STEM project for middle and high school students in Pittsburgh who are building devices and products to help disabled war veterans.



T&C 50: John Legend Reimagines Learning

The Oscar- and Grammy-winning artist is working to break the cycle of poverty through education.

King of crooning John Legend talks giving back and getting down to business when it comes to the future of education.

In the same way that singer-songwriter John Legend's performance of "Glory" transported Oscar viewers in February, his 11th grade English teacher inspired him to believe he could write. "She unlocked the words inside me," says Legend, who would run with that gift, going on to win nine Grammys as well as an Academy Award (shared with rapper Common for their Selma theme song). Now he's paying it forward with LRNG (pronounced learning), an offshoot of his seven-year-old Show Me Campaign, which seeks solutions to poverty. "One of the things we think about is how schools can be used to break that cycle," says Legend, who joined forces with the National Writing Project (NWP), an organization that has been sharing the best practices of effective teachers for 41 years. In talking to educators throughout the country, Legend came across something called "connected learning," which, he says, "reimagines the way we teach so that all children have the opportunity to maximize their potential." Such outside-the-box methods deserve to be not only funded but disseminated. To that end LRNG, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, is sharing the cutting-edge projects it has funded through the NWP's Educator Innovator network, a virtual meeting place for mentoring ideas. "So many restrictions are put on teachers today," says NWP executive director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl. "The emphasis on test scores and accountability leaves no room for passion. School should be the engine for creativity and curiosity and taking risks. These are the kids who are going to have to solve global warming, to work in jobs that don't even exist yet. A successful future depends on encouraging their sense of wonder and possibility."



John Legend on the Startling High School "Revelation" That Sparked His Music Career

The singer explains in THR's Philanthropy Issue how his own experiences led him to launch a program to help New York City educators

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

John Legend made a startling discovery during his junior year in high school: He could write. "It was a big revelation," the chart-topping musician tells THR. "My teacher made storytelling come alive for me and showed me that I could be a storyteller, too."

Which explains why Legend, 35, is launching a program called LRNG (pronounced "learning") -- an offshoot of his 7-year-old anti-poverty Show Me Campaign -- to help educators in New York City, and eventually throughout the country, develop tech-friendly teaching practices that make sense for 21st century students. Working in partnership with the National Writing Project, Legend's latest initiative encourages educators to think in new ways about their jobs and sets up methods for them to stay connected to one another with mentoring and idea-sharing programs.

"We already know that if kids have great teachers, the chances of them going forward and doing great things go up significantly," says the "All of Me" singer-songwriter. "Instead of celebrating heroic teachers, we need to share best learning practices so that all of our teachers can be better, access what's working in other classrooms and uplift the entire profession."

Some of those innovative methods? Jenny Adelman, an English teacher at the International High School at Union Square in New York, asked her freshman class to write their own endings to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to better understand the decisions authors make while writing. English teacher Christy Kingham had her 11th graders at the Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria in Queens use "every online platform" to make her classroom a window on the world. And Sam Saltz, an English teacher at ELLIS Prep Academy, had his class of immigrant students stage Macbeth in different genres so they could see the effects of setting and style on characters. "If you can create text," says Saltz, "it's much less scary to read it."