Categories: Create

Alex Harris to speak – and sing – at Thursday’s SVP Fast Pitch

Among his deeply-felt, core values and beliefs, Dr. Alex Harris has always held on to music, and working for the benefit of others, as his sturdiest pillars.

He’s been able to combine them in immeasurably productive ways. A talented musician, songwriter and singer – he can croon like Sam Cooke or Al Green, and reach down deep for gut-bucket emotion like Otis Redding or Sam Moore – Harris is also the co-founder and CEO of St. Petersburg’s Arts Conservatory for Teens (ACT), a not-for-profit after-school enrichment program that has demonstrably – in its seven years of existence – turned things around for area at-risk and/or underserved youth.

More than 2,500 students have benefitted from ACT resources, and the organization boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate.

By focusing on music, dance, theater and other modes of artistic expression as jumping-off points, ACT aims to “educate, empower, and enrich the lives of youth and teens in order to foster healthy, productive, and responsible citizens,” according to its mission statement.

Translation: “What ACT does is we use the arts as a catalyst, and in economic development, to break some of the poverty cycles by exposing the students to a much larger platform than they normally would have.”

Harris will be a guest speaker at Thursday’s Social Ventures Partners Fast Pitch Competition event at the Tampa Theatre – he is a powerful motivational speaker with a unique story of creative success, and of successful entrepreneurship.

He’s also going to perform, with his rhythm ‘n’ blues band, at the event.

“People have challenged me by saying why don’t I do one or the other?” Harris, whose doctorate is in organizational leadership, explains. “And I say, why not do both? My work with ACT has not held me back from any opportunity that has been presented for my own solo music.”

On the contrary. “Talk about developing my own karma … (ACT) has created opportunity for me, and created opportunity for others. We have to learn as a society that we can excel to our highest potential in life, and fulfill our destiny and calling selflessly, as opposed to selfishly.

“I think we’re often taught to be selfish in order to accomplish, and then if you have something left over, you give. But I think, why not give along the way?”

These are principles Harris learned from his parents, a pastor and an educator in rural Manchester, Georgia. All eight of the Harris kids – five boys and three girls – were homeschooled. The kids’ parents insisted on a “well-rounded” education with arts and sciences applied in equal measures.

“Their interest in helping people has always been a part of the fabric of who I am,” Harris says. “They’ve always given along the way, not just to their children, they’ve been very inclusive to other folks’ children.”

As part of the family singing group A7, Harris’s summers were spent touring the country, singing, ministering and speaking to students about success and the benefits of being contributing citizens. This is where he learned how to inspire.

“Then,” he says, “I had an epiphany one summer while we were touring. I had this idea to start something that would stay in the community.”  He received his undergraduate degree from Georgia’s LaGrange College, and a Master’s in Theology and Social Work from Boston University, before beginning his doctorate studies at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

“Fast forward, I end up coming here with some programming that I had developed, to help some of these students who were not receiving access to opportunity in the community.”

Harris and his business partner Herbert Murphy formed the Arts Conservatory for teens in 2013.

“I bring real-world experience in the entertainment industry,” he believes. “I bring real-world experience in entrepreneurship. I bring real-world experience from leadership.

“We are able to teach them the art of entrepreneurship, the art of leadership, the art of money management. Developing your artistry itself. And what does that look like, both in pursuing a career in the arts, as well as utilizing it as a catalyst to develop or stimulate the creativity to go into other disciplines or careers, outside of the entertainment industry?

“We want you have a well-rounded educational experience. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Info and tickets about Thursday’s Fast Pitch event here.

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was a St. Petersburg Times correspondent at the age of 17. He went on to a 30-year career at newspapers in Florida and Georgia. He is the author of "Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down," "Phil Gernhard, Record Man" and "I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews."

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