Impact Group Wows at Oscars, Uplifts at Home

Harlem's Impact group delivers message of hope and pride.

May 13, 2008, 5:47 PM

May 27, 2008 — -- Earlier this year, at the Academy Awards, a group of singers took the stage at the Hollywood Kodak Theater and gave a performance that blew the audience away.

The song was called "Raise It Up" and Impact Repertory Theatre, a group of young singers, writers and dancers based in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, delivered a powerhouse performance, fusing a soulful sound with unabashed energy.

The song, much like the group's performance, had not gone unnoticed and was nominated for best song after the group appeared in the 2007 movie "August Rush."

But far from the glitz and glamour of Oscar performances are the realities of home.

A world away in New York's Washington Heights, Emily Ottoo, 20, reluctantly prepared for an hourlong commute to Pace University in Lower Manhattan.

"I'm already late, but I really don't care 'cause it's the last day of class," she said.

But Saturdays are different -- Saturday's are for Impact. Impact's founder, Jamal Joseph, has been a paternal figure of tough love for Ottoo since she was 12.

"It's been a family," Ottoo said. "It's been reinforcement for my life, it's been a validation for a lot of the stuff that I do. It's my support system."

During rehearsals, Joseph asks, "What is Impact?"

"Impact is not a game," his young students answer in unison.

"Why is Impact not a game?" he asks.

"Because Impact is forever," the kids shout.

"And how long is forever?" Joseph says.

"Forever and ever and ever," the kids answer.

It's a mantra that the group recites often. It's meant to reinforce that Impact is hard work. More than 70 teens between the ages of 12 and 18 participate each Saturday. They rehearse songs and dance routines, receive tutoring and have writing sessions for poetry and essays.

"Nightline" followed Impact for more than a month, as it rehearsed and performed at venues ranging from small churches to the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan.

Joseph, 55, co-founded Impact 11 years ago, after a 16-year-old neighbor was shot to death at a party.

"When his mother found out the news," Joseph recalled, "she went into the street and started crying. She couldn't even bear to be in her house, and my wife and other women from the building were on the street in front of our building consoling this woman, who had lost her son."

"And the men were kind of standing on the side just watching. … I felt that we could be in South Africa during apartheid, we could be in Mississippi during segregation, we could be in Alabama during slavery, young black men are still dying, mothers are mourning and men are watching helplessly. I need to do something in Harlem right here where I live in the community."

As a young man, Joseph participated in the Black Panther Party, which led to his being sent to prison for nine years. There he earned two college degrees. Now he's a professor in the film department at Columbia University in New York and chair of its graduate film division, which is ironic because, as a young man, he once urged student protesters to burn down the school.

"I really feel blessed, as someone who was in the Panthers and could have gotten killed when I was [a] Panther, and someone who was in prison and it was a dangerous prison and could have gotten killed when I was in prison," he said. "I feel like I've been given a tremendous gift to be able to give back to young people and to be able to do so for the full 20 years I've been back home from prison. I feel extremely fortunate."

Impact opens its doors to kids starting at age 12, but first they have to go through a rigorous boot camp.

"The teen years are the most trying and tumultuous years," Joseph said. "Those are the years we love best to work with them, because those are the years you can make a difference."

Jasmine Green, 13, joined Impact after seeing the group on TV at the Academy Awards. "When they sang it blew me away," she said. "It made my mother cry. … They're excellent. They surprise me."

And it's a bargain for the kids. "We say there is no charge for Impact, but what we say is that it is not free," Joseph said. "You pay for it with your commitment and your hard work and this idea of service, not just to the program but also to your family, friends and community."

Joseph hopes he can help the young people he works with to imagine a different future for themselves.

"They are hearing that there is not hope," he said. "They hear that if you can't rhyme or can't play basketball then you need to pick up a gun and be part of a gang and selling drugs, because that is the only way out. And we want to arm them with some information that they fiercely believe that they have another way out."

Part of Joseph's strategy is to make sure every member of Impact goes to college. In fact, it's not a strategy -- it's a necessity. He asks each Impact member when they first join what college they plan to attend. Then they must research that college and report back to the group. If they don't know what college they'd like to attend, he insists they think of one and then do their homework on it.

"Oh, they are going," he said. "We say that's part of the Impact mind control … the truth that you have to understand is that you are going to college and you're going to give service. The only equalizer for kids from disadvantaged communities is education."

"We are a creative arts and leadership training organization, and there's not a lot of places that say they want to do both, and we want to do both. We see the creative arts as a way to create better young people and creating better youth leaders who will be the leaders of tomorrow."

Joseph is trying to make leaders out of kids like Anilorca Guzman, who goes by the name "Poison." She is a 16-year-old rapper and poet who just a few months ago was squandering her talent.

"I wasn't going to school, I wasn't getting along with my mom," said Guzman, who also admitted to gang-related activity. "I was hardheaded. Before I met them I was on probation, I had 11 charges, I got locked up, unfortunately. I swear Impact [changed that]."

It was a chance meeting with Impact while she was on probation that changed everything for her.

"Everybody from Impact just started showing me love," she said. "And it's like they always keep me focused and doing well in school."

Now, every Saturday, she travels nearly two hours by train from Brooklyn to Harlem to find her voice in the security of her Impact family. "Impact is a family," Guzman said. "When you have nobody else, nobody, you can always come to Impact."

That's what Ottoo found out as well. Raised by a single father, she hit a rough patch a couple of years ago.

"She had gotten her GED and, you know, wasn't thinking about school," Joseph said, "and was a little stagnant and we pulled Emily in and said Emily … not you."

Now Ottoo is enrolled in the theater department at the college where her father is a professor. "I think it would've been much more difficult for me and for her without Impact," said Emily's father, Richard Ottoo. "A lot more difficult."

"Impact has actually helped me build my relationship with my father and tried to make me get close to him cause you always wanna have your parents in your corner," she said.

The group's biggest performance since the Oscars was an appearance with R&B legend Patti LaBelle at the Hammerstein Ballroom, as part of a fundraiser for legendary producer Nile Rodgers' We Are Family Foundation.

In rehearsals, the members put the final touches on a new song called "Three Dot Dash" (a new sign for peace) they'd written for Rodgers, who has recorded everyone from Madonna to Diana Ross.

The kids were dutifully impressed, but not awed -- they average about 50 performances of their own a year.

On the night of the performance, Ottoo was prepared for her solo and didn't even seem star-struck when R&B heartthrob Eric Benet arrived on the red carpet. "Why didn't you return my call?" she yelled at him. A smiling Benet quipped, "I told you not to call me at 1 a.m."

All the members of Impact were excited and ready to perform, but Guzman was a no-show.

"They called me and they were like, 'Why didn't you come?'," she said days later. "When I'm not there they make me feel special enough, they make me feel important enough to call me. [But] sometimes it gets heavy. And now I know that you sometimes have to put that aside … that was kinda dumb, stupid, because when I perform it's like a release, all my stress, so I don't know why I didn't perform, now that I think about it."

So are Joseph and the other Impact leaders trying to create singing sensations?

"You know what we say at Impact," Joseph said. "If you're at Impact for six months or you're with Impact for two or three years and you go off to college and you become a better singer dancer or actor, that's OK But if you're a mediocre dancer, singer and actor and you become a better person then we've done our job and that's what we're really trying to see.

"The kids wind up doing both. And you see them on stage -- and as tough as I am sometimes … every time they are on stage, whether it's a big place like the Hammerstein Ballroom or if it's street fair, I get choked up, you know. And I start to cry," Joseph said. "Because you see all of that, you see all of their potential just blossoming out."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events