Impact Group Wows at Oscars, Uplifts at Home

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

ByABC News
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."