Don Cheadle was awarded the BET Humanitarian Award for his humanitarian services in the cause of the people of Darfur and Rwanda, relating to the genocide. He is the United Nations Environment Programme Global Ambassador. He co-authored the book, Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. He founded the Not on Our Watch Project with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and others. He draws upon cultural leaders to protect and assist the vulnerable, marginalized, and displaced.
I know that you’re one of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Goodwill Ambassadors. Why are you passionate about it on a personal level?
DC: I’m a parent. I have kids, and what’s happening with our waters, and our oceans, and what’s happening with deforestation, and all these things that human beings are having negative impacts on at this time, are concerning to me. I wanted to do whatever I could to be a part of the solution and not just be a part of the problem.
Are there any causes you are particularly passionate about right now?
DC: Showtime did a documentary called Years of Living Dangerously, produced by James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub. I went to Texas to interview people there who were dealing with a drought. Water is an issue, and, clearly, what’s happening with the filth in our environment and the levels of carbon monoxide in our atmosphere are the really scary issues right now, the very troubling ones.
Are there things that make you feel personally vulnerable, on a humanitarian and environmental level?
DC: Well, it really is about future generations, who unfortunately have been and will be inheriting the problems that have started aggressively since the industrial age. Once the steam engine went away and we started moving into burning fossil fuels – not just burning them, but everything we do with oil – we’ve been experiencing [these problems] at an accelerated rate. The scary end-game scenario is getting closer and closer, about what we’re going to be able to do to sustain life on this planet as we have come to know it. And I think this is a very real possibility, that we could be dealing with conditions we have no idea how to wrestle with. That will remain, always, on the poor among us, and the disenfranchised, and those who are not represented, and who don’t have money. They’re going to feel the effects faster than anyone.
You’ve been called a voice to protect and assist the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the displaced. Where did that level of compassion come from?
DC: I don’t know. I’m exposed. The good thing this job affords us, is that we get to be exposed to many different people and many different walks of life, and many different situations all over the world. And one thing that you consistently see everywhere is that the poor and the under-represented are always the ones who are going to suffer the most and get the short end of the stick.
I’ve seen a lot in my business. You know, how many things we are given. Things. Actual material things. And also the egress that we get, the opportunity we get to interact and interface with influential people. The people who really need that, the people who really do need those things, can’t get them. It’s like, if you have it, you can’t buy it, and if you can’t afford it, you can’t get it. It’s just a strange, upsidedown, back-ass-wards kind of way we go about it.
In my particular business, it’s often embarrassing, the level of things showered upon us, the attention given to us. It’s out of proportion. So I wanted to try to rebalance some of it, in whatever way I could. When I’m the person in front of the microphone, and I’m the person in the light, I want to reflect and refract the light onto places where they need the attention, where I don’t need it.
I can’t say that’s what it is. I can’t say one particular thing made me, more than anything, decide that it’s something that I needed to get involved with. It’s the totality of my experience on this planet.
What is one truth you know for sure?
DC: Wow. One truth that I know for sure, for me anyway, is that the more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know. Every time I’ve learned something, I’ve realized there are a hundred more things I don’t know about the thing I just learned.
What’s been one of your biggest lessons, or biggest thing you’ve learned on your journey?
DC: I think that it’s much more important to do than to say. And you learn that a lot from your kids, who are watching you, you know? Living by example – that’s always a better teacher than trying to preach. You should do what you’re supposed to do and hope that that ripples out. And speak up when you’re supposed to, as opposed to trying to write prescriptions for the way people should live. That’s why when people ask me, “Well, do you think people should, in your position, have a responsibility…?”
That’s a hard one for me to answer. I can’t say that if people don’t do that, they’re somehow irresponsible or shirking their duties. I don’t know about that. I just know I would feel like I would be shirking my duties if I weren’t doing it. But that’s me. I think other people find other ways to get involved, to do things that have effects that aren’t immediately quantifiable, but they still are contributing. I can’t quantify it either, but I know I’m doing something I can feel good about. It’s not a pure, altruistic gesture. I feel better when I do it.
Is there a way that you maintain your center in the middle of chaos?
DC: I think having good family and friends really helps to ground you. If you look up and no one who’s around you has been around you for the past 20 years, and they’re all new people, I think that’s a problem. It’s important to keep the people who know you well around you. It helps center you.
Kids clearly help center you because you can’t impress your kids. People are like, “Oh, are they so excited because you’re Ironman?” My kids couldn’t care less. They like it when I hang out and play dad. I impress them by playing video games with them and doing well. Your kids humble you.
MP: What are some of your current projects?
DC: I’m getting ready to direct a movie this summer based on Miles Davis’s life, and that’s a huge undertaking. So, fingers crossed for me on that one.
MP: Is there a website that we can go to for any of the causes you’re involved with?
DC: I’ve been working with John Prendergast, who I co-wrote the book with, at the Enough Project (enoughproject.org).
And of course wedchallenge.com. Everyone better join my team and Power Down…
Interview: Maranda Pleasant