October 10, 2018

Tom Joyner embraces his role as community convener and champion for black families

At its core, The Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion is about promoting opportunity and spreading positivity within the African American community

For 16 years, radio host Tom Joyner has hosted a mega-family reunion that doubles as a platform for social consciousness. Photo courtesy of the Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion.

Deep in the tradition of black culture is the social gathering of family reunions. It’s a time to see long-distance relatives, preserve stories from generations past, eat some of the best mac and cheese and sweet potato pies, play games, and have loads of fun.

For 16 years, radio host Tom Joyner has given the black community that experience in Orlando, Florida, in the form of a mega-family reunion that doubles as a platform for social consciousness and community engagement.

At this year’s Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion, held at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, attendees were treated to concerts, panel discussions, hands-on workshops, an expo featuring a variety of vendors catering to the interests of black families, and autograph sessions with celebrity guests. Sprinkled in all of that excitement is the signature “Sky Show”—Joyner’s live remote known to attract thousands of people.

Joyner presided over the reunion like a chief elder. His infectious personality got everyone in the mood for a good time. “From the chicken and waffles to the ugly t-shirts … and the kids running around, we’ve got it all under one roof,” Joyner said. “I look forward to getting all of the hugs and everything else falls into place.”

While he is well known for his monikers, “the hardest working man in radio” and “the fly jock,” due to his early days when he was the host of two shows and commuted between Dallas and Chicago, those who come to the Joyner’s Family Reunion see him as the black community’s leader of social consciousness and biggest advocate for historically black colleges and universities.

“College Day” is a focal event at the reunion, where high school students are offered scholarships and conditional acceptance to the HBCU institutions in attendance.

Panels at the event attract high schools and nonprofit groups along Florida’s Interstate 4, including the Pace Center for Girls, and Dr. Phillips and Winter Springs High Schools. This year, Mulberry High School brought 36 students who were selected based on their grade point average and courses completed, said LaSabra Patterson, an assistant principal at the Mulberry, Florida, school.

“It’s imperative to have conversations about college and life after high school,” Patterson said.

Justin Clark, an admissions counselor at FISK University, said the benefit of attending an HBCU is giving students a better understanding of their black history. The reunion is a way to pique students’ interest in HBCUs.

"We give people good information and hopefully that information will empower people to do great things in their community and for their country." —Tom Joyner

Joyner’s mission has always been to throw a “party with a purpose.” As much as he likes to shimmy his hips with some of the classic nostalgic acts he brings in every year, Joyner also wants to make sure attendees leave at the end of the four-day adventure feeling empowered.

“We give people good information and hopefully that information will empower people to do great things in their community and for their country,” Joyner said. “The theory is if I can get you laughing, I got you listening. If I got you listening, I can feed you some information. We entertain, we inform, and we empower.”

Joyner said the reunion isn’t just a time to unplug from the challenges facing the black community. “You can’t get away from it and we don’t try to,” Joyner said. “You can’t escape what’s happening in the world today just because we are in a confined building.”

This year’s gathering took place just days after Florida held its primary elections, in which Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum became the state’s first black democratic gubernatorial candidate. Joyner invited Gilllum on his morning show and said the candidate’s appearance was reminiscent of the 2008 reunion when everyone watched on the large screens as then-Senator Barack Obama clinched the national Democratic Party nomination for president. As he often does on his radio show, Joyner used the interview to remind everyone of their civic duties to register to vote and go to the polls on Election Day.

Joyner, who is the founder of REACH Media, the Tom Joyner Foundation, and BlackAmericaWeb.com, said he got the idea for the family reunion from the Fantastic Voyage, a party with a purpose on the sea that raises money for the Tom Joyner Foundation. The age limit for the cruise was 21 and older but when his nieces and nephews got older and wanted to party with their dear uncle, Joyner said he increased the age limit to 23.

“That’s when I realized I needed to do something for the upcoming fly babies and other nieces and nephews before they become grown,” Joyner said. “We came up with the idea to do the family reunion … the cruise is for adults and the family reunion is for families.”

A centerpiece of the reunion’s empowerment mission is Joyner’s partnership with Allstate. A partner to the reunion for over a decade, this year Allstate recognized individuals who are strengthening their community. “Stories of Strength” winners included Tomika Winfrey, who mentored youth while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer; and Steve White, who leads a prison reentry program for black males.

Joyner said it is his hope that the empowerment concept of the reunion is taken back to the community where attendees live.

“Allstate believes, and I believe, when you give back, it’s addictive,” he said. “When you give back like that, it encourages others to do the same. They don’t have to be someone like me to come forth to throw an event like this to empower people. You can do it on your own terms, whatever it costs.”

The reunion is where African-Americans can connect with like-minded individuals, said Cheryl Harris, Allstate’s vice president of sourcing and procurement. The investment in the reunion has been priceless, she said. “That’s how we build strong communities.”

For many of the attendees, going to the family reunion has become an annual tradition. Jacksonville resident Beverly Byers and her family have attended since the very first reunion in 2003. They call themselves the Duval Divas and the Duval Ballers. Her group has grown from 14 to 80 during the most recent event.

“We just enjoy what Tom Joyner does,” Byers said. “It’s good, clean fun.”

Merissa Green

Merissa Green is a communications analyst for Polk County Public Schools where she coordinates the School District's signature events. She previously worked as the City of Auburndale's communication manager responsible for social media, crisis communications, publicity, and promotions. Prior to switching to public relations, Green spent 13 years working at the Lakeland, Florida, newspaper The Ledger covering education, government, public housing and crime. Her work has earned her multiple state awards. Green is a 2000 Florida A&M University graduate, with a degree in newspaper journalism. Green sits on several community boards, including, Polk State's Bachelor of Education Advisory Board, the United Way of Central Florida, Keiser University's Social Media Advisory Board, and is the founder of Queens of the Roundtable, a peer mentoring leadership group. In her spare time, Green's passion is participating in causes that advocate on behalf of public school children and developing leadership opportunities for civic engagement. She is a sought-after guest speaker in the county.