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Black America Goes to Washington »

Virginia businessman Earl W. Stafford had a vision back in March to do something that would impact folks who were down and out. The idea crystalized in October on the day he peeped over his brother-in-law’s shoulder and read a newspaper article about the 2008 inauguration. What Stafford saw was an offer to “build your own ball,” an inaugural package from JW Marriott Pennsylvania Avenue hotel in Washington, D.C., which includes a customized three-night stay in 300 guest rooms, $200,000 in food and beverage and a prime view of arguably the most important event of the year. The price tag: a cool $1 million. With a leap of Christian faith and the support of his family, Stafford was the first to sign over a check. Instead of inviting his swanky friends, he plans to see the inauguration with mostly strangers—and many of them having little means to travel to D.C., much less attend a ball and stay in a hotel. Stafford talks to about deciding to bankroll the People’s Inaugural Project, especially in these tough economic times; about who gets to go; and what compelled him to give so much to people he doesn’t know.

ESSENCE.COM: Why are you doing this?
EARL W. STAFFORD: My family and I are Christians and have a deep faith in God and Jesus Christ. When I had this vision, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, but when I saw that article, I remember thinking that’s what the Lord wants me to do. This was my vision. The next day I went to the JW Marriott, and by the grace of God, we were able to get a check to them.

ESSENCE.COM: Did your family think you were crazy?
We’re a very close-knit family. When I first got this vision, I explained to them my inspiration and they got very excited about it. Now, we have a network of people who just want to be involved. We never expected to get this type of recognition.

ESSENCE.COM: How do you plan on choosing your guests?
We really don’t have the capabilities to identify all of these people, so we’re working with the National Urban League across the nation. We’re also working with the Department of Defense to identify wounded soldiers and other social organizations. These organizations will host and be responsible for their welfare, behavior and safety while they are visiting D.C. We’re still working on our list but at least 30 percent of those chosen will be the underserved and disadvantaged including wounded soldiers. We want to bring in at least 200 to 300 people and celebrate together with those who have the means. Our intent is to serve these people, not to put them on display. We are not here to exploit or patronize them. We’re planning to provide [those who can’t afford] gowns, hairdressers, barbers, tuxedos and makeup artists so that everyone blends in as much as possible. This story is also about the people who are stepping up and volunteering and saying, ‘I too want to do a little good by giving my time and my talents’ and ‘I too want to help my neighbor.’ It’s not about me, my family or my foundation. It’s about the people who are now stepping up and want to heal the country.

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ESSENCE.COM: What are you hoping to achieve?
It would be patronizing if we identified these individuals, brought them to Washington, D.C., for a huge celebration, let them watch the parade and have a ball and sent them home in the same condition from which they came. So what we are looking to do is have some type of life-support events here to help them with their issues, to provide counseling and life-skills training, and then follow up and minister to them once they go home. We’ll get them in contact with the right people in their communities who can help them. We’ve received 1,000 requests already. Our responsibility really isn’t the inauguration but what happens afterwards.

ESSENCE.COM: What can your guests expect during their stay?
So far, we have an ecumenical prayer breakfast planned for Monday morning so we can pray for those who are hurting and for President-elect Barack Obama. That afternoon, we’ll have a Martin Luther King, Jr., luncheon for about 1,000 people, where they will hear from Martin Luther King, III. The following day, we’ll be on the twelfth story terrace of the JW Marriott overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, and that evening we’ll throw an inaugural ball and gala again with the goal of including those who have millions in the bank and those who have pennies in their pockets.

ESSENCE.COM: Speaking of Obama, you decided to do this in March, way before he won. Were you going to do this regardless of who became president?
This is not a political move. This is about bringing joy and blessings to someone who might not otherwise have this opportunity. That’s why I think the Lord is involved in all this. I don’t believe in coincidence, and President-elect Obama’s message is about unity and bringing people together, knocking down barriers and helping our neighbors. Enough about the differences! It’s time we talk about the things we have in common.

ESSENCE.COM: Have you ever met the President-elect?
I was at a White House affair several years ago when he had just come to Washington as a senator. I happenend to be near the door and I stuck my hand out to welcome him and say thank you. Typically, people of his stature would walk by but he stopped, turned and engaged me in conversation. He caught me completely off guard. I knew then that he was someone special.

ESSENCE.COM: What do you say to those who think you should have found a better way to spend a million dollars?
I would say the Lord inspired me to spend actually $1.6 million this way. I let you spend your millions the way you see fit. I understand the sentiment, but we think a greater good is being done. We didn’t expect the publicity and the connection with other organizations. There is a multiplier effect happening here that goes beyond our decision to invest $1.6 million. This is simply what the Lord would have us do.

For more information, contact the National Urban League in your area.