“I have a love affair of Harlem, for Harlem and with Harlem,” said Clifford B. Simmons. And until you get to know Simmons, you can’t really understand how emblematic those words are about the man he is.
A Harlem boy who grew up in the Abraham Lincoln Projects, Simmons has spent most of his life supporting and serving his community. He was reared in the public school system, attended a local college, made career choices and raised his family all in Harlem. Simmons is in his mid 50s and has already lived a rich life. He has not only been a successful business man, but also a community organizer.
Aside from being a family man, Simmons became involved in a lot of different venues. One in particular was working as a Project Manager for the Abyssinian Development Corporation in a program called the Neighborhood Franchise Project. This work led to the development of three black owned and operated franchises in the Central Harlem community; Cohen’s Optical, Papa John’s Pizza (the first in New York City), and the first IHOP in Harlem.
But it is his work with the youth of the community that he is most proud of. He began working with youth in the early 1990s, when Mildred Franklin, a member of the Mission of Christian Social Concern at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, challenged him and other member of the church group to do more for the youth.
Simmons agreed and formed a committee of nine individuals, including himself and Franklin, to create a program that would address the needs of the youth in the church and the surrounding community.
Simmons quoted the Rev. Calvin Butts III, senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, who also had an idea for manhood and womanhood training. “‘I’ll give you the right to lead this initiative under one condition…I don’t want to start another program. I will only give you the right to lead this if you agree to start something that can become a paradigm for the nation,’” Simmons recalled.
With that mandate, on Feb. 12, 1994, Blue Nile Passage held its first training session, originally focusing on 12 young men from the church block from the ages of 12 to 16.
In 1995, a female component was added, and the two components were known as the Sons and Daughters of the Blue Nile. In 1996, Blue Nile Passage became incorporated and moved out of the church yet remained linked to its foundation as an affiliate of the church.
Since its inception, over 1,000 youth have participated in the rites-of-passage component, which includes instruction on public speaking, time management, conflict resolution, sex education, nutritional guidance, mass media analysis, African-American history, spiritual grounding, economics and politics, to name a few. Each youth receives a one-to-one lifetime mentor.
An affiliate program to service youth in Westchester County was started in 2007 called Blue Nile of Greenburgh-White Plains. Lastly, there is a component called Leadership and Character Development Training specifically designed for schools.
“I would like to expand the organization so that it is a beacon of excellence throughout the country and to pass it on to those yet unknown,” said Simmons.
Simmons has had a range of influences in his life. “At 15, I read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ which touched me in a powerful way. I’ve been a student of Dr. King for years and was enlightened by Dr. John Henrik Clark. Dr. Butts is my mentor and a person I highly admire, learn from and study under,” said Simmons.
When Simmons has some spare time, he uses it for his other loves: reading and watching sports.
As for his love affair with Harlem, asked if he had one message to share with his community, Simmons quoted the inscription on Jackie Robinson’s tombstone: “A life is not important except in its impact on other lives.”
Growing up with both parents and raising a family in Harlem has been quite rewarding for him. He has been married to his wife, Diane, for 30 years and they have been fortunate enough to have three children, all college graduates.