Excerpt from a high school graduation speech

In 2011, I was privileged to speak to graduating students of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. Following is the main content of that speech:

I’m going to tell you two stories. They’re related, and each of them will illustrate a point. I’ll then close my remarks by making a request of you graduates.

Here’s the first story. After they won the state Class A championship, Indy Met’s basketball team was invited to Washington D.C. They visited a lot of the places tourists usually visit – the U.S. Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, part of the Smithsonian. They also visited Ben’s Chili Bowl and learned of its history and the history of that part of the city. Bens Chili Bowl

Ben’s is a little restaurant near the intersection of 12th & U streets. It was started by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958 – an exciting time on U Street, which was then known as “Black Broadway.” A lot of famous people frequented the area and many of them ate at Ben’s from time to time: people like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King Jr, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby. Times were good.

Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Then came 1968 and the assassination of Dr. King. Riots broke out in many cities, and U Street was in the middle of the riots in our nation’s capital. Businesses closed down or were burned down. That part of Washington was a war zone, and it looked like it. I know. I moved to Washington in the fall of 1968 and drove through that area – once. That area – in fact, much of Washington – was no longer safe. I found that out the hard way when, a few months after moving there, I was held up at gunpoint about a mile from where Ben’s is located.

1974

1974

Obviously, I survived. And so did Ben’s. It stayed open. But then in the 1970s that part of Washington was taken over by drug dealers and the entire area suffered. Still – Ben’s survived. Business began to improve, but then in the 1980s construction began on the Green Line of the D.C. subway system, the Metro. That part of U Street became a big hole – the construction went on for five years. Still – Ben’s survived.

1987

1987

Gradually, the area came back. Business improved, and Ben’s became increasingly well known. Barack Obama ate lunch there a few days before his inauguration. Ben died in 2009, but two of his sons continue to operate the business, which has expanded and is thriving.

Many times it would have been easy for Ben to quit or move to another part of town. But he what he started has become a Washington institution. And that leads me to the second story.

There’s another institution in Washington D.C. that started four years after Ben started his restaurant. It’s called the Community Club, and it operates in the basement of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington. Volunteers come there every Thursday evening to tutor young people. During its first 40 years, the Community Club had only two directors. They, too, were volunteers who made long term commitments to try to make a difference in people’s lives, and thousands of young people benefited.

 

I attended that church, and shortly after I moved to Washington I started volunteering in the Community Club, where I tutored two boys one-on-one for over a year. They seemed to benefit, but so did I. In fact, it changed the course of my life. I got so much personal satisfaction from that experience I started searching for a place where I could use my educational background, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid at least enough to live on. That search led me to Goodwill Industries and started me on a career that lasted more than 40 years, during which I helped start a school – Indianapolis Metropolitan High School – that educates a lot of students very much like those I tutored in Washington D.C. in the late 1960s.

 

Here’s my point. The greatest accomplishments and life’s greatest rewards come from making and keeping long term commitments. It might be a commitment to go further with your education or to start and grow a business; it might be a commitment to a job or a career or some cause you deeply believe in. Or it might be a commitment to another person – a spouse, for example, or a kid you mentor or tutor. Nothing really worthwhile in life comes quickly or is easy, and no job is fun all the time. But if you make the commitment and stick with it – like Ben Ali did – through the inevitable ups and downs, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish and how full your life can be.

Th

So here’s my request of you graduates. As you enter adulthood, and if you really appreciate the people who have helped you get to this point in your life, make it a point – and a priority – to do something good for someone else. It might be a kid you tutor or mentor or an elderly person who needs some help. Regardless, do something good for someone else – not just once, but over an extended period of time – at least a year – and don’t expect anything in return. You’ll make someone else’s life a bit better, you’ll get a lot of satisfaction from the experience, and you just never know where it might lead you in life.

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Thanksgiving

thankful-jmm

As this is my last Thanksgiving while serving as president of Goodwill in central Indiana, I am a bit more reflective than I usually am in the early days of what is typically the busiest time of year for me. And when I start thinking of all of the reasons I have to be thankful, the list just keeps growing.

Of course, all of us at Goodwill are grateful for the hundreds of thousands of people who donate goods, shop in our stores, give money, or hire our graduates. We’re grateful for those in many other organizations and units of government who work with us to make opportunities available to thousands of people who haven’t had a lot of opportunities. We’re grateful for the good business relationships we have with companies and other entities that enable us to provide jobs for people with significant disabilities or other barriers that limit their options.

We’re also grateful for those who take advantage of the opportunities we can offer – individuals who put forth much effort – sometimes overcoming major obstacles in the process – to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

I’m particularly grateful for our 3100 employees who do their work so well day in and day out and who work well with each other to help our organization have significant impact. And I’m grateful for the leadership, guidance, and support we have received over the years from boards of directors that have given us the freedom to try many different ways of growing our businesses and accomplishing our mission. And I’m especially grateful that those boards have also given us the freedom to fail at some of what we try and learn and grow from the experiences.

And, of course, it was a board of directors who took a chance and gave me the opportunity to be CEO of this organization when I was only 30 years old and had only three years experience in a management role. I’m grateful to them not only for that opportunity, but also for being patient with me as I made many mistakes trying to learn how to do my job reasonably well – most of the time, at least.

And now, after 40 years, I find myself even more grateful to have been in a position where I can honestly say I cannot recall a day in my entire career when I woke up in the morning wishing I didn’t have to go to work.

Of course, I have much more to be thankful for. I’m thankful for good health, friends, and family. I’m particularly thankful for my wife, who’s put up with me for nearly 35 years and willingly done so many things that have made my life easier and much more pleasant than it would have been otherwise. And I’m thankful for our two grown children, who are good citizens engaged in vocations where they work directly with many people who haven’t been dealt a good hand in life.

And on Thanksgiving Day and the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I’ll also be grateful for the wonderful desserts and other foods I seldom let my disgustingly disciplined self enjoy at other times of the year.

If I keep thinking about it, I’ll add more to my list of reasons to be thankful. But you get the idea. And if you haven’t already made your own list, I recommend you do so. It’s a good way to help bring a bit of perspective as we deal with the problems and hassles we frequently encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Disconnect

Several years ago a friend of mine told me, “Jim, I live on the northside (a relatively affluent part of Indianapolis), I work on the northside, I go to church on the northside. I don’t know any poor people.” I told him to come down to Goodwill and I’d introduce him to some.

More recently, I saw another friend of mine who has been tutoring some of the students in Goodwill’s Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. He grew up in a low income part of the city and has been heavily involved in the community for a long time. When I asked him how the tutoring was going, he quietly said, “Jim, I thought I understood the issues (related to the mostly poor, mostly minority students in the school). But until I got to know some of these kids one-on-one, I didn’t have a clue.”

Both of those friends are good, kind, well-intentioned people. So, I’m sure, are most of the politicians from suburbs and small towns who from time to time make statements and introduce legislation that indicate a near-complete lack of understanding of the kind of generational poverty that plagues the poorest, most crime ridden parts of our cities. If nothing else, it would be helpful if they simply acknowledged that no one chooses to be born into those circumstances. Some of us were just luckier than others.

Somewhat related to this lack of knowledge and understanding, an article by Ken Stern titled “Why the Rich Don’t Give” in the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic notes that “One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentages of their income.” The author wonders if “the isolation of wealthy Americans from those in need is a cause of their relative stinginess” and states “It seems that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.” I hasten to add that I do not draw a broad generalization about this, as I’ve known plenty of generous wealthy people (and a few stingy poor people, too).

However, even in an organization such as Goodwill that has been working with a high poverty population for decades, we sometimes don’t really understand some of the problems until we get to know the people relatively well. That was our experience after we entered the urban public education arena by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School in 2004. Some of us quickly began to realize that we had only had a peripheral awareness of the kinds of problems many of those students faced outside of school. As we got to know them better, what we learned from the day-to-day contact over time has had a significant influence on some of the directions our organization has since taken.

In my work, I consider myself fortunate to have opportunities to get to know and work with people at just about every level of society. That contact and a lot of experiences over a long period of time have resulted in a firm conviction that, for those of us who are relatively well off, getting to know individuals in circumstances very different from our own will enable us not only to gain a more accurate awareness of the issues they face, but also to be in a better position to develop or support lasting solutions to some of the problems.

If nothing else, knowing such individuals reasonably well tends to make us less judgmental and at times intensely aware that we don’t know everything or have all the answers.