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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Two Stories

We have a lot of stories at Goodwill. Here are two recent examples – very different from each other, but each a great illustration of some of what gives our work at Goodwill so much meaning.

The Sanders Triplets

sanders-triplets

Amber, Ashley, and Angel Sanders are identical triplets. They were raised by their grandmother because their mom had severe addiction problems, and their father wasn’t around. On two separate occasions, they were placed in foster care. During those early years, they struggled, but they didn’t give up.

They enrolled in and thrived at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, the first charter school Goodwill opened. Graduating with honors in 2009, they received scholarships that covered all of their expenses at Indiana University, where they maintained GPAs above 3.0 and in 2013 graduated with bachelor’s degrees.

At IU, Amber and Ashley majored in East Asian Languages and Cultures. Ashley’s language focus was Korean, Amber’s was Japanese. Angel, who did part of her undergraduate work in Korea, had a double major in International Studies and Slavic Languages and Literature with a focus on Russian.

In their own words, they have “surpassed the stereotype of African-American women who have graduated from neither high school nor college.”

The Sanders sisters have been accepted by Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. Their goal is to earn masters degrees, immerse themselves in an Asian culture, and become fluent in one or more Asian languages. They then hope to work in the United States or abroad for government or a multinational corporation, become connectors, and help bridge borders around the world.

I have no doubt Amber, Angel, and Ashley will achieve their goals.

Verdell

DSC_8107

In 2012, Verdell came to Goodwill through a work release program after serving 17 years in prison. Initially employed as a janitor in one of our outlet stores, she let it be known that while in prison she had learned to clean floors and loved cleaning floors. She was then moved to Goodwill’s contract site at the VA Hospital, where she had the opportunity to clean floors every day. She did so well she was promoted to a team leader position.

In November 2013, while attending a Goodwill safety meeting at the VA Hospital, Goodwill COO Kent Kramer, who was aware Verdell had been homeless, asked about her housing situation. She told Kent she had an apartment, and then Kent asked her if she had ever thought about owning a home. Verdell thought she could never afford that, whereupon Kent connected her with Habitat for Humanity.

kent-habitat

Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity have developed a very good relationship over the last several years, and Verdell was given the opportunity to start the process to become owner of a new HFH home. She got support from staff at both Habitat and Goodwill, put in a lot of “sweat equity,” and on June 14, 2014 was given the keys to her new home. As she said at the dedication ceremony, she had gone “from homeless to homeowner.”

These two stories illustrate a variety of ways Goodwill provides opportunities for people. Some of those we work with (e.g. the Sanders sisters) need assistance because of circumstances over which they have had no control. Others (e.g. Verdell) need help because of bad choices they have made. Regardless, when we provide the opportunities, it’s still up to the individuals to make the most of those opportunities. Most – including Amber, Angel, Ashley, and Verdell – do.

On the Importance of High Expectations

In recent weeks, I’ve become acquainted with three Excel Center students who have received or will soon receive their high school diplomas. All three of these young adults have disabilities, were in “special education” during their childhoods, and failed to graduate from the large public high schools they attended. One of the three had tried in three different large high schools, but the results were always the same.

Yet, at the three different Excel Centers these students attended, all of them succeeded. They earned the credits they needed for a Core 40 diploma and passed the End-of-Course Assessments required by the State of Indiana. In addition, two of them have already earned post-secondary credentials that increase their employability and earning potential.

What made the difference?

As I’ve asked several members of our staff that question, two themes emerge. First, there are a lot of people who simply don’t expect much from a student labeled “special education.” Many times, such students aren’t challenged, and it’s often difficult for a large high school to provide the kind of individual attention that can sometimes help a student rise above generally low expectations and begin to realize his or her potential.

The second theme is that the small size and structure of The Excel Center; the team approach taken by the teachers, life coaches, and other staff; and the individual help that is readily available in each Excel Center are just what many “special ed” students need to make the most of their potential.

In addition, we believe our students can succeed, and we expect them to do so. Over the years, we’ve seen many examples of young people and adults who rose above the low expectations of others to accomplish what many might not have thought possible. One of the early graduates of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School Goodwill started ten years ago is a good example. A “special education” student, his parents didn’t think he’d ever earn a high school diploma. He proved them wrong, went on to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, and is now employed by that college.

More recently, I saw a letter written by a 2014 graduate of Indy Met. In it, she describes how she had been ready to drop out of the large high school she previously attended. Her parents even expected her to do so. But, at Indy Met the teachers had more faith in her than she had in herself. As she stated, “Without Indy Met’s amazingly supportive staff, I would have given up a long time ago.” As it is, she’s enrolled in college and will begin taking classes this summer.

Far too many of the people we see every day have seldom had anyone who believed they had much potential. And if no one else has confidence in you, it can be very hard for you to have confidence in yourself. Failure can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our work, we must be able to see the potential in every person and do everything we can to help them realize that potential. We won’t always succeed. But with the right kind of help over a sustained period of time, a lot of people will rise above their circumstances and accomplish far more than many others ever thought possible – and often, even more than they thought themselves capable of.

Goodwill’s Directions

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has developed and now operates several small high schools. More recently, we have launched services for very young children and their moms. These are not areas in which Goodwill Industries around the country have typically been directly involved, and I am occasionally asked why we have moved in those directions.

At Goodwill, we have an overriding desire to help improve lives and communities and, as best we can, help solve serious social problems. We generally prefer to:

  • Strive for long term impact
  • Take a holistic approach with individuals and, in many cases, with their families
  • Enhance education levels and the attainment of credentials that will improve an individual’s employability and earning potential
  • Prevent problems and develop potential rather than engage in remediation

Strategic planning in our organization has morphed from a discrete event we used to do every few years into a strategic thinking process that is continuous. Changes in our environment are occurring at a very rapid rate, and we find ourselves with more new opportunities than ever before.

Every major step we have taken over the past twenty years has been a result of (1) what we have learned from previous experiences, (2) what we know about the communities in which we operate, and (3) how we believe we can have the greatest possible impact in the lives of people and in the larger community.

Key factors that have heavily influenced our recent directions include:

  • A recognition that many major social indicators have become worse over the last 30-40 years, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. Many existing systems have not adapted well to changes that have taken place in our society. The silo structure of the public sector and the fragmented structure of the not-for-profit sector are part of the problem. Fragmented approaches have not worked and will not work to solve complex social problems, regardless of how much money is made available. Neither will highly bureaucratic, overly prescriptive approaches. One size does not fit all.
  • A belief that there are no quick fixes to many of our society’s problems, and we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with gradual, incremental progress. We need long term thinking and long term solutions. We also need a strong sense of urgency.
  • A recognition that many of the pieces needed to solve societal problems exist, but in relative isolation from other pieces that could also be part of a long term solution.

I believe that two of the most important elements necessary to reduce generational poverty and its accompanying social problems are:

  • Raise the education levels of children, youth, and adults in low income households. This is why we developed and operate the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School and The Excel Centers.
  • Ensure that children are behaviorally and cognitively ready when it is time for them to enroll in kindergarten. There is powerful evidence of the enormous positive long term impact of high quality early childhood development programs for children in low income households. We must greatly increase the availability of such opportunities – and there must be a strong sense of urgency to do so. Goodwill has taken a major step in this direction by launching Nurse-Family Partnership in Marion County.

It’s also important to emphasize that on all of these initiatives we are working with a lot of other organizations that have compatible interests and complementary resources. In some cases, those relationships are evolving into networks that I believe will play an increasingly important role in developing human potential and reducing serious social problems.

Evolving to Increase Impact

In the late 1980s, most of the people we worked with were adults with disabilities. We employed several hundred and helped others become employed with other firms. Then we were asked by a state agency if we could help “welfare” recipients find jobs. We found that we could, but only low paying jobs because hardly any of them had high school diplomas. Still, we continued to provide “welfare-to-work” services for 17 years. Meanwhile, we also continued to work with people with disabilities. We had simply expanded our scope to include more people than before.

In the early 1990s, unemployment in the Indianapolis area was very low, and employers were desperate for workers. We responded by aggressively trying to find anyone who was employable, but not working, and helping them find jobs. In addition to persons with disabilities and those on public assistance, we started assisting larger numbers of people coming out of the corrections system and newly-arrived immigrants with poor English language skills.

In the mid-1990s, we became involved in the operation of the one-stop employment service centers in Indianapolis, which were serving an average of 45,000 unemployed people each year. When we started examining demographics, we found that 50% of those individuals did not have high school diplomas.

About the same time we were becoming increasingly aware of the magnitude of the dropout problem in several of the city’s high schools, and we began to wonder if, as an organization, we had anything to offer young people who weren’t headed in a positive direction. We thought that if we could help them stay in school and graduate, they would be less likely to need Goodwill’s services once they became adults. Therefore, our organization’s long term impact would be greater.

We became involved in a number of small scale initiatives with local schools, found that we did have something to offer, and started exploring ways to maximize our impact. That led to a decision to start a charter high school that has now completed its seventh year of operation. The learning from that experience and the relationships that have developed led to our designing and launching a second school, the Excel Center, to provide a diploma option for older youth and adults who had dropped out. The demand for space in the Excel Center has been overwhelming, and we will begin replicating the school this fall.

These and all other major steps we’ve taken during the past twenty-five years have been to increase the organization’s long term impact. A few years ago we articulated the following as the ways Goodwill can add the greatest value in the communities in which we operate. Those are:

  • Help young people and adults who have struggled or failed in other educational settings complete high school and attain a post-secondary degree or other recognized credential.
  • Employ people whose work options are limited by disability, criminal history, low education level, or other significant barrier to employment.
  • Help unemployed people become employed.
  • Leverage Goodwill’s resources with those of others to help develop and implement practical, effective approaches to reduce major social problems.

Of those four, only one – providing employment for people with limited options – has been part of the organization since its founding in 1930. The others are a reflection of how we have evolved over time as we’ve learned more, our external environment has changed, and our internal resources have increased.

That process continues.