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National Student Council Conference: a better future IS possible

This past weekend, I had the true honor of speaking to over 1,000 students at the National Association of Student Councils’  (NASC) annual conference. I have spoken to youth across America and across the globe, but I had never participated in a Student Council conference before, even though I was president of the Student Council in high school. This conference was a refreshing reminder of why I chose to serve my school in this capacity when I was a student. In short, student council leaders are awesome!!!

From the second I walked in the door of the lovely Ocoee High School where the conference was held, I felt the student energy. Whether in the hallways or in the sessions, these students were actively engaged in everything they did. They were not just there to get away from home. Over three days, I saw them engage great speakers like Cara Filler, Mark Black, Kimyung Kim and others in serious conversations about leadership, service, and decision-making. What NASC does so well at their conferences is that they do not just have keynote speakers speak and leave. The speakers and students also lead smaller workshops, so we got to engage the students at a deeper level.

When it was my turn to speak, I truly felt like a rockstar because the students and incredible advisers gave me such a great reception over the prior two days. I was so moved that I just HAD to put on one of their capes when I took the stage! I have NEVER worn a cape on stage before but I was feeling the spirit after a great introduction by Tori and Cooper, two powerful student leaders! After my speech, I spent about an hour just talking to students who came from as close as Florida to as far away as China! It was an event I will never forget.

Theses student UPstanders at this conference had me feeling extremely confident about the future of America. I really believe that these youth will right our wrongs. It is a shame that I cannot point to our “adult” lawmakers in my town of Washington, DC as an example of what can happen when we put service and country first but I believe these incredible leaders of today (not tomorrow) have figured out how to build communities together just fine. I truly hope that I am blessed with future opportunities to work with NASC at state conferences and summer leadership programs. These students and advisers have created an incredible model that other programs should follow. As I said to so many of them at the conference, ROCK ON!

The future of youth: 3 things I learned from youth in Mali

 

            Last week, my organization UPstander International partnered with the State Department to provide leadership training for youth workers in Mali, West Africa. This country has been labeled as being “in crisis” due to its battle with northern Islamic extremists. During the evenings, I trained more than 30 leaders of organizations that work with youth. During the day, I would travel to middle schools, high schools, and universities and deliver my inspirational message “G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness!” If you didn’t know, Mali is a French speaking country so all of my presentations had to be in French. Pas de problème (no problem)! I relearned 3 main things from this Mali experience:

 

  1. Youth around the globe want inspiration. The enthusiasm with which these youth and youth leaders received my message was truly moving. I was reminded that, no matter what language you are speaking with youth, they will listen to you if they believe you are genuine in your professed care for them. In order to connect with youth you must understand your real motivations in wanting to work with them.

 

  1. Malian (like most African youth I encounter) place a serious value on education. Many Africans with whom I come across on the continent see education as the primary way to obtain success. In the United States, many students believe the same thing but mainstream media is so ubiquitous that too many youth here succumb to the false notion that their chances of success are greater by obtaining YouTube stardom, getting a record deal or landing on a reality show.

 

  1. Whether in America or abroad, youth respond to music that is uplifting. One of the travesties of our global entertainment culture is the manner in which our youth mainly see and hear music that degrades women, and celebrates drug abuse and violence. Many of us have been convinced that this is all the type of music our youth want to hear. In all of the 19 countries I have visited and performed in, I have found student after student who said they did not believe it was even possible to make music with an uplifting message. The entertainment industry is wrong in thinking uplifting music won’t sell. Our low opinion on what youth value perpetuates a continued arrogance and ignorance towards youth and we must change that.

 

While I was originally nervous about speaking to an audience of French speakers, I quickly forgot my nervousness as they continually nodded their heads in agreement with my 4 strategies for achieving greatness: giving, releasing (friends and letting hurt go), overcoming fear, and having a winning mentality. Even though these were performances blended in with motivational messages, students were studiously taking notes and posing very thought-provoking questions.

I have returned to States more committed to the idea that youth across the globe are in need of motivation whether they are in an economically developing country or the most powerful nation in the world. We have our differences, but at the end of the day, we all laugh and cry in the same language. I am going to continue to travel and speak the universal language of hope for a better day into our youth. Every day, if you think about it, you can also impact a young person. Just take time and communicate to them in the same way you needed to be talked to by an adult when you were younger and you will quickly see that you have an attentive audience. So what are you waiting for?

The future of youth: 3 things I learned from youth in Mali

 

            Last week, my organization UPstander International partnered with the State Department to provide leadership training for youth workers in Mali, West Africa. This country has been labeled as being “in crisis” due to its battle with northern Islamic extremists. During the evenings, I trained more than 30 leaders of organizations that work with youth. During the day, I would travel to middle schools, high schools, and universities and deliver my inspirational message “G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness!” If you didn’t know, Mali is a French speaking country so all of my presentations had to be in French. Pas de problème (no problem)! I relearned 3 main things from this Mali experience:

 

  1. Youth around the globe want inspiration. The enthusiasm with which these youth and youth leaders received my message was truly moving. I was reminded that, no matter what language you are speaking with youth, they will listen to you if they believe you are genuine in your professed care for them. In order to connect with youth you must understand your real motivations in wanting to work with them.

 

  1. Malian (like most African youth I encounter) place a serious value on education. Many Africans with whom I come across on the continent see education as the primary way to obtain success. In the United States, many students believe the same thing but mainstream media is so ubiquitous that too many youth here succumb to the false notion that their chances of success are greater by obtaining YouTube stardom, getting a record deal or landing on a reality show.

 

  1. Whether in America or abroad, youth respond to music that is uplifting. One of the travesties of our global entertainment culture is the manner in which our youth mainly see and hear music that degrades women, and celebrates drug abuse and violence. Many of us have been convinced that this is all the type of music our youth want to hear. In all of the 19 countries I have visited and performed in, I have found student after student who said they did not believe it was even possible to make music with an uplifting message. The entertainment industry is wrong in thinking uplifting music won’t sell. Our low opinion on what youth value perpetuates a continued arrogance and ignorance towards youth and we must change that.

 

While I was originally nervous about speaking to an audience of French speakers, I quickly forgot my nervousness as they continually nodded their heads in agreement with my 4 strategies for achieving greatness: giving, releasing (friends and letting hurt go), overcoming fear, and having a winning mentality. Even though these were performances blended in with motivational messages, students were studiously taking notes and posing very thought-provoking questions.

I have returned to States more committed to the idea that youth across the globe are in need of motivation whether they are in an economically developing country or the most powerful nation in the world. We have our differences, but at the end of the day, we all laugh and cry in the same language. I am going to continue to travel and speak the universal language of hope for a better day into our youth. Every day, if you think about it, you can also impact a young person. Just take time and communicate to them in the same way you needed to be talked to by an adult when you were younger and you will quickly see that you have an attentive audience. So what are you waiting for?

I don’t care about the Zimmerman verdict

 

            I don’t care about the Zimmerman verdict. Don’t get me wrong. I care about Trayvon’s family and the tragic loss they have endured. I care about the way in which some in our society dragged the name and life of a teenager whose life had yet to begin through the mud. I care about the way we in America are such cowards on having a genuine conversation about race but quick to tear each other down when any incident with racial overtones occurs in America. I care about how we use social media to only have conversations with those who agree with us and boost our egos. Other than that, I don’t care about the Zimmerman verdict. What I care about is the fact that too often in Black America, we demonstrate that we don’t care for our own lives and then get upset when others do the same.

            Throughout this trial, I’ve found myself frustrated that we are not as vigilant at ending black on black violence as we are when we are attacked by other races. Don’t get me wrong. I know there many organizations, religious institutions, and community centers that work tirelessly to end violence in our community. I am a member of several of them. The problem is that we don’t come out en masse to demand change and show that we love and value one another. Do we? Not since the Million Man March have I seen national public declarations of black love. I find myself wondering how many black people killed each other today in Chicago and their stories will not even make the news? It is safe to say that America thinks we hate each other too. Do we?

            When I wake up tomorrow and turn on the TV or the radio, I am going to see and hear the same misogynistic music and images perpetrated by black people. People can talk about the record labels all they want, but WE write the lyrics. WE star in the videos. WE celebrate murder, buffoonery, rape, child abuse, lewd sex, drug abuse, and more. Furthermore, we never hold members of our own community accountable for their words or actions. In reality, we’re quick to give out ghetto passes for anyone who demonstrates a certain level of ignorance or hood attributes like calling Bill Clinton the first black President because he grew up poor and had a single mother.

            So in the same way I didn’t celebrate when OJ Simpson was acquitted (the first time), I’m not going to lose any sleep over George Zimmerman. Whether he was acquitted or not, I know that I could still be the next Trayvon, Danroy, or Amadou tomorrow. I know that should I be so unlucky, some in this country will tear into my past and find some way to argue that I deserved to die for driving my own car, walking in my own neighborhood, or reaching for my wallet. As far as I can see, there will be more Zimmerman trials. I am just going to continue to do my best to help build on creating a bigger black culture of self-respect so that the next time this happens, others will see more of our humanity and develop some real empathy. I believe wholeheartedly that if we show the world how much we value our own lives as Black Americans, others will think twice about shooting us down like animals. Time to get back to work.

What Oprah’s Lifeclass teaches us about being present

 

Over the past month, I have been watching Oprah Winfrey's show entitled "Life Class," where they have been looking at the issues of absentee fathers and the children they leave behind. One of the key points made in the specials was that a father can be present but not really present in the lives of their children, which can be just as bad. 

The shows had me thinking about all of us. What can you do to be more of a presence in the lives of those around you? Do you plan meetups with your friends and family just to sit down and be on your phone the entire time? Do you avoid talking to people who could really benefit from hearing your voice and just send them text messages? In your relationship with your spouse or significant other, are you celebrating them or just tolerating their presence or being indifferent to their wants and needs now that you're together and you think the courting process is done?

No matter where you are in life, you and I know that you can do more to be a better presence in the lives of those around you. If you are an absentee parent, you need to do whatever possible to go back and reclaim your child or children. Your presence should really be a present to those around you, not a curse. If you know this applies to you, then you have much more work to do! Get to it!

 

The future of youth: when your child gets called a monkey

 

“You’re a monkey.” “I can’t play with brown kids.”

 

If only I was fortunate enough for these to be the only insults I ever heard as a child. If only I had to deal with this instead of white kids wearing KKK masks to school in Boston in 1994 when I ran for class president. If only I had to deal with this instead of seeing my Harvard-PhD recipient mother be thrown in a jail cell because a random white girl told the police my mom tried to sell her drugs and the cop immediately took said white girl’s side (yes, we lost the court case). If only I had to deal with this instead of having police officers drive up to my car, flash the light in to ensure I was black and then pull me over and attempt to convince me that I was drinking even though I’ve never consumed an alcoholic beverage in my life. If only. In reality, the two quotations above are worse than all of the aforementioned experiences because they were said to my toddler daughter 2 years ago when she was 5.

There can’t be anything worse in life than seeing your children experience hardship. By the time I became a parent, I felt like I had dealt with all of my issues of racism. I knew it existed and that it permeated every aspect of American society. I was forced to join the anti-racism movement at a very early age growing up in Boston where my siblings and I were bullied everyday because of our background. Rocks thrown at us. Called all types of names at school. My oldest brother shot in the eye with a metal BB gun. Add this to the fact that between grades 7 & 12, I read one book in school by a black author, which was aptly titled “The Invisible Man.” America didn’t even have to work hard at making feel insignificant. By the time I had my kids though, I felt like I had this racism thing down. That was before my daughter came home and told me what her class[less]mates said to her.

When my daughter came home to tell me that her classmates told her this, it was depressing. I really thought I could shield my girls from issues relating to race until they were at least 7 years old. At that age we could have “the talk” that many black parents hate having with their kids but deem necessary in a world where racism exists. “You have to be two times better than everyone else because people expect less of you,” etc., etc. I was shocked to realize that I actually had to start teaching my daughter to be proud of her heritage at the age of 2 thanks to a little thing we call cartoons.

We didn’t watch much TV with our daughter during her first few years but it is almost impossible to avoid cartoon images when you’re shopping for your kids and they are with you. I remember one day I called my daughter a princess and she said quickly that she wasn’t one. It was easy to figure out why. Every image she saw outside of the house was of a non-black girl as a princess. I couldn’t even find products like pull-ups without these princess images on them. This was years before the movie “The Princess & The Frog.” Before that, not only were the princesses mostly white, their names also suggest that they are the purest girls on the planet. Just think: “Snow White.” “Belle” (“beautiful” in French). “Sleeping Beauty.” These names plus the images of them hold white girls up as the standard of beauty, even up until this day.

It didn’t take long for my wife & I to build our daughter’s belief that she was a princess too. Within a month or so, she was walking around telling people she was a princess and asking adults if they were kings and queens. It wasn’t that we wanted her to buy into this princess model as some needy woman who always needed to be pampered. It was more about showing her that she can be anything including a princess. When “The Princess & The Frog” movie finally did come out, I’ll never forget seeing my daughter just looking at the pillow set we bought her with Princess Tiana’s image. Though she had believed what we told her, children who watch cartoons have this weird belief that the cartoon images are real and real people on TV are fake. The black princess image on TV meant a lot for us and many other parents who heretofore had to buy “Dora the Explorer” merchandise to have an image as close to brown as possible. That’s just real talk right there.

Living with everyday racism as a father means always being prepared for my 2 daughters to come home with stories like this. Their hair is locked like mine so I have no issues when kids tease them and say “spaghetti hair” because I just tell them to laugh it off or play elsewhere if the kids don’t stop. Calling them a monkey, however, is different from calling them an elephant or a cat because of the racist history of blacks being compared to monkeys and apes in America. For a child to say that to my kids, that child had to learn that from their parents and that’s what is the even scarier—seeing racist behavior be passed down to the next generation.

The author William Cross talks about stages of racialized development. In short, he says that as human beings, we have experiences that take us all across the racial spectrum. For example, I was so happy to be a black man in America when President Obama was elected, but I was brought back down from cloud 9 when I went to do my diversity trainings at the schools I work in and my colleagues were told not to talk about Obama in the trainings because white teachers were still pissed off. As a white person, you may have a high when you see a multicultural rally for unity but then feel low as a white person when you see a racist attack by your neighbor against a non-white person. This is what everyday racism is about in America. Some days we’re up and some days we’re down.

My daughters motivate me to work even harder towards ending racism in America. Even if I cannot do that, my goal in my work as a diversity consultant is to at least give people the tools to analyze their own racist behavior or the behavior of others and be upstanders and not bystanders when they witness it. I don’t have time to dream about racism ending one day. I only have time to do the work as a youth speaker and diversity educator and continue on the path set for me by Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Harry Belafonte, and so many people of all races who fought and fight for peace. I do this work because “deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

 

Navy Yard shooting should make you value life more

Whether it's the tragic shootings at the Navy Yard; the innocent bystanders shot by police in New York; the bombing that may happen in the city you live in right now in your own country or anything else; the phrase "You're still here" should mean more to you every single day you wake up. In this often volatile world that we live in, you never know when your number is going to be called. That is not a reason to live in fear. It is a reason celebrate life each day! Count every day you are here as a blessing and you will see a difference in your daily attitude. We were all put here to enjoy life, not suffer through it. Make each day your best and then make it better for someone else. You never know, your kind actions may even prevent someone from committing the next atrocity. Spread love and the world will follow your lead!

Standing UP Against Human Sex Trafficking, a CSPAN Event

As a youth speaker, I am proud to have taken part in this wonderful event that is affecting so many people around the world but especially youth. Maya Soetoro-Ng, peace advocate and Pres. Obama’s half-sister, addresses the Center for American Progress on ending the exploitation of women and children. She highlights the challenges and strategies utilized to combat human trafficking.

You can watch the entire event here.

 

1,000,000 Youth Campaign

 

The problem

In today’s mass media culture, our youth are constantly being reminded of what it is they do not have. Through the entertainment industry, they are constantly reminded of an image they may never attain. From flawless, near-perfect model images of Beyonce and Taylor Swift to television shows broadcasting the multi-room mansions of today’s athletes, our young people become convinced that their lives will never be as drama-free as the utopian images advertised to them hourly on their cell phones, iPods, televisions, laptops, and video games.

While our youth are dealing with the aforementioned challenges, there are few avenues by which they can receive support (or positive reinforcement) for their own concerns. Television shows that speak to teen issues are hard to come by. Community programs are being closed left and right due to lack of funding. School counselors are overworked and underpaid. Many parents are too busy trying to provide for their children that they do not have time during the day to properly interact with their children and learn of the challenges they face. With no consistent means to intervene in the lives of our youth, we are witnessing an increase in suicides, crime, gang activity, dropout rates, teen sexual promiscuity, and drug abuse. For all intents and purposes, our youth have been abandoned by society as a whole.

The need for the 1,000,000 youth campaign

It has been said that one positive thought can overcome an entire army of negative thoughts. The 1,000,000 youth campaign exists to speak positivity into the minds of our youth. The campaign seeks to plant a seed of greatness in the lives of many whose spirits have wilted. Sometimes it takes the belief of someone else to carry one over until she develops her own ability to believe in herself. Through participating in the 1,000,000 youth campaign, participants will learn the “Great 8” formula for personal growth. Specifically, they will learn to:

  • Realize they can overcome any obstacle
  • See suicide as a permanent solution to a temporary problem
  • Understand the relevance school still has in their lives
  • Create goals to pursue their dreams
  • Remove negative people or circumstances from their lives
  • Attract the people and circumstances around them that will advance their goals
  • Respect the differences of others
  • Be upstanders and not bystanders in the face of our bullying epidemic

The How

Through powerful and entertaining motivational speeches including the use of spoken word and hip-hop; through personal stories and stories of others who have overcome obstacles; through affirmations; and through dialogue, Omékongo, empowers every audience member to be an upstander and live their greatest life. Through intense breakout sessions, participants dig deeply into not only developing self-esteem for themselves, but a respect for people of diverse backgrounds. Don’t wait! Contact Omékongo today if you want to motivate your youth with this dynamic motivational youth speaker!

 

 

G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness! for high schools

The focus on this specially designed keynote for school assemblies looks at what students need to do to change their attitude going into the new year, quarter, or semester. This presentation motivates students at all levels: 

– Seniors getting ready for college who should also be thinking about their legacy at their current school;
– Juniors who are about to become school leaders;
– Sophomores who should understand now that what happens in the next 2 years will be crucial for their college application or whatever line of work they go into;
– Freshmen who now have to realize that next year students will be looking up to them so they need to be more responsible.