There was no playing of “Pomp and Circumstance” and no handing out of diplomas, but the Indiana Black Expo Fort Wayne Chapter’s virtual graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 27, was heavy on sound advice for graduates, provided by some of Fort Wayne’s most renowned leaders.
WANE-TV news anchor Terra Brantley emceed the Zoom broadcast that featured speeches from Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, Sweetwater Sound Founder and President Chuck Surack, Century 21 Bradley Realty Inc. President James Bradley, Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel and East Allen County Schools Superintendent Marilyn Hissong.
The virtual graduation ceremony was an event created to help provide closure for area high school students after their tumultuous senior year, coordinated by Joe Jordan, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne. Jordan is also the current president of IBEFW.
“My heart hurt for the Class of 2020 students who didn’t get to experience a lot of their senior year milestones,” Jordan said. “They missed sports tournaments, prom and graduation ceremonies — all those things that are an important part of your high school years. IBEFW wanted to make sure kids had some closure to a school year that didn’t go the way it was supposed to.”
Jordan put the call out to area leaders who could provide insights into their own successful careers and provide positive messages about what the future might hold for the Class of 2020. He also reached out to the area’s four public school district superintendents to address the graduating students. Oranizers said that because of schedule conflicts, Fort Wayne Community Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools were unable to participate.
Bradley committed to sponsor the event on behalf of his company, Century 21 Bradley Realty Inc. “We were contacted by Joe Jordan. I know Joe from serving on the Board for the Boys & Girls Clubs. Joe described what the IBEFW virtual graduation was trying to achieve, and I wanted to get involved. I know this is a year that we will all never forget, and these graduates need to hear some positive messages,” Bradley said.
Bradley’s sponsorship allowed IBEFW to present the virtual ceremony, and to provide graduation cards and gifts to students not adopted through one of the area’s Adopt-A-Senior groups.
“I checked in with one of the groups for adopting graduating students, and found out they had 50 students that hadn’t been adopted yet,” Jordan said. “We adopted them all.”
Additionally, IBEFW provided four $500 scholarships to selected seniors, something the organization does as part of its community outreach every year.
The online event, emceed by Brantley, kicked off with her welcoming statement, congratulating the graduates on making it through an incredibly challenging year.
“You have proven that you’ve got the heart and the spirit to rise above unprecedented challenges,” she said.
She then explained the IBEFW organization, noting, “The IBEFW is dedicated to being an effective voice and vehicle for the social and economic advancement of African-Americans. Its vision is for African-American youth and families to achieve their highest potential and reflect pride in their culture. IBEFW celebrates cultural diversity and inclusiveness across all races, ethnicities, nationalities, generations, socioeconomic levels and religious affiliations. It is committed to excellence, which is what you have displayed by making it to this milestone.”
Following Brantley’s opening statements, each of the four remaining speakers addressed the need for inclusiveness and diversity in the future, and the need to be open to change.
Mayor Tom Henry related a story of meeting a friend of his grandchildren, a young man of color. “Never once in the conversation did they say ‘this was my black friend,’ or ‘this is my friend who is black,’ or ‘my friend is a different color than I am.’ To me that speaks volumes about the maturation process that is taking place,” Henry said. He also noted, “My generation blew it. I’ll be very candid with you. We could have done so much more, and we failed. Some progress was made over the years, but certainly those of us that want change, change never comes quick enough. So it now is in the hands of you, and the next generation, to make sure that we reach across nationalities, we reach across socioeconomic situations, we reach across religious affiliations, and we reach across color. Your generation has so much promise. More than anything, you are poised to truly make a difference in our society. You truly can change the world.”
Chuck Surack, founder and CEO of Sweetwater, told the graduates, “You are our future. Your dreams, your desires, your creativity, your special talents, plus hard work, gives you the ability and the responsibility to make our collective world a better place.”
Surack encouraged the graduates to be open to possibilities that the future may hold, even if they don’t know what they want to do in the future.
“As a musician, I can tell you that life is like an improvisation,” he said. “You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you’ll most likely be making things up as you go along. As you improvise or write that music of your life, always reach for the best. Make it a great song. I know what I’m doing today at Sweetwater is completely different than what I had planned 45 years ago, and I’m so, so thankful for it.”
Following a few technical difficulties, Jim Bradley was the next speaker, focusing on the wise use of time and the importance of setting goals to move forward in life. He cited several verses from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, noting how Proverbs 21:5 had personally changed his life. The verse, “Steady plodding brings prosperity,” inspired Bradley to keep moving forward toward his goals, one step at a time. His work paid off. He encouraged the graduates to set goals, write them down and ask themselves questions on how they will achieve those goals.
Himsel, Northwest Allen County Schools superintendent, offered a more traditional commencement speech. He recognized the Class of 2020 as the first class born after 9/11, and the first class to graduate in a pandemic since 1918.
“Regardless of how we do it, graduation is an event worthy of celebration,” he said.
Hissong, East Allen County Schools superintendent, also recognized the class of 2020 for the resiliency they have demonstrated, and noted, “To say you’re all our future is not an empty cliche. You ARE our future.”
Brantley wrapped up the virtual event with a question, asking each speaker the biggest challenge they had to overcome as a teenager, and how they accomplished it.
The video of the virtual graduation is available on the Fort Wayne UNITED Facebook page. For more information on membership in IBEFW, contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org.