The crowd gets a two-fer when John Legend gives the keynote address, then performs a mini-concert.
By Julien R. Fielding
‘Equality of Education Is the Civil Rights
Issue of Our Time,’ Legend Tells Summit
The Daily Record
Grammy Award winning musician and philanthropist John Legend took to the stage on Thursday, Feb. 28, at the CenturyLink Center, with two goals: To inspire and to entertain.
Legend began his keynote address by explaining that, a few years ago, he encountered a book that changed his life. That book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs, inspired him to take a trip to Africa.
“I saw what it was like to live on less than $1 a day,” he said. “That was the first time I had witnessed that kind of poverty.” This eye-opening experience lead him to launch his Show Me Campaign, a non-profit organization that gives the poor an “opportunity to thrive and survive.” And it accomplishes this through education, because, as he explained, “a good education is the best tool you can give a child to break out of the cycle of poverty.”
Education has been important to Legend for many years, and, he said, it has allowed him to get where he is today.
“At each school, I have had teachers and mentors who have set high expectations for me. And without them, I can only imagine how different my life could be.”
He cited his own high school graduating class as an example. His freshman class started with 500 students, but by graduation, there were fewer than 250.
“Many of my peers dropped out,” he said. “Maybe their parents didn’t stress the value of education. Maybe they needed to get a job to put food on the table. But whatever the reason, they took the path that would always limit their lives.”
Sadly, he said, this isn’t an unusual case.
“This is representative of the education crisis that we face today.”
Adding insult to injury is the fact that “10 percent of schools are responsible for 40 percent of the dropouts. Some schools are ‘drop out factories.’ The education system in the U.S. is broken. Many of our schools are, quite literally, crumbling, and we are not giving them the tools to succeed. Nebraska is doing better than most states.”
The problems begin for children in grade school, he explained. For instance, two-fifths of low income students are already behind in math by the time they are in fifth grade, and once they fall behind at that young of an age, it’s difficult for them to catch up. “This is the land of opportunity, but you can’t attain those opportunities without an education,” he said. “Equality of education is the civil rights issue of our time.”
“I’m here to motivate you,” he said. “And you have to talk about the problems to find solutions. You all have experienced success and now you can invest in the future and inspire children.”
To bring about change, one could quit his or her job and become an educator, but such drastic measures aren’t necessary. “There are smaller ways to get into the fight,” he said. Legend listed four simple ways that audience members can make a difference.
• First, one can join the board of an organization that works for change in education. This could be a national or state organization.
• Second, one can become a tutor. Legend, himself, has done this in New York. “It is rewarding to sit with a kid and help him with his math homework,” he said.
• Third, one can contribute financially to the cause. “Make it a habit of giving back,” he said. “Demonstrate a commitment to your community, and encourage your corporation to be a good citizen.”
• And fourth, get involved with politics. Support candidates who put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting education, he said.
“Make sure that your school board and your mayor earn your vote. Be an educated voter. Look for leaders who put the needs of the students first, and make sure that teachers are being compensated.”
Even though most people focus on the national election – Legend was a strong supporter of President Barack Obama – it is at the local level where true change takes place.
“Most funding decisions are made at the local and state levels,” he said. “The most impactful elections are for the school board, and yet we pay little attention to them.”
Demonstrating that he, too, puts his money where his mouth is, Legend explained that he has taken an active interest in the school board elections in Los Angeles. He has even done public service announcements and has lent his voice for “Robocalls” for the upcoming election there.
“We can fix our schools, and make sure that all children have opportunities,” he said. After all, the future of our children is the future of our communities and of our workforce.
Following his keynote address, Legend took time for a short question and answer session. During it, he talked about the people who have inspired him – Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass – and why: Because they taught him the value of living an important life. He talked about how when he was 14 years old, he wrote an essay for Black History Month, explaining how he wanted to be a famous musician so that he could “make the world a better place. I was raised to be the person I am now. I am fortunate to be able to do what I do.”
When asked how he remains “grounded,” he explained that, because he had already graduated from university and had worked for three years as a management consultant, he was more “emotionally prepared” for success. “I think it’s harder for children,” he said. “As a full-grown adult it was easier to adjust and stay grounded.”
Furthermore, he wasn’t an overnight success. As he said, after spending the day working with Powerpoint presentations and spreadsheets, he went to play at the clubs. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep,” he added. And he remained in a “real job” until he knew he was ready to make the transition. “From 1998 to 2004, I was trying to get a record deal. I was doing a balancing act.”
He also still has many of the same friends he had when going to university, and he said that he is more often in their company than in that of Kanye West or Jay-Z. “I never got caught up in the fame game,” he added.
Once the Q & A ended, Legend sat behind a piano and entertained the crowd. One of the songs he performed is one that he recently added to his repertoire; a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark. After Legend ended his set, the crowd erupted into applause and gave him a standing ovation.
Angela Fernandez, an employee of the College of Saint Mary, was one of those enthusiastic crowd members.
Attending the YP Summit for the first time, she said that she found Legend’s speech “on point.” “I work in education, so what he said was very connected to what I do. I found him inspiring and amazing.”
Janelle Bosan, who works at Woodmen of the World, was attending the Summit for the second year in a row. She said that she found Legend’s speech to be inspiring and motivating. “We are responsible for setting up our future,” she said.
And Shinelle Robinson, owner of Peachy Clean Janitorial Services, explained that she recently attended a mentoring summit, but hadn’t had the impetus to become a mentor. Until now.
“I felt like he was speaking to me,” she said. “He inspired me to take the next step.” This was Robinson’s first time at the YP Summit.
YP Choice Award
In addition to Legend’s keynote address, during the luncheon the YP Choice Award was given to Union Pacific for excelling in helping young professionals and employees alike develop within the company and giving them opportunities to experience all of the other departments.
Other qualities that made them the winner included having an excited and enthusiastic workforce, providing a lot of training, transition and support for succession planning; having internal professional development programs that are well designed and sustainable, and for placing a strong emphasis on wellbeing and health.
The other nominees included ConAgra, Phenomblue, TD Ameritrade, and Mutual of Omaha.
The YP Summit was created as a way to show young professionals what there was to do in Omaha, and then get them involved in the lifestyle and culture of the city. The goal was to retain talent and engage them in community development.
The Summit is presented by the Greater Omaha Young Professionals, a program of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Sponsors for the Summit are HDR and TD Ameritrade. Creighton University’s College of Business is a program partner of the Greater Omaha Young Professionals.
John Legend was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people. The 35-year-old is a best-selling recording artist who has had three chart-topping albums under his belt. (Each of them reached No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B and Hip-Hop charts.)
In addition to founding the Show Me Campaign, he sits on the boards of the Education Equality Project, Teach for America, and the Harlem Village Academies. And, among other things, he is the national spokesperson for Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a non-profit organization that assists the next generation of minority business leaders.
For his efforts, he has earned the 2010 BET Humanitarian of the Year award, the CARE Humanitarian Award for Global Change in 2009, and, in that same year, the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award by Africare.