Dohn Community School — 2019 Commencement Address Harold D. Brown

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! What a wonderful occasion this is!

View the interview: Harold Brown on Dohn School

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was working at an organization called KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a wonderful lady named Mrs. Kate Bower approached me about the possibility of receiving a grant from us for her big idea – a one-of-a-kind school she had envisioned and was planning to launch, a school that would specifically serve students who had been in traditional schools that were not equipped to address their needs.

And now, today, some 20 years later, surely Mrs. Bower is overcome with pride and gratification over how that vision has come to fruition and certainly has exceeded even her wildest expectations. The growth and evolution of Dohn Community School far beyond that original vision is nothing short of remarkable! And I am honored to join all of you for today’s celebration. Thank you so much, Mr. Davenport, for allowing me to play a small part in today’s commencement ceremony.

I am Harold Brown, Vice President of Community Strategies at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, an organization which exists to inspire philanthropy throughout our region and apply that philanthropy to strategies and programs that will make our community a better place for all of us to live and prosper. And I know I speak for all of Greater Cincinnati in saluting every member of the Dohn School community for all of your dedication and hard work that has led up to today’s celebration.

Dohn Community School, with its 8 campuses, myriad programs and services, and a growing reputation for excellent education, is a true gem in our community that not enough people know about; it is a critically important piece of our city’s education landscape. No other school in our region does what Dohn does, as well as Dohn does it, and with the results that Dohn is achieving. And for that, Cincinnati celebrates with you — and thanks you.

Indeed, I want to commend the faculty, staff, Board and friends of Dohn for embracing the challenge of educating students whom so many in our community have rejected or failed to serve. As someone who has personally led school turnaround work in cities across the country and having worked to fundamentally transform some of the most challenged and chronically low-performing schools in America, I have a deep, abiding appreciation for what you do. Your commitment to make sure that each and every student has what he or she needs to succeed is as critically important as it is rare.

In fact, I imagine that some folks ask you why you’re working at Dohn, with THOSE kids, from THOSE neighborhoods, of THAT race, with THOSE challenges. Well, I believe you do it because you know that, despite our differences, all of our fates and the fate of our community, are inextricably tied together. The great African American writer James Baldwin put it best, when he wrote:

“They are all our children. We will benefit from – or pay for – what they become. They are all our children. We will benefit from – or pay for – what they become.”

What you have done is struck that perfect balance between toughness and love. It’s called tough love. Some educators are too tough, without enough love. Others show plenty of love but aren’t tough enough. We know that our young people need both.

And you’ve also recognized that our students need support, not sympathy. You could have patted these students on the head and said, “Well, you were born on the wrong side of town and will never amount to much.” Or, “Because of some mistakes you made in your past you’ll never make it.”

Butno, that’s not what you did. Instead, you set high standards and maintained high expectations for every one of these students and did whatever it took to ensure their success. You were determined to not let any one of them fall through the cracks.

And for that, Dohn teachers and staff, we thank you. I hope that you, too, feel a profound sense of pride and accomplishment today as well.

Now on to the graduates, the reason we are gathered here today. So often at commencement ceremonies, some boring speaker gets up and gives you advice about what you ought to do with the rest of your lives.

Well, not being one to disappoint, that’s exactly what I’m going to do! There’s a lot I could say, today, but I’m going to offer you just 3 pieces of advice that I have come to embrace, and I hope you will take them to heart as well.

  • First, release yourselves, forgive yourselves, for past mistakes or bad choices. Shake it off. It’s time to move forward and not look back. Oh, sure, you may have made some bad choices, but who hasn’t? The important thing is that you learn from them. And many of you have endured some of life’s cruelest challenges, perhaps through no fault of your own. But the bottom line is – and we’ve all heard this before – your past does not have to determine your future. It’s hard to drive forward if you’re only looking in the rearview mirror.

  • Second, live on purpose. Each and every one of you has purpose and destiny, and you should be working to discover and pursue that God-given purpose. So what does that mean? Well, take a moment to think about what you love to do, what seems to come naturally, what you would be doing if money were no object or even if you weren’t getting paid for it. What problems do you love to work on or want to solve? What natural ability do you seem to possess? What do you do that causes people to say, “You’re a natural at that,” or “That’s where your heart is?” Those are the kinds of questions that will lead you to your purpose. Failure to identify and pursue your purpose likely will result in a string of useless activities, a lifelong search for satisfaction, and a lack of fulfillment and contentment. Each of us was created for a purpose and have only a very finite amount of time on this earth to fulfill that purpose. What truly matters is what we accomplish during our time on earth.

  • Third, you need to accept the fact that you may need to change your scenery. Get rid of all of those folks in your circle who doubt you, who remind you of what you were and not what you can become, who want to pull you back instead of push you forward, who do not support you as you pursue your purpose. I call them dream killers. The reality is that there probably are people in your life who do not have your best interests in mind. So if you can’t totally rid yourself of them, then at least keep them at arm’s length, at a safe distance, as you protect your heart and your confidence.

As I close, I remind you that today’s celebration is not an end, but a beginning. It is a commencement, which means it is the beginning of the next phase of your life journey. Embrace it. Continue to prepare yourself for what’s next. We know that success happens when preparation meets opportunity.

And what is next? I don’t know you individually, I don’t know your dreams and aspirations, your unique talents and skills, or your particular plans and purposes. But as I look out at among you, I see big ideas, visions, and dreams. I see new discoveries, inventions, and solutions to the problems we face. I see future stalwarts of our community; I see leaders and problem solvers. There are artists and artisans among you; difference makers and game changers, for sure.

And you know what? Our community needs every single one of you and whatever it is that you uniquely bring to the table. Because while many in our community are prospering and thriving, I assure you that just as many, if not more, are barely surviving. So as you invest in yourselves, also remember to invest in our community.

Go forth, graduates! Build on what you have already overcome and accomplished leading up to today, and work hard to become your very best selves. After all, if somehow we would fill do that, what a wonderful world – and community — this would be!

May God bless all of you – now and forever! Congratulations!!