Scores of high school and middle school boys rose to their feet in the Westbury High School auditorium Friday as they were exhorted to tap into their power to succeed, and to help "pick up" others along the way as they "sharpen" their own minds and talents.
Keith Brown, a professional speaker, author, and education and political consultant, started his keynote address to about 50 students at the Westbury school district's leadership summit with an inspirational call-and-response rap exchange.
"I am somebody!" Brown said, calling on the students to repeat the line the Rev. Jesse Jackson made famous decades ago.
"I will —" Brown said, with students answering, "not fail!"
Brown and the students rapped, "I was born to be great!"
The summit is part of the district's application to become an official Obama Foundation "My Brother's Keeper Alliance" participant. "This is one of the items that we have to accomplish in the process of becoming an MBK Alliance," Westbury schools Superintendent Tahira DuPree Chase said in an interview.
"We are responding to the call of Barack Obama through the My Brother's Keeper initiative and so Westbury has accepted the challenge, with the support of our mayor, Peter Cavallaro," Chase said, noting municipal leadership approval was part of the application process. The initiative will eventually include 75 middle school and high school students.
"We will engage them in mentorship. We will provide structure for them and activities and programs to help them as they enter manhood. ... We're going to share with them ways in which they become positive citizens to society," Chase said.
Then-President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper in February 2014 "to address the persistent opportunity gaps boys and young men of color face," says a statement on the program's website, adding the program seeks to harness "the power of communities working together" to improve boys' outcomes.
The summit included remarks from state Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young Jr., who was joined by Anael Alston, the state's assistant education commissioner, and every Westbury school board member.
Young praised the administrators and teachers for "doing exactly what President Obama said [in helping young people], 'Go as far as their hopes, dreams and hard work will take them.'"
Young told the students "we're in a strange moment. ... We have people all across the country who are actually debating what it means to be an American. We have an electorate that is angrier than I have ever experienced. We have adults with all sorts of degrees that cannot tell the difference between fact and fantasy. And we even have people who want to deny history. So we are in an incredible moral moment. ... This is really a leadership moment."
Young concluded that if the students can't remember anything else he said, they should remember two rules. "The first rule is, never give up. And rule number two: Don't forget rule number one."
Westbury High senior Grant Boylan,17, anticipated the program "would be a good experience" to connect with students and mentors. And Tristan Ewing, a 16-year-old junior, said he was eager "to learn from older people, learn their wisdom and to teach younger people."