It Gets Bigger! 50 Years of Double Discovery

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, I was the keynote speaker at the 50th Anniversary commencement ceremony for Double Discovery Center at Columbia University. It was a singular honor to address a program I participated in 50 years ago. Here are my comments to the students and faculty:

It Gets Bigger!

Double Discovery Commencement Speech

Roone Arledge Auditorium

Columbia University, NYC

Thursday May 14, 2015

First of all, I am so impressed by the welcome to this event in different languages. This nation is becoming rapidly diverse and it is good to see that the Double Discovery Center is aware of that and readying you for what’s to come!

I would like to thank Double Discovery Executive Director Joseph Ayala and Lisa Herndon, Assistant Director for Development for allowing me to help you celebrate your graduation and the 50th Anniversary of Project Double Discovery. It is so wonderful to know that there is such a committed leadership at the helm during this time in the history of the Double Discovery Center. Under such leadership I can see this project continuing another 50 years!

Congratulations to all of the graduates and award winners!

And Ms. Quanisha Smith, what a tremendous introduction! We are very proud that you will take your skills to the University of Albany ( and beyond) as you navigate your life towards career success. Thank you very much!

To be standing in front of all of you in a commencement ceremony witnessed by parents, relatives, loved ones, educators, counselors and friends is one of the proudest moments of my life.

It is hard to believe that 50 years have gone by since I walked this same path as all of you. The struggles facing my generation were not unlike what you face today.

  • In February of 1965 Malcolm X was shot dead in Harlem.
  • An anti-war movement gave rise to massive protest against the conflict in Vietnam. In August of that year, 35-thousand people marched on Washington against the war.
  • Race relations moved from non-violent civil disobedience to moments of near anarchy. A race riot in Watts put California and the nation on its heels… 35 people died in that conflagration. 4-thousand national guardsmen were called out as fires destroyed 40-million dollars in property. California’s Governor at that time was Pat Brown, father of current governor Jerry Brown.
  • In November of 1965 a massive power outage plunged 30-million people into 13 hours of darkness when human error led to the shutting down of the Northeast power grid. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York were affected. It was said to be the lowest amount of crime in New York City since records were kept.
  • America had a government sponsored space program. NASA called it Project Gemini. There were five missions that year to send pairs of astronauts into earth orbit. It inspired a generation of engineers and dreamers . The technology gleaned from NASA’s space exploration can be seen in your basic high tech automobiles and manufacturing today.
  • Also in 1965 the Voting Rights Act became law but as you know, that did not end discrimination at the polls or attempts at voter suppression. Voting rights is a struggle that unites your generation to mine.

Fast-forward to 1968, the year I graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn:

  • First of all, that high school, Thomas Jefferson, unlike the Double Discovery Center, no longer exists. It was closed in 2007.
  • There was a crisis with North Korea over the capture of the USS Pueblo. 82 American sailors were taken prisoner by North Korea. They were tortured and starved for 11 months. As a condition for the release of our sailors, North Korea made the United States admit that the Pueblo was a spy ship. That confession was later recanted by President Lyndon B. Johnson as a pretense to bring our sailors home.
  • The most significant military battle of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, was launched by North Vietnam. And though it was not a military victory, it turned the tide of opinion firmly against the war.
  • On April 4th of 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis TN. And despite calls to honor Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolence, riots broke out in 100 cities.
  • Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles as he campaigned for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
  • And in a simple act of non-violent protest, two heroic black Olympians, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, bowed their heads and raised a black gloved clinched fist during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner as they were awarded the gold and bronze medals for their performances in the 200-meter race. This simple act of protest against the treatment of African Americans resonated around the world changing the Olympics forever.
  • And it was only in 1968 when the first inter-racial kiss was broadcast on Television. It was Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura and William Shatner as Captain Kirk in the TV series Star Trek … With lips locked in loving embrace, bigots around the nation asked, “What is this world coming to?”

I raise these points in history to demonstrate that as time marches on, your role in society will always be a challenge. It will be fraught with good moments and bad. Lessons from the past give rise to actions in the future. But it is how you process success and failure and learn from those lessons that will define the contributions of your generation.

Kaven Marte  knows this. At the young age of 14, Kaven made the agonizing decision to leave the Dominican Republic, the nation of his birth. He had a dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. In his high school sophomore year, Kaven was told that his eyesight would eliminate him as a viable candidate to become an airline pilot. Though devastated, he took stock in what he could do to control his own destiny. Kaven loved math so he enrolled into College Now courses and became a math tutor. In the Columbia Upward Bound program he was exposed to discussions with Columbia professors, and was introduced to the Quest Bridge College Prep Scholarship Program. Kaven became the only student in New York City selected to attend the Island School in the Bahamas to study marine Ecology.

This was a giant success, except for one thing… Kaven did not know how to swim! But in two weeks Kaven would become a certified scuba diver, chasing sea turtles, swimming 5-and a half miles in a swim-run, diving into a deep waters and collecting data on the ocean floor. Now that’s determination to find your genius, to forge your own path and to make life bigger! Kaven, congratulations as you take your sense of determination and accomplishment to the University of Rochester.

I chose to be a scribe… a witness to history… someone to facilitate facts about every day events so that you… the public can make sense of it all… so that you can make informed decisions.

As I enjoy 48 years in news I tell people if my career were a child, I would be a grandfather.

My career possibilities began by writing a 2-page newsletter in the housing projects of Brooklyn. But it got bigger! I went door to door in the Farragut Houses, slipping my two-page mimeographed newsletter under the doors of my neighbors.

I was a Double Discovery Upward Bound Student when I started writing. I bemoaned the poverty, heroin addiction, gangs and lack of educational opportunities in my neighborhood.

So I wrote about all of the positive programs available to lift my contemporaries up. I was encouraged by my Upward Bound training to write that local newsletter, which I named “The Farragut People’s Press.” I distributed it door to door once a month for almost two years until I graduated high school and went on to study at Fordham University.

26 years later I was hired to be the News Director of WWOR here in the New York Market. I went from communicating to friends and family in the Farragut/Fort Green housing projects to running a major television News operation, serving potentially9 million people in the New York Metropolitan area. I can honestly say that from Upward Bound to professional career, it got bigger!

It was December 8, 1992 when I came home from Houston to become the news director of WWOR-Channel 9. I chose December 8th , because December 7th is Pearl Harbor Day. December 8th is the Day of The Immaculate Conception. What better time to take on a new challenge!

By then I was married to my loving wife Patricia, and had an 11-year-old daughter. There were items in the local newspapers proclaiming William Wright (me) to be the first African American News Director in the New York Media Market.

My friends called me with heartfelt congratulations and said that I must be very proud. But I took little solace in the fact that it took America over four decades to hire an ethnic minority in such an influential position. What I did take pride in, was that this College Discovery graduate achieved that level of success.

From a mimeographed newsletter to a major market news manager, my experiences at College Discovery got bigger!

At the time I joined WWOR as its leader, Racial Profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike was routine and systematic. Our I-Team broke that story leading to nationwide exposure of this type of police abuse. I was proud to be a part of a news organization that had done so much good.

As Channel 9’s News Director, I served the public tirelessly in the aftermath of both attacks on the twin towers at the World Trade Center.

We won a slew of Emmy Awards for both breaking news and feature coverage. And we did the near impossible, garnering the industry’s highest honor as a non-network affiliated news organization, The Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Operation in the nation.

But WWOR was not my first Rodeo. I was News Director for FOX in Houston Texas in 1995 when a huge explosion went off at the federal building in Oklahoma City. Immediately news organizations around the country trotted out terrorism experts who, without the facts, suggested that act to be Muslim inspired terrorism.

But NOT my watch! I refused to blame it on Muslims until the facts came out. As you now know, it was Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who were convicted of blowing up that building. 168 people, 19 of them children died, and 500 people were injured.

Now why was that important? It was important to the many Muslim students I sat next to in Double Discovery. It was important to one of my Double Discover counselors who is Muslim and one of the most caring and beautiful women I know. It was important to the Muslim community in Houston who deserved the right to practice their religion with respect and honor.

High School is a journey of exploration that leads from one open door to many open doors.

 I can only imagine the doors that will open for Lanique Dawson, one of your fellow graduates who has already distinguished herself as a scientist! Lanique took advantage of an opportunity to learn in The Advance Science Research course at Manhattan Center.

She is becoming quite an accomplished researcher. What makes her accomplished? Knowing the right questions to ask, and going out to get the answers.

She understands that you might not get the answers you seek, but will learn from the answers you get! Keep asking the right questions Lanique and you will go far at Antioch College in Ohio.

I think young people of your generation have a greater opportunity to be heard! The story surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin first came to the mainstream media through individual tweets and blogs. I would hope that the struggle for equal justice for young people will be enhanced by the existence of camera phones everywhere. I only wish I had the email addresses of my neighbors so that instead of hand delivering sheets of paper I could have clicked send on my keyboard and gotten my message out to the 1-thousand-100 apartments that make up Brooklyn’s Farragut projects.

I could have used the coding expertise of Laura Willson, one of your colleagues who is a Girl Who Codes. We could have collaborated on an app to do all that footwork.

Laura, we wish you the greatest success at Hunter. We will all be with you as you follow in the footsteps of technology leaders such as former HP Chief and Presidential Candidate Carly Fiorina, or Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Cher Wang, Co-founder of HTC and Ursula Burns, CEO and Chairperson of Xerox. Yes Laura, it will get bigger, even that big!

Nobody gets to be successful alone. There are always people and factors leading up to your victories. And the greatest source of inspiration and support comes from your peers.

Consider, for instance Simone Singletary who inspires determination. Simone had gone through her early life feeling as though she would have a hard time keeping up with other students. But instead of shutting down with despair, and conceding defeat, she confided in her peers. In her college application essay, which got her accepted to SUNY Albany, by the way, she said her mother, teachers and friends gave her unlimited support. She has earned an advanced regents diploma, and for that, Simone, you have our fondest admiration!

The major influencers in your life are already here. Look to the left of you, to the right of you. Look in front of you and yes, look behind you. You are surrounded by love and support.

There are people such as Sharmin Choudhury who aspires to a career in academia. She’s headed to my Alma Mater, Fordham University. I think teachers and educators are the most important people in our society. First of all, they spend more time with our children than we do… they take responsibility for our children’s intellectual growth, and they are stellar role models. Sharmin… thank you so much for being willing to take on the mission of making our society smart! –RESPECT!—-

So, Who are you? Why are you here? What do you like? What’s your favorite color, what do you like to eat, what do you watch on TV? What do you do when nobody is looking? The answers to those questions define you beyond labels.

I read an essay written by one of your colleagues, Faith Flowers that invoked those questions in me. She used “ice cream” as a metaphor of how we perceive others.

She writes, and forgive my brief excerpt for the sake of time…and I quote…

“IN A WAY, IT FEELS LIKE SOMETIMES WE ARE MISJUDGED BY OTHERS AS BEING COMMON BECAUSE THEY SEEM TO SEE OTHERS LIKE US EVERYWHERE, BUT IT IS NOT UNTIL YOU –TASTE US –THAT YOU TRULY SEE OUR COMPLEXITY, AND OUR HISTORY.”

That is so wise beyond your years, Faith Flowers. You have a gift! Keep writing as you make your mark at Smith College!”

You can change what you don’t like… Don’t like the police, become a police chief! Don’t like the media, become a news executive or a powerful blogger appealing to ‘like minded’ people. Do you have an issue with health care? Then be a health care administrator…   In short, don’t just be a service consumer… be a service creator, a service motivator a service innovator! Don’t talk about it, be about it.

Double Discovery is a Laboratory for life. Life does not come with an instruction manual. It is mostly trial and error. But you have instructors of all kinds. My instructors in College discovery created a lifetime of guidance. Mark D. Naison, a Columbia College graduate, is now professor of history at Fordham and Director of the Bronx African American History Project. He was my counselor throughout high school. When I graduated and became a college student, I returned to PDD where Doctor Naison was my Division Chief, my boss as I counseled high school students here in the project.
20 years later, Mark Naison was my daughter’s professor at Fordham. He guided her through a Master’s Degree in Sociology then helped her get into law school. The influences that started when I was 15 years old continued with my child as Mark supported her candidacy for Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx. As I stand with you here today to celebrate 50 years of this dynamic program, I assure you that the influence will last for generations, and I have just given you proof to that!

And then there are your friends, the greatest influencers in your life. Friends come and friends go, but the most enduring memories you will have are of the friends you met through this program. Why? Because of the positive, life building, career potential and quality friendships this program produces.

I’m going to leave you with the topmost advice I can give you in pursuing your career goals. It is foolproof and always works.

TIP: When you stand in front of a hiring manager or advanced degree admittance screener, talk about what YOU bring to the table.

Why do you get hired? Because you are special, because you have radiance, because you bring something new to the table. In my 48 years in News, my goal is always to remain relevant. At age 65, I continue to roam the halls of NBC news. Why? Because I continue to be relevant.

When you enter into the work environment, remember why you were brought in…continue to be unique, but also continue to be part of the team.

Remember that you are a BRAND!

In closing I will quote the most famous man in America…”I am a black man in America,” he says, “Who grew up without a father. I was determined to break that cycle and Sasha and Malia are better off for it.” That was the words of President Barack Hussein Obama just two days ago at the Presidential Summit on Poverty.

And why does that resonate? Because I too have broken the cycle that held my family back. I was like you, and have been successful in business. I was like you, and I have been successful in love, marriage and parenting. And I was like you, a Double Discovery, College Discover Graduate. I have put together the components for a long and beautiful career, supported by my loving wife Patricia, who has added to this foundation.

So GRADUATES, go out and be great…. It is your destiny!

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You can follow Will Wright on:

Twitter: @willjwright

WordPress: willwrightblog.wordpress.com

Facebook: Facebook.com/William.wright.71697092

Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/willjwright

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