Waking Dreams in Harlem

DreamWakers is a national nonprofit organization that connects public school students in underserved communities to real-world, diverse and dynamic professionals through the use of free video chat technology. Last week, one of DreamWakers’ veteran and most impressive speakers was asked to speak at the eighth grade commencement for students he had only previously met virtually. He readily agreed and traveled to New York specifically for the occasion.

DreamWakers Speaker Maurice Owens speaks virtually with a classroom in New Orleans, LA.

Maurice “Moe” Owens did not grow up in easy circumstances. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Moe moved to the Bronx, New York when he was four years old. Although growing up in the Bronx was not without its challenges, Moe’s single mother worked hard to ensure that he would attend and excel in school. While in school, he learned about the importance of having mentors, making good grades, and always keeping the expectations of supporters in mind — “I had a group of people in my life that expected me to do well, and it created a challenge in me that I always wanted to never let them down.” Moe’s hard work and diligence took him all the way from the Bronx to the United States Air Force and then on to the White House, where he served as the Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who was in Moe’s words, “the second most powerful man in the world” as the manager of President Barack Obama’s schedule. Moe is now the Head of the Washington, D.C. office at the Libra Group, an international shipping, aviation, and hospitality corporation.

Maurice Owens shakes hands with President Barack Obama

It is easy to see why, even on paper, Moe would make an extraordinary commencement speaker for young students about to embark on a new educational adventure as they prepare to enter high school. But Moe does not only have an inspirational story to share with students, but also a remarkable ability to draw energy from and truly connect with his audience — in this case a class of graduating eighth graders and hundreds of their families and friends. The graduation took place in a beautifully preserved church in Harlem, around the corner from KIPP STAR Middle School. Holding an audience full of teenagers, proud parents, and even young children in rapt attention is no easy feat, but Moe accomplished it effortlessly.

KIPP STAR Middle School hosts its eighth grade graduation ceremony.

Looking around the church, it was clear that his story resonated with the audience. He recounted his career in the Air Force, which brought him to places like Japan and Iraq, earning his way through the ranks at the White House from A/V installer to Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama took notice of his ability to connect with visiting students from similar circumstances, and recruited him to assist with outreach programs. He now runs a major office of an international corporation, but he has not forgotten his Bronx roots. Moe reminded the students that given their shared background, their journeys too, would not be without disappointment. However, he encouraged the students to “always find opportunity in disappointment” and reminded them that the challenges they face now will ultimately fortify the skills they need to succeed in any position later in life. Moe’s closing remarks included helpful advice for all ages — “great people are those who reinvent themselves constantly.” Moe went from being a student who received detention for a year because he never tucked his shirt in, to knowing that you should always dress for the job you want, not just the job you have.

Maurice Owens delivers the commencement address at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, NY.

At DreamWakers, we believe that “students can’t be what they can’t see.” Each day, our team works to connect the over 5,000 students we serve to professionals that look like them, have overcome similar challenges that the students currently face, and have emerged successful. Last week, during their graduation, 62 eighth grade students got to see, hear, and shake the hand of someone who had beaten all the odds and come out on top. That kind of inspiration is unquantifiable.

Maurice Owens and a graduating eighth grader of KIPP STAR Middle School in Harlem, NY.

Perhaps Richard, one of the graduating students, said it best — “after hearing Mr. Owens speak, I will take away the fact that even though I might not be in the best neighborhood in the world, I still have a high chance of becoming who I want to be, and becoming an important figure in this world.” Richard wants to be a chef or a lawyer when he grows up — and we have no doubt that someday his dream will become a reality.

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