Commencement speech by Dr. Damon A. Williams


December 17, 2016

Dr. Damon A. Williams (@dawphd), senior vice president and chief education officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America delivered the keynote Commencement speech at SUNY Oswego on Dec. 17, 2016.

• Members of the Board, President Stanley, members of the faculty, friends and family, and most importantly – the graduating class of 2016 – it is an honor and a pleasure to be with you today. 

• An honor as I join with you in this moment of celebration as a new cohort, emerges from this sleepy town of “Oswego” transformed by the Oswego difference, what some might call “the difference of Oz.”  

• And as I look around this auditorium and see so many of you – I know that some of you have graduated cum laude, others summa cum laude, and still others “oh laude” –

• Regardless - every one of you should be celebrated for the accomplishments of completing something.

• You should be celebrated because of your grit and your heart.  

• For harnessing your will and taking an important step towards your future.

• And you have done that over the last 4, 5, or in some instances 6 years (Parents) – you have done that today, and you must be congratulated for this accomplishment.

• Please – join me in giving some love to our graduates, our class of 2016.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America

• I have the honor of working for the National Office of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America 

• Where we believe that every citizen of this country deserves a great future – an opportunity to pursue the American Dream, an opportunity for them to be like you, a college graduate, going on to a great future. 

• Yet this dream is unattainable for many, who face extraordinary challenges that inhibit their future success.

• Consider the numbers:

* One in five youth live in poverty. 
* 1.3 M teens did not graduate on time from high school last year.
* 20 percent of youth too often go to bed hungry. 
* Some 4,000 young people are arrested every day in America. 
* 40 million students do not have high-speed Internet in their schools.

• For more than 150 years, Boys & Girls Clubs of America has stood in the breach, helping to guide our nation’s youth on the path to great futures.

• Serving the youth who need us most – and we did it with volunteers and leaders like you, serving in our clubs – more than 300,000 volunteers annually.

• And your legacy is evident in the lives of our 16 million Club alumni, Denzel Washington, Misty Copeland, Lebron James.

• And others you don’t know - Bill Clinton,Senator John Glenn, Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones, Business Guru Jim Collins, X Athlete - Shaun White, and millions more.

• And I am one of those alumni, one of those individuals touched by the Boys & Girls Clubs magic.  

You Matter

• I stand before you today, born to a 17 year old mother, with a biological, drug addicted father that I only saw 5 – times in life, although I was blessed to have had a DAD who married my mom and raised me as his son.

• And I am here to tell each and every one of you graduates:

• You matter.
• You are special.
• You can accomplish anything that you want in your life, no matter your beginning, no matter your circumstance, no matter your situation.  
• Some of you are scared because you have no idea what your going to do, after graduation.
• Some of you are scared because you completed majors that don’t align to your passions.
• Some of you are scared because you want to go to medical school, but you don’t have the grades.
• Some of you are scared because you may have a mountain of student loan debt and you don’t have a job.

But I’m here to tell you that you can do it.  

• You can overcome the challenges and the fear of today, but you have to push through to the other side.  

• You have to have a mindset that you can do anything, you have to have a belief that you can accomplish more, and you have to develop a plan of action that you follow with rigor, discipline, and focus, relentlessly overtime –

• Just as you did to get to this point in your lives today.  


• People see more and think that more was easy. More is never easy.  More is struggle. More is every day. 

• I have always fought for more, learning from those who knew more, and believed that I could be more when I myself was unsure of the grit that it took to accomplish more.

• More begins early and is cultivated over time, and my roots of more run deep – and SUNY Oswego is forever a part of the roots that define your ability to accomplish MORE.

DAW – Personal Journey

My journey began with a challenged birth, unconditional love, a fear of failure, and a spark that turned into a flame to chart a life of giving.

• I grew up in the rough - where the seduction of drugs, violence and criminality was everywhere.  

• A community where books and classrooms were too often traded for dime bags and street corners; 

• A community, where teen pregnancy was as much a right of passage as high school graduation.

• But I was one of the lucky ones.  

• My parents sacrificed greatly.

• They entertained my passions and used my love of comic books and sports like a flint to a stone –

• Sparking my imagination and competitive discipline, galvanizing me to fight for the privilege of education and my desire for more.

• For 40 years I have fought:

• THE black hole that swallowed too many who had far more talent than me, but did not have the same opportunity, support, and love as me; 

• THE criticism of naysayers who poured heavy doses of their own self-doubt on my passions when I began to believe that more was possible.

Ten Principles of More

And through my struggle, the journey towards more has provided me with ten principles that power my life:

1. More is defining your North Star vision and living with passion to accomplish your goals.

2. More is embracing a dogged commitment to maximizing all of your gifts.

3. More is having a growth mindset, knowing that just as a baby will fall and always get back up, you too will fall, and must forever get back up, if you want more.

4. More is confronting the brutal facts of your reality and attacking with a warrior spirit.

5. More is delayed gratification and prioritization.

6. More is loving yourself and others.

7. More is leading with courage.

8. More is being ready for the moment - - and crushing it! 

9. More is embracing your privilege and using it in the service of others.

10. More is first seeking to understand and then being understood, because more understanding is the foundation of community, relationships, and inclusion.

The Gift & The Curse of More

• And as I look at you the graduates of 2016, I quote the legendary American Dreamer – Jay Z, “because there is a gift and a curse” at play here.

• As – I say to you, “to those whom much is given, much is expected” – as more – demands more, and that you the SUNY Oswego Class of 2016, much has been given and we need more from you.

• That we need you to TRULY make America great again, for all black, brown, hetero-normative or LGBTQ, white male, women, immigrant, those growing up in urban or rural communities, those growing up with and without privilege -

• That we need you, this new cohort of graduates to truly embrace the challenge of Making America GREAT – for ALL!

Begin Anew

• Because the demands of today, the spirit of our times, necessitate that we focus like wehave no successes, no degrees, no championships.  
• You can’t take any time off.
• As one chapter closes, the next begins.
• And now the work begins anew.
• To set new goals.
• To develop a new plan.

Truly a Beast

• To become a beast all over again.
• To prove it to your friends all over again.
• To prove it to your family all over again.
• To prove it to your community all over again. 
• To prove it to your haters all over again.
• To prove it to yourself all over again!

Because when you are a beast, truly a beast:

• You understand that the wins don’t define you– it’s the hunt.
• What you do when no one is looking. 
• Because when you’re a beast – you love and embrace the hunt - 
• When you are a beast, you love and embrace the grind – 
• When you are a beast, you love and embrace the process - 
• When you are a beast, you stay hungry -  

Final Thoughts

And so I leave you with these final thoughts:

1. Find something that you are a passionate about and go deep into that thing, making it a thing, and ultimately make it your job!

2. Embrace the grind of it because anything truly worth having is worth grinding for -

And even more importantly, anything worth grinding for is worth failing for.

Let me say that again – 
Anything worth having is worth grinding for –
And anything worth grinding for -
Is worth failing for – over and over again.


3. Get better each and ever day, move the needle on your passion, on your goals, on yourself, each and every day, we all have 24 hours in a day – whether your Bill Gates or Damon Williams – what you do with the those 24 hours is the ink that will define the story of your life.

4. Surround yourself with people that empower and embolden you – cut the dead weight, only bring light and energy into your life.

5. Do something to help someone else, because even as you - do you to the fullest – and I hope that you do you - always understand that it’s not about you, its about love and making the world a better place, for someone else – because this is the heart of what it means to lead.

That’s my time, may god bless each and every one of you – thank you so much.