CHICAGO (NNS) -- A Navy admiral addressed a distinguished youth leadership forum, visited with Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadets, spoke to young men at an all boys parochial high school, and met with local civic and elected leaders in Chicago Feb. 27.
Rear Adm. Sinclair M. Harris, director, Navy Irregular Warfare Office, teamed with Jean-Claude Brizard, chief executive officer, Chicago Public Schools, to discuss their respective stories of becoming leaders to approximately 300 Junior ROTC cadets, representing 20 different high schools, during the seventh installment of the Hyman G. Rickover Leadership Series at the Union League Club of Chicago.
In addition to participating in the leadership series, Harris visited with Navy Junior ROTC cadets at Chicago's Hyman G. Rickover Naval Academy, visited with young men at Hales Franciscan High School, an African-American and all boys Catholic school on Chicago's Southside, and met with civic and elected leaders on the Southside of Chicago to discuss local efforts to encourage young people from the community to pursue naval service.
"The big message I wanted to get across to the young people I spoke to today is, as Adm. John Harvey put it, 'It's not your circumstances that define you, it's the choices that you make,'" said Harris.
"That is such a crucial concept to understand, whether you're in the military or in civilian life," said Harris. "From my perspective, and I believe Mr. Brizard concurred; it's about the choices that you make that define you. Think about the choices you make, because poor choices can narrow your present and future opportunities. So make good choices."
Speaking to the Junior ROTC cadets at the Union League Club of Chicago, Harris and Brizard talked about their personal stories of success and failure, challenges and triumphs, but most importantly - the importance of character in the face of adverse circumstances.
Brizard spoke about his early upbringing in Haiti during the brutal dictatorship of 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and remembered how his grandfather, who was an outspoken critic of the Duvalier regime, disappeared for seven years. He told of how his father, a school principal, found out that the regime was coming for him as well, which forced both his parents to flee Haiti: his mother to Brooklyn, N.Y., because she could obtain a visa; and, his father to Northern Africa, because he could not obtain a visa.
Brizard's parents left the children behind with their maternal grandmother and it would be six years before the family was reunited in Brooklyn. Having gone through that experience and working as a science teacher and principal within the New York City school system, Brizard found himself recruited to become the superintendence's position at Rochester school system, before he came to Chicago last spring.
"My father taught me very simply that if you persevere, if you push, you will always be successful," said Brizard.
"Stay humble, push, never give up, never let anyone tell you that you can't-because you can, and remember where you come from and give back to those people who helped you get where you are today," Brizard said to the cadets.
Harris talked to cadets about how he almost didn't get into the Navy because of a football-related hip injury that initially medically disqualified him. He also spoke about being raised in Washington, D.C., by a single mother who did not finish college because she was pregnant with him; how both he and his mother lived in room in an aunt's house and they slept in the same bed until he was eight-years old; and, how he put himself through college on a "sandwich-making scholarship" and other odd jobs.
Harris recalled all of the changes he has seen over the last 30 years of service: changes in technology and how cadets have more computing power in their hand-held devices than was contained in a ship's entire computing system in the 1980s; changes in diversity and how women are commanding expeditionary strike groups whereas back in the 1980s women could not serve on combat ships; and, changes in the threats facing the United States have mushroomed, whereas back in the 1980s the big threat was the Soviet Union, and now there are terrorist, cyber, financial, and climate threats.
"As a leader - and I don't care whether you're an enlisted leader, whether you're an officer, whether you're in the private or public sector - you have to anticipate and embrace change," said Harris. "Whenever possible, you have to make sure your organization is prepared to lead change. But among the all of these changes, there are certain things that don't change. There is a quality that has importance regardless of time and circumstances, and that is - character. The need for character has not changed."
The measure of someone's character is, "not by how many times you get knocked down in life. It's not about how many challenges you have to face," said Harris. "It's about how you address those challenges. It's about how quickly you get up after being down and move on."
Expressing the importance of leaders taking time to mentor future leaders, retired Army Col. Kevin Kelley, director of Military Instruction for Chicago Public Schools Department of Junior ROTC, remarked, "It's important for students to engage with men like Mr. Brizard and Admiral Harris to see that successful men can emerge from difficult circumstances; that it is possible for these students to achieve big things like these men have done."
Harris also visited Hyman G. Rickover Naval Academy where he met with cadet battalion leaders, had lunch with cadets and discussed his Navy career and current Navy issues, and visited classrooms to encourage cadets to take the toughest academic subjects and pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees in college.
Harris also visited Hales Franciscan High School to meet with the young men at the all-boys Catholic school. Harris talked to the young men about his decision to join the Navy and some of his challenges and rewards.
"When I was a new ensign, a new officer aboard my first ship, we had 1,000 men on our crew, 75 officers and I was one of three Black officers in the wardroom. The ship had never had an ensign that qualified for Surface Warfare. I was the first. I hadn't gone to the U.S. Naval Academy or Naval ROTC I just came out of Officers Candidate School. The only reason I found myself qualifying for Surface Warfare was working harder than the next guy. I didn't see myself in competition with the next guy but I showed up every day to do the best job I could do."
On the final leg of his visit, Harris stopped by Northeastern Illinois University Center for Inner City Studies to meet with local civic and elected leaders to discuss efforts to encourage and direct youth to pursue the best fit college and career options for them, especially military service.
"What we try to do is to share information on the opportunities that the military services provide," said retired Army Col. Eugene Scott, president of the Chicago Defender Charities, Inc. "What we've found is that our young people don't know what programs are out there."
"I was out at Chicago State University talking with cadets in the ROTC program and I asked one of the cadets, who happened to be a junior, how much was his stipend for being the program," said Scott. "The cadet replied, '$450 per month.' That's $450 on top of his scholarship that pays tuition. Most of our youth don't know about these opportunities."
"Navy City Outreach is important because we need to plant seeds and have the best and most talented young people consider joining our organization, either as part of our officer corps or as an enlisted member," said Harris. "Young people bring energy, passion and fresh ideas to our organization. Additionally, partnering with educators, civic and business leaders is important because they can open doors and provide us access to and assist with identifying the talented young men and women who will keep our Navy-the world's greatest Navy."
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