SCHENECTADY Wes Moore has a long list of accolades that follows his name as a speaker: New York Times-bestselling author, Rhodes Scholar, PBS, decorated Army veteran and television host.
But none of that equates to success, Moore told a crowd of students, faculty and community members at Schenectady County Community College on Thursday.
“The most important question you are going to be asked is: who did you choose to fight for, who did you advocate for when it wasn’t easy or wasn’t convenient,” he said. “The answer has to be the others.”
Moore, who grew up in Baltimore and the Bronx, wrote an entire book about the “others,” telling the parallel story of his life with the life of another Wes Moore, who grew up blocks from where he did and ended up in prison on a murder charge.
“There are Wes Moores that exist everywhere, in every one of our schools, people that are just one decision away from going in one direction or the completely other direction,” Moore said. “They are straddling a line of greatness.”
But, Moore said, he could have ended up like the other Wes Moore did if he had made a different choice here or followed a different path there. Both Moores grew up without a father in their lives and both fell into crime at an early age.
“I found myself hurting people that actually did love me, so I could impress people that couldn’t care less about me,” Moore said at the SCCC speech.
His mom sent him away to a military academy when Moore was 13 years old, and his military experience and teachers and mentors eventually showed him that he had the ability to make the choices that control his life. They taught him that the “world was bigger than what was just directly in front of me,” he said.
Moore encouraged students to think about their studies and future degrees as being worth only what those degrees enabled them to do for other people. He said “community conversations” were worthless if they only included a “sliver of the community” or covered the needs of a subset of the broader community.
He also emphasized the important role of the class ring he wears that he got after graduating from community college. When asked why he doesn’t wear rings from Johns Hopkins, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, or Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, Moore has a simple answer.
“Because without this nothing else would have been possible,” Moore said, holding the ring in the air. “Without the education I received there, nothing else would have made sense to me.”
The speech resonated with SCCC students, past and present, who snapped as he called for personal sacrifice to serve others and laughed when he told a story about his repeated escape attempts when he first arrived at military school. The map to the train station a supervisor provided him one night actually led him deep into the woods, he said.
Arthur Logan, a Schenectady native and former SCCC student, said he saw parts of his own life in Moore’s, citing “youthful indiscretions” he fell into after “relinquishing a strong network” of advocates. But he managed to stay on the right side of trouble and is now working in Schenectady to bring people together who are interested in improving the community. He said sometimes he goes to a street corner, where “corner boys” are selling drugs, and cleans up the trash to set a positive example.
“We are just one step away from being the other,” Logan said. “It’s with the small, little steps of being in proximity that you can make an impact, not being afraid to be there.”