Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” played from a Black History Month kickoff Spotify playlist as about 180 people entered the Lancelot Thompson Student Union on Feb. 3.
Following the songs’ uplifting tunes, the keynote speaker, University of Toledo alumnus and Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Romules Durant gave a passionate speech titled “A Different World: Honoring Our Past, a Journey to Our Future,” citing the power of support when reaching one’s goals.
“The Martin Luther King dream exists in each and every one of us,” Durant said in a post-speech interview explaining his message. “It’s up to us, as well as the support system to…help bring to light that everyone of us…feels like, to some degree, the LeBron James of what we do.”
Durant gave credit to MLK for starting a movement “without social media,” and, like King, he spoke with rhetoric that seemed to resonate with the audience, who could be heard audibly agreeing with his message.
Although clearly conveying his point through the sole use of words, Durant employed imaginary props, pointing to the empty space beside him onstage and visualizing a chair.
“[Some children] are used to sitting in a broken chair, and [they’re] expecting you to be just as broken,” Durant said. “Understand what it means when a child stands on that chair and the chair keeps falling. That child loses trust within the chair.”
He continued, reinforcing the importance of care and support in a child's life.
“When you add legs to that stool… you are a stable leg…when that child stands up,” he said, “the child begins to trust in who? You.”
Grasping the podium with two hands and using his voice more than the microphone to project his story, Durant spoke of his own struggles, persistence and support that took him from living with a father who had to, at one point, walked miles to work, to growing up and leading a large urban school district.
Providing insight into Durant’s success at Toledo Public Schools and in the community at large, Guyton Matthews, a moderator introducing Durant, said, “In [his] tenure as superintendent, TPS has seen its rankings…jump from fourth to first on the state report card.”
According to Guyton, Durant currently serves on nine community boards and has received more than 27 community awards, including the induction into the Birmingham and Waite High School Hall of Fame, the Alumnus of the Year Award from UT’s Judith Herb College of Education and Toledo’s 20 under 40 Leadership Award.
One audience member, UT master’s student Melody Orlu, returning with a plate of soul food from the luncheon, explained her admiration of Durant’s success.
“I knew it was going to be a really moving speech,” Orlu said. “He’s accomplished so much. Just listing off all the things he’s done…it’s motivating.”
Community member Ponda Truss showed up to “acknowledge black history,” and, like Orlu, recognized a man who has overcome hardship.
“We have to remember where we come from and where we’re headed,” Truss said. Durant’s “history, past, trials and tribulations,” leading to his success today, “gives me encouragement.”