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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

More than just talk

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Larry Smith

What do today’s leaders and luminaries like Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Dr. Susan Rice, and Dr. Johnetta B. Cole have in common with late legends like Gen. Colin Powell, Dick Gregory, and Harry Belafonte? All have delivered powerful keynote addresses for Steward Speakers, which is Indiana’s oldest ongoing speaker series. (In the spirit of disclosure, I have served on the board of this great organization for several years.)

Steward Speakers showcases a broad spectrum of African Americans whose life and work have left an indelible mark on our nation. Last month, NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe addressed a capacity crowd at the Warren Performing Arts Center. Sharpe, who grew up dirt poor (quite literally), barely referenced football during his talk. Rather, he focused on his preternatural work ethic, his post-NFL career, and his extremely close relationship with his brother and late grandmother. Sharpe methodically walked the audience through his path to success.

Matthew Steward, who is Founder and President of the organization that bears his name, attended IU Bloomington. While a student, he was exposed to dozens of leaders who inspired him with their wit and wisdom. This inspiration fueled Steward’s vision to create a forum wherein children, the elderly, and people who have low incomes would have access to the “best and brightest” African American leaders. This led him to create Steward Speakers shortly after graduation.

First, however, Steward joined what was then the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD). He would spend the next 37 years at what is now the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD). After retiring in June 2020, Steward rejoined IMPD as a civilian employee in January of the following year. His responsibilities include being a liaison between the police department and the community. Steward Speakers is a very effective way to do so. Further, as has always been the case, ticket prices are moderately priced so as to ensure that cost is not a barrier to sharing in the organization’s events.

The mission of Steward Speakers is to inform, inspire, and invoke action by fostering meaningful dialogue and cultural exchange. During the past four decades, it has featured roughly 150 leaders. However, the organization does much more than bring well-known individuals to Indianapolis.

At least once each year the organization gives community members the opportunity to visit historical landmarks, including the Martin Luther King Memorial, the National Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, and the Museum of African American Music in Nashville. Steward Speakers also sponsors an annual MLK Scholarship, invites student journalists to interview its guests, and even secured a paid fellowship for a local science teacher to spend a summer at the Houston Space Center. Appropriately, Steward Speakers’ tagline is “More Than Just Talk”.

Of all the wonderful occurrences that have taken place at the organization’s various events, there is one that is talked about perhaps more than all the others. Magic Johnson was featured in April 2018. The inveterately affable Johnson admitted being very nervous, and decided that strolling the length and breadth of the venue would calm him. He then invited a high school student to walk with him, asking her about her college plans. After the young woman shared that she wanted to attend Atlanta’s vaunted Spelman College, Johnson awarded her a $40,000 scholarship on the spot. The crowd reacted with so much enthusiasm that one would have thought he had just hit a Game 7 winning shot!

Steward Speakers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that operates primarily on grants, individual donations, and sponsorships from businesses. IUPUI, which will soon officially become IU Indianapolis, has been the title sponsor for Steward Speakers for several years. The theme for the 2023-2024 season is “Sports and Education”. Olympic titan Jackie Joyner-Kersee will speak on March 21st at the NCAA Hall of Champions. Closing out the season will be Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders, who will headline the organization’s annual gala on April 11th at Lucas Oil Stadium.

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