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Colin Powell at Cal U: We must educate, inspire youths for leadership

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell listens to speakers during the 2013 Pittsburgh Diversity and Leadership Conference at California University of Pennsylvania on Sept. 19, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell listens to speakers during the 2013 Pittsburgh Diversity and Leadership Conference at California University of Pennsylvania on Sept. 19, 2013.

For four-star Gen. Colin Powell, educating the nation's youth and increasing diversity are important to the nation's future as demographics change.

“In another generation, the minorities of America will become the majorities. We are the only nation in the world that can handle that kind of diversity,” Powell told more than 1,500 people at the Pittsburgh Diversity and Leadership Conference on Sept. 19 at California University of Pennsylvania's convocation center.

Powell, who led the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff as its chairman from 1989-93, said that true leaders will seek diversity in the organizations they head.

“When they see something that does not represent all of America, they have to do something about that. Without leadership, we'll never achieve the goal of diversity,” he said.

Powell, who joined the Army as a second lieutenant in 1958, provided leadership in the 35 years he spent training teens in the military to become soldiers.

“A good part of my life has been dedicated to the education of youth,” said Powell, now in retirement.

Powell has not stopped in those efforts since retiring from the military and the political life as a top government official — Secretary of State from 2001-05 under President George W. Bush.

“Taking care of our children is so important for all of us to focus on,” he said.

At the behest of President Bill Clinton 16 years ago, Powell formed America's Promise Alliance, designed to forge a strong and effective partnership committed to seeing that children have the fundamental resources to succeed. Children need parents, teachers and coaches to make a safe place for children to grow, Powell said.

Children need a healthy start in life and there are 6 million children in the United States who are living without health care coverage, said Powell, who did not want to delve into the controversy surrounding President Obama and his healthcare initiative known as Obamacare.

“We should be able to find a way that every single American has decent health care,” Powell said.

Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who came to the United States in a banana boat, gave the audience a lesson in persevering — not letting others hold you back.

“It isn't where you start. It's where you end up,” Powell said.

In the America of the 1950s, Powell said he was not able to get a start in his military career by attending a college geared to produce Army officers.

“They did not let black kids into the Citadel, Texas A&M and the Virginia Military Institute,” Powell said.

Instead, he went to City College of New York, a public school where his less than stellar academic performance needed a boost from his straight “A” grades in his Reserve Officer Training Corp. just so that his grade-point average would reach 2.0. Powell quipped that CCNY officials thought it was best to “give him to the Army and we'll never see him again.”

Powell entered the Army in 1958 — only four years after the military's last segregated unit was shut down. The Army wanted to have an officer corps that reflected society, and Powell became part of that initiative. He competed with officers who had attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

His own rise to the heights of power as a top adviser to four presidents and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff “was nothing a little black kid in New York would ever dream of,” Powell said.

“Believe in America. Believe you can do anything you set your heart and mind to,” Powell said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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