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Sweet Home Chicago Series for Juneteenth: Celebrating Graduates of 2023

In today's society social media has a major influence over the youth, perhaps giving some the impression that it is difficult for a young Black woman to achieve success without it. However, beating the odds by being true to yourself has become more influential than social media to me and my peers. Being true to yourself doesn't mean everything has to be perfect."--   Mon'tene' Hammel 

My words of wisdom to other students would be to stay focused and consistent. There are so many influences around us it is hard to remain focused on our goals. But if we put in the work great things will come. One change I wish to see in the world is people becoming kinder and not having their guard up. I feel that as a society we need to treat others with more respect."--Ava Spencer

In honor of Black Writers Week, I looked around and asked myself what is giving me the most hope in this world today. And since it is that time of the year when schools and universities all across the land are hosting their graduation ceremonies, I asked some of my friends who graduated with me from Chicago's Crane High School to share photos of the young graduates in their families. You hear so many negative things in the news about violence and crime associated with our city. But I want to share some of the good news and show you the faces of some of our brightest hope for the future. All of the graduates do not live in Chicago, but they are all closely related to Chicago. They range in age from pre-school to university and military. 

And it so happens that one of our other bright lights in Chicago, the entertainer and filmmaker Common, is serving as one of our most enthusiastic Ambassadors. He was recently on "The View" where in explaining why Chicago is an ideal city to hold the 2024 Democratic National Convention, he beautifully articulated the spirit of the city that these remarkable young people also embody.  Chaz Ebert

“The soul of Chicago is about people, it’s about love, it’s about humanity, it’s about hard-working people,” said Common. “Our roots are from the South, which is where our grandparents came from, so Chicago represents America in many different ways. We are hoping for better and greater things in the future of Chicago, and of America, so the DNC is like a bright light coming to our city, a city that has so much to give and it has so much history too. Chicago was discovered by a Black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, and when I found that out as a kid, it gave me some type of pride, along with the fact that our city has created the Michelle Obamas, the Jennifer Hudsons and the Virgil Ablohs of the world.”

From left: Michelle Obama; Jennifer Hudson; Virgil Abloh (courtesy of British Vogue interview).

Here is a video from 2019 of the Crane Cougars Class of 1969, whose relatives are written about below...

AND NOW WE PRESENT OUR GRADUATES...(Donell Brisco, LaTavian Rudolph-Conwell, Kori Nolle Duson, Demi Ewing, Jordan P. Green, Shania S. Green, Mon’tene’ Hammel, Johnathan Jackson, Joshua Jakes, LaKeisha Klyce, Amarri McKay, Blair Moore, Mike Outten, Brandon E. Patterson, Saysha Parker, Kelis Rhynes, Duran Sims, Keyvaun Singleton, Dashawn M. Slack, Ava Spencer, Trinity Stovall, Stephon White and Xavier Williams).

 They will be presented under the name of the Crane Cougar to whom they are related. And the names of the Crane Cougars are presented in chronological order. (Katherine Anderson, Joshlyn Banks, Chaz Ebert, Sallie Ellis, Isabella Ferrell-Levi, Madie Nixon, Linda S. Reid, Rosemary Slack-Payton and Marlita Thomas.)

Relatives of Katherine Anderson

Katherine Anderson's great niece Ava Spencer graduated from high school with a full scholarship to St. John's College in New York. She was recognized as a straight A student for four years and received a certificate of recognition from the school track team. "I feel proud that I have graduated," says Ava. "My education is extremely important to me, and I am glad that I have made it one step closer to my college degree. My word of wisdom to other students would be to stay focused and consistent. There are so many influences around us it is hard to remain focused on our goals. But if we put in the work great things will come. One change I wish to see in the world is people becoming kinder and not having their guard up. I feel that as a society we need to treat others with more respect."

Katherine's great nephew LaTavian Rudolph-Conwell graduated from 8th grade and received a certificate of recognition as a straight A student. LaTavian was also a primary player on his school’s football team. He was so taken by his award that he cried.

"Graduation has its pros and cons," says LaTavian. "Some people you grew up with you probably won’t see ever again. And for a pro you will have a fresh start at a new school. One change I would like to see in the world is nonviolence." His words of wisdom are, "Doing nothing at all vs. making small consistent efforts. Either one determines your future."

Katherine says that her great nephew Donell Brisco also graduated from the 8th grade and "we are so very proud of him." She notes that Darnell is best known for his public speaking and has delivered speeches originally given by Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama.

"The feeling of graduating is an exhilarating experience," says Donell. "Not only because you are taking the next step in your educational experience, you are also bound to meet new people and have new experiences that you will cherish forever. My experience graduating has been nothing short of awesome, although it was very difficult to say goodbye to my classmates. I have many things to look forward to in the next step in my educational journey. One of those things that I look forward to the most is the continuation of my musical journey. Joining a high school jazz band will further my knowledge of music and my skills as a musician. During my time at Ariel Community Academy, I have been able to pick up valuable skills that I believe will enhance my experience in high school. I began playing the trumpet this school year which helped me pick out a clear career path to pursue. My advice to future eighth grade graduates is to be passionate about their education and look toward the future."

Katherine's great niece Demi Ewing graduated from eighth grade. "Graduating to me means that although our world changed during COVID, I was able to adjust and continue to stay on track with my studies to make it to the finish line," Demi says. "I am proud of myself. One change I would like to see in the world is where we do not have to worry about school shootings."

Relatives of Joshlyn Banks

Joshlyn Banks shares two pictures of the esteemed graduates in her family, starting with Brandon E. Patterson, Master of Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois in Chicago. He was an undergraduate at Howard University and recently started work as an Equal Opportunity Specialist at HUD, investigating fair housing violations.

Joshlyn's other graduate is Saysha Parker, who graduated from Crane High School, a.k.a. Crane Medical Prep, in 2019, 50 years after Chaz's class. Saysha's grandmother was also in that class. "Directly after high school I attended Illinois College to study athletic training," says Saysha. "Once quarantine happened, I began to pick up sewing again and rediscovered my passion for fashion. Shortly after I began pursuing a degree in fashion design at College of DuPage. I graduated with an associate of applied science with high honors. I was in the fashion club, and during my final semester, created an entire collection and showcased it in a fashion show. My goal is to run my own business. I’m not sure what exact market I want to be in but I enjoy designing women’s special occasion wear. I would also like to add a sustainable aspect to it by having a gown rental service. I am also undecided on continuing my education to receive a bachelor’s degree. My words of wisdom are: pursue what you love and give it your all. Don’t let anyone limit your potential. I would love to see a change in people's overconsumption of clothing. That would completely change the fashion industry's standards and practices into a safer and more ethical industry."

Joshlyn's niece, Trinity Stovall, had an amazing school year graduating high school with two diplomas. She was enrolled in a dual degree program, and as a student at Haltom High, she was also enrolled in the Collegiate Academy of Birdville (CAB) through Tarrant County College (TCC). While in CAB, one of her favorite classes was photography, which led her to become the photographer for her class. She also spent time trying to assist her fellow classmates by tutoring them at the high school and being a role model for them. Trinity graduated from Haltom High School with a diploma and from TCC with an Associate's Degree. She is now headed to the University of North Texas and plans to obtain a degree in video productions. 

One of her favorite sayings is from William Ward who says, "Judge each day not by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant. Too often people keep looking for the end result but need to pay more attention to the process as they go from day to day. We often plant seeds not knowing when or where they will blossom. All we can do is what we can do. Plant your seeds and when the time is right, they will blossom into the very thing we need them to."

Relatives of Chaz Ebert

My grand nephew, Johnathan Jackson just graduated from Rockdale County High School in Conyers, Georgia, and in the fall, will be going to Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia to major in Digital Animation. 

Johnathan says, "For all you upcoming seniors and future leaders, here are some words of encouragement: don't follow in someone else's footsteps, make your own legacy."

My grand niece, Mon’tene’ Hammel, received her Bachelors in Healthcare Administration from Robert Morris University in 2016 and her Masters in Human Resources Management from Keller Graduated School of Management this year. Her words of wisdom are, "In today's society social media has a major influence over the youth, perhaps giving some the impression that it is difficult for a young Black woman to achieve success without it. However, beating the odds by being true to yourself has become more influential than social media to me and my peers. Being true to yourself doesn't mean everything has to be perfect. Have the courage to make your decisions, even if imperfect." 

Relatives of Sallie Ellis

Sallie Ellis is a very proud of aunt of Chicago Public Schools and believes its students deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments, including her grand/great nieces and nephews, starting with Amarri McKay, who graduated from University of Illinois at Chicago with her Bachelors in Urban Studies & Public Policy.

Amari's brother, Keyvaun Singleton, graduated with Honors from MLK College Prep High School and has received a full ride to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Kelis Rhynes graduated as a member of the National Honors Society from Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, and will be attending Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, with multiple scholarships.

Duran Sims graduated from his elementary school, the Howe School of Excellence in Chicago, with the following awards: Student of the Year, Honor Roll, Perfect Attendance, Who’s most Likely to be a Millionaire, Most Athletic (MVP for football and basketball) & Most Improvement in Math. Duran is using his football scholarship to attend Mount Carmel High School in Chicago.

Relative of Isabella Ferrell-Levi 

Isabella Ferrell-Levi's graduate, Joshua Jakes, graduated with honors from Southwood Middle School in Country Club Hills, Illinois. He will be attending Tinley Park High School.

Relative of Madie Nixon

Madie Nixon's graduate, Blair Moore, graduated Summa Cum Laude, which means “with highest praise” for having achieved a cumulative weighted grade point average of 4.0., from Saint Mary's College High School. She has decided to enroll in the honors program at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. When asked for her words of wisdom, Blair says, "Note the moments that make you smile, find time to be still, write notes of kindness and gratitude to those around you, spend time with those who uplift you, love others wholeheartedly, and trust God fully."

Relatives of Linda S. Reid

Linda's grandson Xavier Williams graduated from Kindergarten...

...and is just happy to graduate with his new friends.

Linda's niece, LaKisha Klyce, will graduate from National Louis University with honors, receiving her B.A. in Early Childhood Education, on June 24th. "This has been a long journey for me," she says. "There has been so many obstacles and tests that I went through to get to this point. I am so grateful that I was able to conquer this accomplishment."

Linda's nephew, Mike Outten, received his Doctor of Management in Organizational Development and Change. 

His words of wisdom are, "If it's to be, it's up to me. We have to be the change that we desire and show others a variety of options for their lives. Love, Laugh, and Live."

Relatives of Rosemary Slack-Payton 

Rosemary Slack-Payton's treasured graduates this year include her great-niece Dashawn M. Slack...

...who graduated from the Great Lakes Navy Base in Illinois.

Rosemary's grandson Jordan P. Green graduated from North Side High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana...

...and excelled on the school's basketball team.

Rosemary's great-granddaughter Kori Nolle Duson graduated from Forest Park Elementary School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

And Rosemary's granddaughter Shania S. Green graduated from Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, Illinois.

Relative of Marlita Thomas

Marlita Thomas' graduate, Stephon White, graduated from Kenwood High School. "In the beginning I didn’t fully understand the scale or how big of a deal graduation truly is," says Stephon. "I wish I would have, otherwise I would have tried ten times harder. My goal was just to always pass but it was never to succeed for real, until I graduated. Ironic isn’t it? Graduating is a feeling like no other. The feel of getting the credit that you’ve work so hard for is absolutely incredible. Putting on the cap and gown, seeing your peers who work along side of you, and especially walking across the stage. After graduating I was still in shock. 'I really just graduated,' I said to myself repeatedly. It was the only thing on my mind until I thought about what’s next. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, or what was coming or if I was even doing anything."

"I just want to help people," Stephon continues. "I want to help. There’s too many people on earth that believe that it requires a reason to help somebody, when you should help simply because you want to. Or, not even that, because it’s needed. Too many people walk around the people in need instead of walking towards them and I hate that. I plan on leading by example. An example people can be inspired by to do better, to be more. I plan on creating a world without worry, a world where we won’t have to hide our children indoors protected from the horrors of the outside world, a world with true freedom. I don’t how I’m going to enact this plan of mine, but I do know without a doubt that I will and I am going to see this through to the end."

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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