India Pierce Lee (LF ‘09) was caught off guard to receive the 2014 Distinguished Alumna Award when she was at the Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences to deliver the commencement address. The graduation occurred on the 100th anniversary of the Cleveland Foundation, where Lee is the program director for neighborhoods, housing and community development. She took the opportunity to review her career and her motivations, recognizing that the journey would be distinct for each graduate.
She reflected, “As a person of deep faith and someone that believes that God continually guides my path, I have been blessed throughout this journey to have so many opportunities to explore, learn, grow, share–but more importantly serve. I can get up every day knowing I work at an organization that has individuals that don’t think of their position just as a job but are passionate, dedicated, and committed to making a difference in our community.
“You might ask, how did I find my passion? Well I have always been one of those people to try different avenues, but I always worked hard no matter what I was doing. I went from being an air traffic controller fired by President Reagan to banking back to air traffic, and then a councilman asked me to come to work at a community development corporation to build new houses in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood and I said I didn’t know anything about that. He said you will learn and so there’s where it really began. That’s when I realized that I could do something much greater working in the community and knowing that we were touching the lives of individuals and helping those most in need.”
She offered advice: “What I have learned from years of experience is that no matter how small or large an institution or organization may be there are caring, passionate individuals who care about making change. It is important for you as you start your careers to not only find these type of individuals but to be one of those individuals.”
And she urged the graduates to “be reflective, don’t ever stop advocating for social, economic and environmental justice, apply social work practice at the highest level, uphold the values and ethics which are even more important in today’s society, integrate cultural, economic and global diversity, continue to think critically, communicate effectively and continue to develop yourself as a leader.”