FOREST CITY | On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, motivational speaker Lamarr Womble encouraged an audience at Waldorf University to look beyond stereotypes.
Womble is part of the Dream Director program, in which individuals are sent to high schools to release the potential in students.
He currently lives and works in Harlem in New York City, but grew up in Bellevue, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha.
Womble described his hometown as "the whitest place in America" and said others have labeled him "the whitest black guy in America."
He admitted before going to New York, he had preconceived notions about the students at the school where he would be working as a dream director.
Womble said he thought they were "the baddest kids in the country" as well as the most impoverished.
But when he arrived in Harlem, he said he realized "students are students are students" no matter where they live.
He said teens everywhere are interested in getting a boyfriend or girlfriend, want the coolest sneakers and "they all hate going to school."
Even the most disadvantaged students have a dream, he added.
Womble said every day he fights to help the students at his school to create the mindset that will help them realize their dreams.
Students at his school have been preparing for a week focused on awareness of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Many of the students aren't comfortable with these topics, and some of their classmates will be telling them for the first time that they are gay, lesbian or transgender, according to Womble.
Those classmates are "putting their butts on the line," he said.
The goal isn't to change people's minds, according to Womble.
"This is about educating people on what is," he said.
Womble asked those in the audience at Waldorf to write down how the world describes them, including by race, age, economic status and gender.
Several volunteered to read those descriptions out loud.
One man said he's a senior citizen, white-privileged and "short and very competitive."
Another man said he's a black Muslim college student who is heterosexual.
A third audience member said she is a 22-year-old white lower-class single woman.
Womble said labels like these are often used to "put you into a box."
Instead, "you can create your own narrative," he said.
Womble said he could be described as a 34-year-old middle-class, college-educated black man whose parents are still together and is dating a black woman for the first time in his life.
But there's more to him than that, and it's because of the people in his life who have influenced him, he said.
Womble said his mother routinely has long conversations with strangers, including check-out clerks.
This used to annoy him because he just wanted to get out of the store, but now he realizes "she taught me how to have a love for people" and to "dig deep" to find out who they really are, he said.
Womble asked the people in the audience to think about the people in their lives who have shaped their morals and beliefs, text them and tell them how much they love them.
Womble said they also could text someone in their life they don't get along with or no longer have a relationship with.
Repairing a broken relationship is like being released from "mental prison," he said.
Womble noted the golden rule is to treat others as you want to be treated, but nowadays there's a platinum rule: "Treat others as they want to be treated."
He stressed the importance of empathy and listening to others without judgment or arguing.
"You cannot tell people how they experience their lives," he said. "You cannot tell black people what their experience has been like in America."
That applies to Asian-Americans and other groups as well, according to Womble.
Waldorf brings in a speaker every year for the MLK holiday.
Rachel Harms, an admissions counselor at Waldorf who serves on the Convocation Committee that arranged for Womble's appearance, said 120 high school students had planned to attend.
They weren't able to come because school was canceled due to inclement weather, but they were able to watch Womble's presentation through a webcast.
Harms said she was pleased with how many Waldorf students and faculty, as well as members of the public, attended the presentation.
A large banner was posted on the wall in the Atrium where Womble spoke. The banner had several questions written on it with Post-It notes underneath so people could write their responses.
Under the question, "What does human rights mean to you?" Waldorf freshman Lidia Pifas from Little Elm, Texas, wrote, "Your right to live your life without anyone hindering you."
Pifas likes how Waldorf observes the MLK holiday.
"In my high school we got the day off, which is nice, but Martin Luther King Jr. impacted the world in a positive way and we get to celebrate that here," she said.