On any given day, the Barclays Center’s seats are filled with loyal basketball fans or concertgoers but on Oct. 24, the indoor arena will be home to what is described as the largest youth empowerment program and celebration of education event that New York has ever seen.

Brooklyn nonprofit I Will Graduate Program will host its annual “I Will Graduate” Day for more than 11,000 students from across the city. The event is a culmination of a year-long curriculum and six-week lessons that end in a day-long pep rally filled with fun activities, and a star-studded lineup of celebrities, community leaders and elected officials. 

Tonya Lewis leads I Will Graduate's mission to support student success. Photo: Courtesy of IWG.
Tonya Lewis leads I Will Graduate’s mission to support student success. Photo: Courtesy of IWG.

“We all see ourselves in someone famous,” Tonya Lewis, the program’s co-founder and executive director, said.

“They show our youth that they’re just like them, they’re from the same neighborhood but through hard work and dedication, ‘Look what you accomplish.’ It connects with them in a way that I’ve never seen before,” Lewis said.

IWG’s mission has been the same since its 2008 inception — closing the graduation rate gap for students in disadvantaged communities. Lewis said the program’s success in increased school attendance is largely due to its school partners, and 97% of students in the program are on track to graduate and pursue secondary education goals.

Lewis said this work is in “divine alignment” with her own life’s journey.

“This group came to my school, and they challenged me to think about my life’s vision,” she said. “I had an idea of what I wanted to do but didn’t have a plan of action.”

Lewis used her leadership in her church’s youth music ministry to jumpstart a career as a music executive working with Roc-A-Fella — Jay Z’s record label — and other labels.

Once, she helped a colleague boost their school’s low attendance rate by having artists signed with the Roc-A-Fella label come to the school. The program was so successful that it inspired her to use a similar model to boost graduation rates citywide.

“The principal was so grateful that his attendance went from 47% to almost 90% in one week,” Lewis said.

“The word spread quickly of the work we were doing, and 15 years later, this is where we are.”

New York City schools sign up for the curriculum which teaches skills like setting goals, staying organized, college readiness and protecting mental health, a skill Lewis said is more vital than ever.

“The effects we’ve seen on students’ mental health is concerning, especially since the pandemic,” Lewis said.

“I can teach you [students] how to do math and spell, but I can’t help if I don’t know what’s going on and how it’s affecting you.”

Lewis said the pandemic set her back but she is going big this year for the celebration.

“We had to let our students know that even though you’ve been through some hard times and you might not have thought you could make it, you can if your work hard.”

I Will Graduate Huddle
A team meeting between participants and a member of the pep squad. Photo: Courtesy of IWG.

This year’s theme is “Get Focused Stay Focused” to encourage students to protect their mental health and do activities that keep them motivated and on track with their goals.

The roster includes celebrities such as hip hop artists Fivio Foreign and NLE Choppa, stars from the hit-show Power, LaLa Anthony and Joseph Sikora, American ballet dancer Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso.

“We want to turn up,” Lewis said about the big day ahead with her team she calls “gladiators of education.” Some of the ‘gladiators’ actually started off as students in the program. 

“We tell our youth ‘Whatever moves you, do that,’ and we’re here to help them reach their highest potential.”

“They have an army there to help them reach their goals,” Lewis said.

Visit the IWG website to learn more.

Natasha Knows

Natasha "Knows" is the CEO and founder of Natasha Knows, LLC a small business consulting company. She is passionate about connecting underserved communities to resources, leveraging access to capital and...

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