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Superstar Stevie Wonder Challenges Students to be Great

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Music legend makes a surprise visit to Norco College

By Chris Levister –

When one is called upon to define musical genius, few would have any difficulty associating Stevie Wonders' creativity with the term. Wednesday, May 25 more than 200 Norco College students and community members got a taste of the music icon’s genius during a riveting event billed as “A Conversation with Stevie Wonder: Overcoming Challenges to Achieve the Dream.”

A grateful and cheering audience sat captivated at the 168-seat Norco College Little Theater as the multiple Grammy Award-winner, Academy Award-winner and official United Nation’s Messenger of Peace passionately yet effortlessly delivered a powerful message of inspiration and hope, flavored by his signature street humor on overcoming hardship.

“Sometimes, I feel I am really blessed to be blind because I probably would not last a minute if I were able to see things.”

Sitting on stage in an overstuffed chair flanked by students from the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) initiative and Norco College President Dr. Brenda Davis, Wonder opened the event with a touching harmonica rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“To break the ice, we’ve got a few questions for you Mr. Wonder,” said Davis.

“Don’t call me Mr. Wonder, Dr. Davis, call me Stevie.” Wonder responded, flashing his signature grin. The crowd cheered wildly.

“I wanted to come here after hearing a few of you are struggling to overcome challenges to achieve your dreams,” said Wonder who was joined by his two sons.

“I was told in junior high I would never become anything good said,” student David Casillas. I was never told to go to college to get a good education. The norm was to become a mechanic. I had a stroke and had to stop working,” said Casillas. “I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and do something about my challenge – I enrolled here at Norco College – I’m proud to say I beat the statistics. I have one more semester before I complete my degree.”

“I was told a similar thing,” Wonder said. “As a kid I was told I had three strikes against me. I was Black, I was blind and poor.”

“Being a smart ass, I said, I’ve got four strikes, I’m bowlegged, too.” The audience burst into laughter.

Other students shared stories of mental and physical struggle, unexpected pregnancy and feelings of parental abandonment.

EOPS was launched in California more than 40 years ago during the Civil Rights era to give a lift to students facing economic and academic challenges.

Wonder who began his singing career with Motown Records at the age of 11 spoke candidly about his late mother, growing up poor and blind in Detroit and his sense of duty to inspire others.

He lightheartedly told the story of his days in the alley “when we hung out using bad words and ‘cracking’ on each other’s mama.”

“Thanks to some tough lessons from my mother, I don’t use bad words anymore but I haven’t lost my sense of humor,” he said in a baritone voice.

“Mama was my greatest teacher, a teacher of compassion, love and fearlessness. If love is sweet as a flower, then my mother is that sweet flower of love,” he added, “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn't mean he lacks vision.”

“Whatever you have dealt with, whatever you have overcome, use your story, tell your story to inspire the next generation….Even those who are older than you,” Wonder told the students.”

“……Because if they have negativity in their hearts, they are not taking advantage of the blessings of life.”

Wonder plays 10 instruments, he’s recorded more than thirty U.S. Top 10 #1 hits on the pop charts as well as 20 R&B #1 hits. He has won 22 Grammy Awards (most by a solo artist) as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a member of the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame.

He is lauded for his work as an activist for political causes, including his 1980 campaign to make Martin Luther Jr.’s birthday a holiday in the U.S. and his 2008 campaign to help elect the nation’s first African American President, Barack Obama.

He told the audience he would donate Braille reading equipment to the college noting “Ya gots to work with what you gots to work with.” He was presented with plaque in Braille commemorating the 20-year Norco campus’ history.

With Davis at his side Wonder sifted the event into high gear with a rousing mini concert playing keyboards and singing several of his hits including “Signed Sealed and Delivered I’m Yours”, and “My Cherie Amour”.

The crowd jumped to their feet clapping and singing along. “This is a stellar moment for Norco College,” said Davis.

“His ability to "see" the world's ugliness as well as the world's beautifulness and then transcribing what he has "seen" is nothing short of genius. His message, his grace, his humanity is seared in our collective memories. This was incredible.”

Dr. Davis was joined by Riverside Community College District Chancellor Dr. Gregory Gray and a host of community dignitaries.

“Perhaps one of the greatest joys said Gray, is seeing this all play out during Dr. Davis’ reign. Stevie Wonder is a national treasure. This is a proud moment for Norco College and our entire community.”

Last week, Dr. Davis announced her retirement after 33 years of service to the District and Norco College.


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