Publisher Draws on 3 Slogans to Illustrate Message to Grads

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Andrea Wood, publisher of The Business Journal, delivered the commencement address Saturday morning before graduates of Youngstown State University’s.

The morning event was the first of two commencement ceremonies held on campus.

What follows is the text of Wood’s address:

Today I want to reflect on three sentences – slogans you see on bumper stickers, on T-shirts and on graffiti painted on the side of vacant buildings.

“Stuck in Ohio.”

“Defend Youngstown.”

“We Are a Generation.”

These words speak to this day and your time, and the future you are commencing to create.

Stuck in Ohio: Perhaps some of you stuck that bumper sticker on your car. You can’t wait to leave Ohio, start the next phase of your life and rip that bumper sticker off your car.

Defend Youngstown: Maybe some of you are wearing a Defend Youngstown T-shirt beneath your graduation gown. The T-shirts show a muscular laborer with a sledgehammer, ready to Defend Youngstown and its industrial heritage.

We Are a Generation: You may have seen this slogan on vacant buildings – most likely when you were about to cross the Market Street bridge on your way to campus. For two years, “We Are a Generation,” was painted in big block letters on a building on the west side of Market Street.

The declaration was vividly augmented by the colorful mural painted on the opposite side of Market Street. Welcome to Downtown Youngstown, the mural beckons. It depicts downtown’s new entertainment district – the nightlife now enjoyed by Millennials and Baby Boomers alike. You see a young woman playing the guitar, a man playing the trumpet and a couple dancing the tango.

The mural is painted on the wall of a second-hand store – which is unfortunate because sometime after the mural was painted, someone spoiled it by tacking up a big metal sign that announces Thrift Shop.

But on second thought, a thrift shop sign also signifies Youngstown. The cost of living is low here. And if you want to start a business here, you can be very thrifty in budgeting your operating costs.

Two Saturdays ago — as I drove across the Market Street Bridge –artisans and entrepreneurs were doing business at The Youngstown Flea Market for Makers – a new venue created by a former YSU student, the same man who painted “We Are A Generation” on vacant buildings.

Later that day, YSU students and their Penguin Productions staged Federal Frenzy – a three-year old event where music and beer flow freely – drawing thousands of people of all ages downtown.

Both of these events were created by enterprising YSU students — past, present and graduating today – YSU students who recognize and celebrate this community’s creativity, assets and potential.

A few months ago I came upon social media postings that criticized the We Are A Generation graffiti artist for using guerrilla marketing to brand “We Are A Generation” T-shirts he sells online. Having envisioned an uplifting social and economic statement, this was a let down – as was my discovery that he had painted over his messages.

Then I met Derrick McDowell, who studied graphic design at YSU and moved up the ranks in the cell phone industry before taking a risk and starting his businesses.

Derrick told me how he interprets “We Are a Generation.”

“If you are a person who’s out to make change for the positive,” he said, “then you are the generation who will stand up — look at this city and ask yourself what are you willing do to make it better.”

That’s what I’m asking you to do today – to be creative, to take a risk. To be part of making this city better, your community better – wherever that ends up being.

You Are the YSU generation that created Federal Frenzy, that provided the market for downtown pubs, for new student housing, for Suzie’s Dogs & Drafts and for One Hot Cookie.

You are a generation unencumbered by the doom and gloom and loss of community self confidence that followed the steel shutdowns, a generation spared the site 30 years ago of blast furnaces blasted to rubble.

You are the YSU Generation whose creativity will teach and inspire future community leaders.

You are the YSU Generation whose studies here coincide with the STEM College’s advanced manufacturing technology and additive manufacturing initiatives.

And you are the YSU Generation that studied in the Williamson School of Business Administration building that connects campus to downtown.

Few of you were here when planning began to build the new Williamson Hall – and few of your know the obstacles that had to be overcome for the city to reroute Hazel Street and connect campus to downtown.

Former President Jimmy Carter removed the biggest obstacle nearly 40 years ago.

Weeks before he left office, knowing the federal government did not have 500-million dollars or the political will to revive the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Campbell Works, he asked local leaders what one thing could he do to help Youngstown recover.

Carter was told: Secure for the city what was then called the Railroad Abandonment Corridor – the land and the hillside where railroad tracks once divided downtown from YSU.

It took a few decades but today we have a revitalized downtown connected to YSU – which brings me to “Defend Youngstown.”

If you walk from YSU to downtown using the Phelps Street steps near Williamson Hall, you come to Youngstown Nation, a shop operated by YSU grad Phil Kidd.

Phil grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. He earned his undergraduate degree at YSU, became a community activist and an entrepreneur.

Defend Youngstown – like We Are a Generation – is his marketing brand and his philosophy. Phil’s Youngstown Nation store sells memorabilia, books about the Mahoning Valley and, of course, Defend Youngstown T-shirts.

Stuck in Ohio is a bumper sticker Phil DOES NOT sell.

Like Phil, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and when I came here in 1974 for my first TV broadcasting job, the mills were still pumping.

Other TV jobs followed, including one in Pittsburgh.

In 1979, a return to WYTV in Youngstown beckoned with the promise of creating a documentary.

My mother was not pleased.

“Don’t go back,” she warned. “You’ll get stuck in Youngstown.”

She was right.

And my life found its purpose.

Youngstown – and the Mahoning Valley – is like a blank canvass, the sides of many buildings beckoning for more murals.

In the last 40 years, I’ve witnessed the Valley collapse, get back up, be described in boxing metaphors and as the epicenter of the Rust Belt.

I’ve seen economic redevelopment infrastructure put in place, a top-down dispassionate business power structure that abandoned the Mahoning Valley replaced by grassroots leadership, determination, support and tools for entrepreneurs to create jobs.

I’ve seen the brain drain reversed with brain gains.

Young adults becoming entrepreneurs, creating and engineering new products, processes and growth for manufacturers and homegrown businesses, innovating technology that put YSU and its partnership with the Youngstown Business Incubator on the world’s map.

Young adults opening art galleries, establishing community gardens, revitalizing neighborhoods and getting involved.

Getting involved.

I asked Phil Kidd what he would tell you if he was standing here.

“YSU graduates may find it challenging to plug into a job here that pays as much as one in bigger cities,” he said. “But this is a city for opportunity in the sense that you can create your own opportunity.”

You are not stuck in Ohio.

As every commencement speaker tells graduates, you can go anywhere your dreams and determination will take you.

And if you build your future here, you will see how – and be part of the reason why — Youngstown is not stuck in the past.

You are a generation.

We are a generation.

Wherever life takes you, always ALWAYS, Defend Youngstown!

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.