African American Heritage event speaker issues challenge

Neville Thompson, a senior engineer in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Science, Technology and Engineering), speaks at the African American Heritage Luncheon at Arnold Air Force Base Feb. 23.  He challenged participants to strive to make a difference in the lives of young people by encouragement, mentoring and other acts of service. (Photo by David Housch)

Neville Thompson, a senior engineer in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Science, Technology and Engineering), speaks at the African American Heritage Luncheon at Arnold Air Force Base Feb. 23. He challenged participants to strive to make a difference in the lives of young people by encouragement, mentoring and other acts of service. (Photo by David Housch)

Raquel March explains the role of the Aeropropulsion Systems Test Facility at Arnold Engineering Development Center, Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., to Neville Thompson during his tour of the base Feb. 23. Mr. Thompson, a senior engineer in the office of the deputy assistant Sscretary of the Air Force (Science, Technology and Engineering), was the guest speaker at AEDC’s annual African American Heritage luncheon held at the Arnold Lakeside Club Feb. 23.

Raquel March explains the role of the Aeropropulsion Systems Test Facility at Arnold Engineering Development Center, Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., to Neville Thompson during his tour of the base Feb. 23. Mr. Thompson, a senior engineer in the office of the deputy assistant Sscretary of the Air Force (Science, Technology and Engineering), was the guest speaker at AEDC’s annual African American Heritage luncheon held at the Arnold Lakeside Club Feb. 23.

Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn. -- The guest speaker at this year's African American Heritage luncheon Feb. 23 at the Arnold Lakeside Club here put out a challenge to the audience to take action, to make a tangible difference in people's lives.

Neville Thompson, a senior engineer in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Science, Technology and Engineering), is someone who practices what he preaches, judging from his own professional accomplishments and a long list of distinguished awards he has received over the years. 

Among other acts of service, he has spearheaded professional development programs for minorities and women to help level the playing field for employment opportunities. He is active in his church, community and has participated in a foster parenting program for eight years.

He got a tour of Arnold Engineering Development Center here before the luncheon what he saw made a positive impression on him, he said.

"From my work with Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, I knew about AEDC and had a sense of what goes on at Arnold," he said. "But seeing this place first hand was really impressive - with the tour it gave me a better context of exactly what goes on here."

Mr. Thompson began his speech by quoting from Dr. Martin King Jr.' s 'I Have a Dream' speech, focusing on the late civil rights leader's reference to the 'table of brotherhood,' a metaphor where all Americans join to find common ground, resolve conflicts and affect positive change into the present.

"My challenge to you today is what are you bringing to the table?" he said. "Are you bringing a spirit of love and goodwill, or are you bringing a spirit of hatred and discrimination?"

He acknowledged that significant progress has been made in the country during the years following the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. But a lot of work remains to be done to eliminate disparity between the races in the areas of education and employment, he said.

Mr. Thompson said past agents of change employed three basic skills - things that virtually anyone, whatever their occupation or background, could do to influence change among young people.

"There were three unique skills our predecessors brought to the table, and if we have them ourselves, we can have an impact on our communities," he said. "First is the power of the dream, second is the power of determination, and third is the power of service."

He credits his mother with providing the encouragement that gave him the confidence to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer. More recently, support and advice from his family, including his wife and daughter, was significant in making sound professional and personal decisions.

He also said not everyone's dream will fit into the societal expectations some have for African Americans.

"We need to expand beyond the idea that sports and music are the only main avenues available to our young people," Mr. Thompson said. "The truth is that very few make it into these professions. With proper training, education and commitment, you have a better chance of being a surgeon than a sports star or entertainer."

He recounted his experience as a college freshman, riding a bicycle to class and literally balancing his books and notebooks on the handlebars when he hit a bump. The jolt sent him, the books and bicycle all in different directions.

"That was one of those times when you might wonder if you've made the right choices," he said. "Like I said in my speech, just one of several people who saw me fall stopped to help me and give some encouragement. That is all it can take to reinforce our determination to keep going, to pursue our dreams."

Service can come in many forms, including mentorship. He said mentoring is critical to helping young people succeed, but it shouldn't be a solo effort.

"Mentorship is a two-way street," he said. "The person who's getting mentored has to be active. Waiting for your mentor to come down from Mount Olympus to say these are what the rules are - because the rules change - is a mistake. It's also a good idea to have more than one mentor so you get a different perspective on things."

His advice to those at AEDC was straightforward.

"Everyone here has something to bring to the table," he said. "We all potentially have the ability to inspire someone, to provide encouragement and to pass the baton on to the next person."