Stedman Graham knows a thing or two about labels -- after all, it's hard for him to go anywhere without hearing a mention of his longtime partnership with Oprah Winfrey.
But as Graham told the hundreds of sophomores and juniors from three area schools who came to hear him speak Tuesday at Bluffton High School, he has worked his entire life to not let those labels define him.
"The world will define you," he said. "They will define you by your race, your family and your town. But I define myself. You don't define me, because if you define me, you'll define me as less than you."
Graham was in Bluffton to talk to students on the Live Sonima Tour, on which the self-help author and public speaker helps audiences unlock their potential through his "learning management system," called the Nine-Step Success Process. Students from Bluffton, Hilton Head Island and Ridgeland-Hardeeville high schools all attended Tuesday's event.
Graham told the raucous crowd in Bluffton High's gym to use love to motivate them to do better in school and in life. He encouraged the students to not be followers, but be leaders with vision and drive.
"The follower is working too hard," he said. "After 40 years of working, the follower will say, 'I had no more in the end than I did in the beginning.'"
The largely interactive seminar called on several students to respond to rhetorical questions. One of them was "Do you know who you are?"
Graham said he couldn't answer that question until his 30s, when he began trying to help people. He said his lessons about striving to do better came from his own upbringing, when he was repeatedly told he wouldn't go to college or be successful because of his family and where he lived.
The question generated myriad responses from students. Some gave general information about themselves, such as their religion or ethnicity. Two others took it a step further with impromptu musical performances, one of which sent the audience into a frenzy, the other a chorus of boos.
He also asked some students to name things they love in 30 seconds. Some responses were poignant, like a student who said he loved "the air I breathe." But most drew a cacophony of laughter, like the student who told Graham, "Waffles are pretty great."
Graham gave one student $40 for naming the most things she loved in 30 seconds, and offered $200 for a student who could break the tour record of 62 items in 30 seconds. Hilton Head High sophomore McKara Johnston received the $40 after naming 44 things she loved in 30 seconds.
"A world without love is a world I don't want to be a part of," Johnston said after Graham asked what she had learned.
"Love is the most powerful word in the world," Graham said. "If you focus on hate, you'll go backward. If you focus on negativity, you won't have a life."
Graham said after the assembly that his lecture uses the "power of passion" to get students to use the things they love to motivate themselves.
Johnston said she was skeptical of the assembly before it started, but after Graham's speech, she had a change of heart.
"I learned that love is one of the most important things in life and that you don't need the perfect life to succeed," she said.
Graham will speak to students and parents at four high schools -- Bluffton, Hilton Head Island, Battery Creek and Beaufort -- through Thursday. Fellow Sonima Foundation board member and singer-songwriter Caroline Jones, who authored and founded another school curriculum based in musical expression, will also give presentations and lead student performances.
The school district was not charged for the tour, officials say. Students at 15 other district schools will receive a condensed version of the tour's message.
"Knowing who you are is relevant to 6.99 billion people," Graham said. "I have a lot of work to do."
LIVE SONIMA TOUR
Stedman Graham and the Live Sonima Tour
The local schedule for the Live Sonima Tour includes:
- A public performance at 6 p.m. today at Bluffton High School.
- A student performance at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Battery Creek High School.
- A teacher/community event at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Battery Creek High School.
- A student performance at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at Beaufort High School.
- A public performance at 6 p.m. Thursday at Beaufort High School.
From the Lowcountry, the tour heads to North Carolina and then to Florida.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.