Just minutes before Hill Harper was slated to deliver the luncheon keynote speech at the Black Male Summit on Friday, speakers announced that he wasn’t able to attend.

They rolled a 10-minute video of Harper delivering a motivational speech instead, prompting some members of the audience to abandon their seats and leave.

Then, a voice came booming from the stage.

“Who said I wasn’t going to be here?” asked Harper from the stage as the video concluded.

Such is the dynamic of the University of Akron’s Black Male Summit: speakers challenging the audience, putting its members in uncomfortable positions and taking risks, all in the name of cultivating change.

The 10th annual Black Male Summit, which began Friday and concludes Saturday, is a conference that encompasses relevant issues pertaining to black men, including graduation and student success; identity; career and professional engagement; health; communication and media; and community engagement. The goal is to help prepare black men for successful futures, especially in higher education, while addressing the challenges they face in society.

The first day of the summit was held at the John S. Knight Center, while the majority of sessions on Saturday will be in the University of Akron’s Student Union. The two days consist of keynote speeches, breakout group sessions and workshops delivered by a variety of different speakers.

Harper, Friday’s featured speaker, is an actor, bestselling author and philanthropist best known for his nine-season role as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes in CSI: NY. He also earned three Ivy League degrees and wrote four New York Times bestsellers.

During his speech, Harper said Friday was the first time he ever tried tricking the audience. He said that although he watched some people leave the auditorium, he considered it a risk worth taking.

“Most of us will continue to sit on our genius,” Harper said. “Continually look for new ways to take risks ... The only way you achieve greatness is through the portal of failure.”

Between his video and live speech, Harper touched on current national issues, including the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. His overall message encouraged change through risk-taking and, above anything else, putting energy behind those decisions.

“If you actually want to make a difference, it starts with having energy,” Harper said.

Breakout sessions focused on more specific topics in the context of black males, including mental health, personal branding and career obstacles.

Sessions picked up heat at times, like one called The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, where speaker Eddie Moore Jr. proposed the idea that segregated schools might be more effective in educating children than traditional public schools, where some kids experience racism from teachers.

The thought made many audience members squirm and threaten to leave.

For audience members like Jerome West of Canton, though, conversations like that are what spark change.

“The conversations happening here are extremely uncomfortable for a majority of people in the room,” West said. “It’s time for uncomfortable conversations across the spectrum.”

The event is usually in April, but that was the month that Jolene Lane, the vice president for inclusion and equity at UA, was hired and became co-chair of the summit.

Lane said that they’ll restore the tradition and continue holding the event in April starting in 2018. She also said UA students wanted even more conversation beyond the summit, so she plans on continuing the dialogue during more events throughout the year.

A majority of the 1,400 attendees throughout the day consisted of UA students, both male and female.

“Coming here today was like, whoa. It was kind of a culture shock,” said Shanelle Mitchell, a senior education major at UA. “This has to be one of the best events I’ve come to.”

For Zachery Williams, one of the founders of the event, that’s the goal: drawing enough attention to the issues to get people talking about making a change. Williams was honored during the luncheon, along with scholarship recipients and prominent black community leaders.

“African-Americans have a lot of gifts and talents that oftentimes aren’t tapped into because of negative perceptions in society ... that are sometimes internalized and believed erroneously by African-American males themselves,” Williams said. “But if we can have a combination of motivation and also challenge, I think we can bring out those best talents of African-American males that can be to the benefit of everybody.”

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.