[Editor's Note: This is the first story of a three-part series on Black History Month and black economic empowerment.]

MONS, Belgium - The SHAPE/ChiAfA..vres community gathered Feb. 3 to recognize black economic empowerment as part of the garrison's black history month observance.

"Black history observance is one of eight observances that the U.S. Department of Defense sponsors every year to highlight the diversity of our armed forces," said Maj. Gen. Byron Bagby, Deputy Chief of Staff of Operations at Joint Force Command Brunssum..

"I personally try to attend all of them that my schedule will allow me to to learn about the history of women, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Pacific and others who serve in our armed forces," said Bagby.

"As I stand here this afternoon and look into the audience, I see a diverse group of people from many nations, many professions, many military services all who come together to make our world a better place. That's what SHAPE has done, that's what NATO does and that's what this community does," he said.

The event began with a posting of the U.S. and Belgian colors by the SHAPE High School Junior ROTC, and the playing of the Belgian and U.S. national anthems by the SHAPE International Band.

Patsor Gavin Wainwright provided the opening prayer. Then, members of his church choir, Voices of Victory, followed singing two gospel songs.

After Sgt. Mahasin Muhammad gave a brief history of black economic empowerment in the United States, students with the SHAPE High School Junior ROTC prepared and read "Who am I'" narratives, quizzing the audience on influential black Americans known throughout the world.

"Who am I'" the first student asked. "I was born in Mississippi," she continued as she gave references to Oprah Winfrey. Other students followed with descriptions about people ranging from Michael Jackson to President Barack Obama.

"I thought I understood black history," said Bagby, "but sitting there trying to identify who the person is that they were describing -- I got most of them right, but there were a couple that I got wrong.

"So, well done to the team for writing that narrative and reading that to us today because it was very thought provoking and most importantly educational," he added.

SHAPE high school student Carol Mills also added an educational touch to the event when she read her winning essay on CJ Walker, a black female American entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Ambassador Dr. Christian Kargbo, Republic of Sierra Leone ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, was the guest speaker. He motivated the attendees to take responsibility for their own empowerment.

The annual event, which was part of ChiAfA..vres Garrison's Equal Opportunity program, was a team effort put together by numerous tenant units and coordinated by the U.S. Army NATO SHAPE Battalion.

"While SHAPE Battalion had the lead for the observance, we couldn't have pulled off such a great event without the help of the entire community," said Lt. Col. Michele Prihoda, battalion commander. "I want to thank all the partner units -- Soldiers, civilians, family members -- who contributed time and memorabilia and who cooked the wonderful food."

The food sampling included dishes like catfish, black eyed peas, red beans and rice, jerk chicken and sweet potato pie.

"I also want to especially thank Staff Sgt. Tyrone Stroud, the SHAPE Battalion Equal Opportunity liaison," said Prihoda. "He was the noncommissioned officer in charge for the event. He personally coordinated with all the partner units, pulled together all of the ideas, and created the program. He exemplifies the battalion motto, 'Deeds not Words.'"

Other units that participated included USAG Benelux, 39th Signal Battalion, 650th Military Intelligence Group/Allied Command Counterintelligence, the Air Force Element, 309th Airlift Squadron, Northern Law Center and SHAPE Survey Detachment.