The students in our programs come from diverse backgrounds and face unique challenges in navigating the world they are growing up in.
It is a privilege to be their guide in this journey called life. Many of the students we have in our programs are having experiences that may be similar to the staff working in our programs. The true challenge is being able to create an environment that supports the staff and students to feel emotionally and physically safe and not just survive but thrive in spite of whatever obstacles they may face beyond the walls of the space on a campus. This challenge needs to be met by reflecting and expanding your awareness as an educator and then demonstrated through your leadership. The key is to ask yourself – What is your identity? How does that allow you to connect with your staff and your students? Do you have an implicit bias that influences your attitudes or interactions with those that differ from you? Do you lead from a place of compassion?
In looking at my own journey, I have discovered that my own identity is “under construction”.
My grandfather came to this country from the Azores Islands off the coast of Portugal. He worked hard in seeking the American Dream. He did not teach us the language and we were exposed to very few elements of Portuguese culture. Although there was clearly a disconnect, he always said how proud he was to be Portuguese. While my mother is Portuguese, my father is a mix. I was raised without a clear connection to my Portuguese heritage through customs and traditions and only knew that the rest of what made me who I am was a mystery. There was never a discussion about what made up my cultural heritage. I will admit that this is something I have only recently begun to delve into and reflect upon. In 2014, I was asked to be part of a group of strong talented leaders who are women of color.
As the women shared their stories I realized that I have not had many of the experiences they have faced. I am fair skinned so most people cannot typically identify what my ethnic background is. I have been asked if I am Native American or Asian, and then there is the comment, “well you are white – right?” The fact that I can pass as white has sometimes afforded me privileges in my life that I have come to realize through listening to the stories of my sisters. They have experienced blatant racism and discrimination based on the color of their skin. I truly have not. Through participating in the Sisters Inspiring Change, I have deepened my journey of self-discovery. This journey of self-discovery has empowered me to encourage others to dig deep to their roots since our identity shapes who we are and allows us to connect with others. It has helped me better understand how different life experiences can be from one person to the next and understand the importance of our roles in shaping the lives of the young people we work with.
I am sharing this very personal journey to urge you to examine your level awareness and compassion.
In my experience, I have witnessed that awareness when teamed with compassion can be empowering. As educators and ambassadors of youth development we have the privilege and the power to continue to support the young people in our programs and support the staff to realize and share their own cultural identity. We can do this by serving as an example to those around us and through being mindful and intentional about the environments we create for students and staff.
Now, more than ever, it is important that our programs serve as a safe space for young people where they are valued, accepted and celebrated for who they are. This can only be achieved if the staff in our programs have the same opportunity.
Finally it is important to remember that each one of us has the power to make a positive impact. It is imperative that we engage in reflection to identify how we as individuals can create a ripple effect that supports not just one but all.
For breakfast I had a banana & protein shake.
Author Profile: @juliesesser