It is not uncommon to hear expressions like “Live for the moment, Live the Dream, or People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. From birth, there is this shared expectation that we are to live our lives. Like most opportunities where you are asked to share your journey and words of wisdom, I started thinking about how I have lived my life these short 23 I mean 47 years.
Today, I want to spend a few moments talking to you about “Learning from the lived experience” past, present, and future. Instead of using the phrase, “my lived” experience, I intentionally use the phrase, “the lived” experience to give credit to people in the past, present, and future who influence the way I live. I will share in three parts my educational journey and words of wisdom.
Who inspired you to pursue your education? Was it a family member, friend, someone you admired or were you self-motivated? For me, it was my dad. When I was a young child, age 6, my father then was working on his undergraduate degree in Biology at Texas A&M, Commerce, formally known as East Texas State University. I can remember going to the biology lab with dad. While he conducted experiments, I explored all of the towering wooden shelves of specimens and touched the cold lab equipment, as the strong scent of formaldehyde lingered well after we returned home to join the rest of the family. I watched dad with curiosity peer at the thin glass slide positioned on the stage of the microscope.
I have always shared that lived experience with other people. The purpose of sharing that lived experience was not to give you the origins of my career path but to show you how I developed my identity as a learner and educator. I became a scientist not because my dad drilled in me that it was my destiny. Rather, it was dad telling me to take risks, be confident, question everything, and let no one tell me what I am capable of doing.
Your identity is your superpower. Every opportunity, experience –good or bad, is by design and being aware of your identity traits influences your mindset. So, when I struggled in my chemistry course freshman year, I did not accept the advice from my male advisor to change my major from science because I would never graduate. Instead, I put on the full armor – my Black African identity of a legacy of persistence, spirituality, and intelligence to claim my birthright.
This brings me to my first point. (Re)membering You. Knowing your identity is fundamental to your success. It is about (re)membering who you are when faced with alternative facts about your ability, purpose, talent, and contribution in life. Had I not known the person I was created to be, I would have not lived up to my potential. Again, your identity is your superpower so invest in it. As the Sankofa symbol suggests, return and take it, when you have allowed someone to misrepresent your identity.
I have always been a competitive person. In school, I was on the track team, cheerleading, and in college, I got into teaching cardio kickboxing and step aerobics. To this day, I will accept any challenge to lift weights, run, or show that I can still do a perfect cartwheel. Having such a competitive spirit at times did more harm than good because it often left me pursuing identity traits that did not belong to me. Most times, I set myself up for failure because, in the process of trying to outperform another person, I disregarded the fact that we are all born with specific skill sets. Therefore, we should not compare ourselves to other people and fault ourselves when we don’t accomplish benchmarks that are set based on what other people do.
In 2013, I lived in Ghana. It had been 6 years since I left the US to make Ghana my home with no real intention of ever returning to live in the US. The decision to move to Ghana, my husband’s home country was not difficult because in 1995 my grandparents retired and built a home for the family in the capital city Accra. Because I traveled every summer and most Christmas holidays to Ghana since 1996 this made the transition easy. In my usual manner, I sat at the kitchen table of our home eating breakfast with my then 89-year-old grandmother. The previous day, I had been presented an opportunity to return to the US to earn my PhD. As I talked, I kept listing all the reasons why I should not go as she quietly listened and ate her breakfast. Then Imah, the name I called my grandmother which meant mother in Hebrew, interrupted my words with the statement, “you need to add more books into your library”. Suddenly, Imah’s words reminded me of my grandparent’s lived experience that at ages 70 and 76 when most people their age retire to a life of self-indulgence, they defied the norm. Their example taught me that nothing is impossible academically when the lived experience – present, is guided by the plans created for you.
This brings me to my second point. Compete Only with Yourself. Knowing your purpose in life not only lessens hardship it gives you confidence and direction. As Black Africans, we constantly endure the lived experience of subjection to negative stereotypes and micro-aggressions as learners. Often, we spend more time trying to belong socially and academically in education to achieve a standard set outside of our born purpose. Our society teaches us to fit into someone else’s lived experience with examples of fitness, wealth, beauty, and success. That is why it is important to view progress/success as a personal goal setting exercise based on self-reflection. Accept that diversity is a badge of honor. Accept that more is gained when you become the standard for which you define progress. Accept that to use another person’s journey to walk in the fullness of the person you were created to be will not get you there.
When I was in graduate school working on my Masters degree in Education, I obsessed over specific skills I lacked in comparison to my classmates. The more I noticed their talents the less apparent mine became. During one class, we had to create a mock lesson using our classmates as actual students to role play as the teacher. I was the exception in the class of 17 people with no formal classroom teaching experience except for teaching Sunday school at my church. I remember executing the lesson with ease and receiving praise from my peers. Many years later I thought about that incident when I heard the expression, “stay in your lane”. Although that phrase is meant as a warning to define roles, the truth is we are one body with many functions. I can not be my best you likewise you can not be your best me. Therefore, take heed to stay in your lane doing what you were called to do.
I grew up when Saturday mornings were a time to serve in the community. In Chicago, I spent most weekends with my grandparents on the southside. Nannie, my grandmother, made sure I earned the privileges of new clothes, candies, and money from volunteering at the corner church packing and delivering food baskets in the neighborhood. Despite the cold weather, missed cartoons, and attempts to sleep past 7 am on a Saturday morning, as a young teen I knew not doing it wasn’t even an option if I wanted to live, so before Nike even coined the phrase “Just Do It” I lived it. However, while I served, I understood doing my part benefited me more than the person on the receiving end.
Have you ever been asked to do something you didn’t plan in advance to do? What about sacrificing for other people you barely know? Discovering my career as a science educator happened as a consequence of my willingness to serve others. One Sunday, during the break between Sunday school and the main service, the youth pastor publically announced to the church that he could no longer work with the teenagers. In his words, “He had had enough” and quit his position effective that day. The pastor desperate for a substitute teacher asked me to fill in until he found someone to take over. I had not taught before in church or in a public school yet the lived experience of witnessing my grandparents readily accept opportunities to serve regardless of their level of expertise made it clear what I had to do. That one act of obedience surprisingly unmasked my passion to teach students the subject of science/STEM education for over 20 years.
When I consider what I have accomplished in life, every blessing, revelation, good fortune came as a product of my service. During my doctoral program, I worked full time as a science/STEM educator at a middle school. For those of you familiar with graduate studies, juggling the field of education as a learner and educator is not easy. Many nights I would leave the library after 2 am sleep for 2 hours and be at work by 6 am ready to serve the brilliant Black and Brown students that entered into my space. It would have been easy for me to rationalize quitting my job to ease my load, yet I knew what I had accomplished was a reflection of somebody’s sacrifice and mentorship. That is why the first words you often hear from my mouth is “how can I help you?”
This brings me to my third and final point. Take Captive your Thoughts. How would you rate your willingness to give up your time and talent for the good of others? Do you feel obligated to give back when it’s not convenient? The seeds you sow become your legacy. More importantly, your lived experience impacts the lived experience of the people you engage with on a daily basis. As Black Africans, we are responsible for the progress of our people. We must always be ready to serve each other.
Five months ago, we moved to Arizona from Florida. I didn’t waste any time volunteering to support the Black African Coalition. You see, if not us, who? And If not now, when? Seeing the realization of Black Africans living out their born purpose directs everything Sekou and I do. Education is the mediator for change. Although my parents, great and grandparents, aunt and uncle’s, professors, siblings, pastors, friends, or husband’s name was not featured on the program to speak to you today when I shared my lived experience they were included. So I ask, “Who’s lived experience are you apart of? And How are you paying it forward in your lived experience?
To the 2019 Black African graduates, I end with this remember to entrust all your efforts unto the Lord for He will make your plans succeed.