Growing Pains #14: Curiosity

” I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” – Kendrick Lamar

My passion for learning and having unique experiences has led me to some interesting places. Most importantly though, I’ve searched for the feeling of “home” for quite some time. In fact, it was something that claimed my attention until the summer of 2016. I’ve been fortunate to travel abroad a few times and build relationships with people from different pockets of the world. I traveled out of excitement and curiosity, but also because I was searching.

I spent the start of 2016 in Ireland. My friend Rachel and I decided to go to Ireland and parts of the UK and we ended up in Dublin for New Years. On one of our other days of traveling we decided to go out with some people from our hostel and we ended up meeting up with people from Montreal (Canada) and Geneva (Switzerland). We ended up walking back to our hostel with our new friends. We found out that they were both engineers on vacation and that they went to grad school together.

Grego, from Geneva but working in Burkina Faso, asked, “Where are you from?” I said the United States, and after recognizing confusion on his face, I asked did if he meant something else. He changed his question. “No, no, what is your origin?” He was speaking of my ethnicity. He was curious about my heritage, which sparked my curiosity as well. He had seen my features before, but not my complexion. He also displayed genuine curiosity when asking. My family always talked about our Black, Native American, and Irish roots, but I never really looked too much into it. His question prompted a mini-identity crisis, but in a positive way. I just gave a generic response, but that question stuck with me. What is your origin? (PS. It’s definitely a United States norm to explain your genetic make up to other people.)

The question carried me into this year. I decided to try the Ancestry DNA kit. I sent the package in and eagerly awaited the results. What is my origin? Where do I come from? One of the common statements that prominent black people in the US frequently use is that “we don’t know where we come from.” Because of slavery, we don’t have a definitive place to point back to and say “I am from X and this is My Culture.”

The day came when I received the email, and I would discover the direction in which I could travel to learn about my heritage. I take great pride in family heritage, generational stories, lessons, and ties to the past, but this gave me a place on a map, well a few places. I intend to visit most, if not all these places. I discovered my origin and no I’m curious to learn about the cultures and histories so I can better understand myself and the world.

My curiosity is at an all time high right now. I’ve loved learning all my life, but right now I have more access than I’ve ever had before. I have time and resources to have new experiences. I am in the mindset that possibilities are endless and that I can become more and more myself each day by peeling that the curtains back one by one. It is a privilege to have time and freedom to seek these things out. There are so many who don’t have that luxury, which is why I’m also compelled to make a better world for others through my work. I am living my best life right now, and it is only the beginning. The relationships, interests, jobs, and opportunities have aligned and continue to align in such a way that I get to do all that I want to do, which isn’t me saying that I can go and do anything I want. But instead, saying that I can choose. I can say no to the things I don’t want and yes to what I do want. I’ve found direction, but most of all, I’ve found home, in myself.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #15: Authenticity will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains 10: Resentment

There were tremors. From “creative” spirals (me just procrastinating) to questions from the people who know me best. During one of the creative spirals, I found a poem, by Daniel Beaty, a playwright, poet, and all around talented performer. The poem, Duality Duel, personified how I viewed myself and how I viewed black people. Beaty goes on to have a conversation between two parts of himself – one characterized as scholarly and clean cut, while the other is cold and hardened by life. Beaty held up the mirror. His performance showed me parts of myself that I wanted to suppress or avoid. It showed me my blackness in the context of community.


“Now the time has come for you to pay yo dues. Because these little n*ggas in the street, they need you. But they think they can’t relate because you act all removed. But the TRUTH IS NERD, WHAT THEY ARE IS YOU. Cuz no matter how hard you try to deny the way you think, talk and feel, yo daddy still smoke heroine, yo brother still on crack, ghetto nightmares still haunt your dreams, and ya momma is still black. I ain’t sayin you gotta become me, but this one thing is true. Inside you is a hard ass n*gga you gotta let come through. Cuz this assimilating bullshit will surely beat you down, and if you choke me long enough, my nerd, I will not stick around. Put the strut back in your walk. Say what you really feel. BE ALL OF YOU FOR ALL OF US TO HEAL! The time for lying and denying is through, it’s time nerd journey to the n*gga in you!” – Duality Duel, Daniel Beaty (An excerpt – click the link for the full poem)


I resented myself for having negative feelings and beliefs about the black community. I used to resent the people around me. I’d come to resent myself. How do I back pedal without it being perceived as inauthentic? How can I now be supportive of blackness? How do I fit into the black community? What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be black in different communities? What parts of myself do I still have to uncover? How do I become all of myself?

Slowly but surely the weight of my guilt, my lack of understanding, and desire to change would give way to lessons learned and new perspective. The process to change was honest, painful, uncomfortable, and most of all, NECESSARY. I needed to change. I reached a tipping point. I needed to learn how to move forward.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #11: Tipping Point will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #8 – Where Do I Fit?

When I think about my life, I think about moments in time. I call the significant moments pillars in time. Sophomore year was a life defining year, it was a pillar in time that would hold up the Parthenon that is my life. I wrestled with so many emotions – grief, fear, anxiety, success, loneliness, pain heartbreak, joy, excitement, anticipation, shame, calmness, emptiness. My life felt like a Greek Tragedy. I had three family members pass away in just under a year and a half. A cousin. An uncle. A grandfather. I am a first generation student so I was feeling the pressure to succeed. I still wrestled with being black and what that meant. The year was weighing on me. I needed support. I needed community.

I was fortunate enough to be part of two scholarship cohorts. I was automatically part of a community because of the two programs. I was a Leader Advancement Scholar (LAS) and a Multicultural Advancement and Cofer scholar (MAC). Each of these programs were different. They were made up of different people, targeted different communities, and focused on different experiences. In LAS, the cohort was comprised of mostly white students. In MAC, the cohort included various races and ethnicities, but I would say that it was primarily made up of black students.

With all that carried over from K-12 and life before college, I found myself spending more time with LAS than MAC. I lived in Troutman with MAC scholars, but you wouldn’t have known that. I spent nearly every day of the first year in Barnes with LAS kids, and I moved out of Troutman my second year. I sought out to build deeper connections with LAS students because I hadn’t been shown any mirrors. I didn’t see myself in the MAC scholars’ cohort. I saw myself in LAS.

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I was hypercritical of the MAC scholars program. I took every opportunity to shine light on any fault or annoyance that I found with the program. I’d complain with other scholars. The meetings ran long. The AV didn’t work. This event felt like a waste of time. In hindsight, those events were so important, especially as I clarified my values and began to understand what I wanted to do with my life. (I apologize to anyone who had to deal with that). I didn’t realize it in the moment, and by the end of sophomore year, I left the MAC scholars program and almost left Central.

All year long, I suppressed the pressures of life. I finished the year and spent most of the summer alone in Mt. Pleasant. I had time to learn about myself and “deal” with everything that was slowly crushing me. It was meditative and rejuvenating. I had time to think. Time to be still. Time to just figure things out. That was really when things started to change for me. With emptiness all around me, I had time to find the mirrors. I had time to see my reflection with clear eyes. All the stimulation was gone. All the distractions were silenced. I was finding my fit, and it was inside rather than out.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #9: Space will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #5: Resentment

Everywhere I turned, I saw someone to blame. Everywhere I turned, I saw someone who looked like me. Everywhere I turned, I pointed the finger. Everywhere I turned I saw no mirrors. Well, there were mirrors… I just didn’t see myself. I didn’t want to see myself.


*Context*

I saw being black as a detriment. I believed being black was a setback. I saw being white, and even non-black, as better. In school. At home. In the activities I participated in. In life. I saw myself as better because I believed I was “non-black”. I was “50%” this, “20%” that. The last thing I was, and most times by default, was black. I would only claim to be black because it was so obvious that I was. I didn’t want to be associated with blackness. I hated that part of my life. The black experience in the United States was, and still is, defined by struggle and suffering. More than that, it seemed like everyone around me was defined by struggle and suffering. You know how tired I was of hearing about and seeing struggling and suffering. You know the type of hopelessness that creates?! It’s all you see. It’s all you hear. It’s all around you. In not owning my blackness, I felt like I didn’t have to deal with it. I was 10 years old and exhausted from life. How does that happen?

Even now, it’s exhausting to always explain to people what’s going on and things like Black Lives Matter or systemic oppression. It’s exhausting to deal with systems that ruin lives everyday.  Eventually, I saw a way out – getting through middle school and high school as soon as possible. – *exhales after getting that out* (Scroll below for content.)


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*Content*

By the time I was in sixth grade, I changed schools five times. There was a cycle. Start over, make a few connections, change schools, start over, make a few connections, start over. My parents just wanted to find the best education for my brother and I, which meant trying schools out and seeing what happened. I just floated through school.

I was part of another environment that seemed to drain imagination and creativity rather than cultivate it. In sixth grade, I was testing two years higher in all subjects and my teacher brought up the discussion to promote me to the eighth grade. I WAS OVERJOYED. It was happening! I’d get to leave sooner than I thought. You can imagine the pride and joy I felt about having this opportunity.

After thinking about it, my parents declined. “I wasn’t socially ready to be in the classroom with eighth graders.” “I was already young for my grade and I wouldn’t be prepared for the changing environments.” I was devastated. I was defeated. I RESENTED THEM more than I ever had before. I couldn’t make lasting connections anywhere. School was failing me. I was fed up. I was a grudge holder. I was so damn tired. They took away the one chance I had to leave it all behind sooner than I anticipated. That chance was gone before I could even blink.

I shut down. I checked out. I didn’t even try. The same feelings of arrogance and disdain toward my peers came back around. My frustration and anger even reached my brother. Kyle and I would’ve been in the same grade. For the longest time, I thought my parents were trying to protect him. I took every opportunity to bring up being promoted publicly to jab at them and remind them that I was angry. I can never apologize enough for how vindictive I was.

*I want to be a parent some day, but it scares me. I can’t thank my parents enough for how they handled me as a child. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done in this situation. They just loved me through it. In hindsight, they made the absolutely right decision. There are so many things I would’ve missed had I moved on too early.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #6: Tipping Point will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #2: Where Do I Fit?

“It comes as a great shock around the age of five or six or seven to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.” – James Baldwin, novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic.

Quiet hallways. Cinderblock walls painted white with deep brown stripe painted to divide the top from the bottom. A sea of brown faces. No Mirrors.

I started to notice differences immediately. I couldn’t see myself in the people around me. At St. Mike’s, I couldn’t tell you the ethnic make-up of the class because it didn’t matter. I mean I didn’t know it mattered to me. When I arrived at Thomas Gist, there was a pronounced feeling of difference. I was different. I didn’t see myself as black. I saw everyone around me as black. I was the exception, which is why I was ahead of everyone else. Unconsciously, I thought myself better than others because I was different, and at the time different meant better to me.

I understood this difference to be “black people are less capable of achieving,” which is absolutely not the case. However, there was something more significant that was influencing my perspective – social class. At both St. Mike’s and Thomas Gist, messages of success, brilliance, and imagination were espoused weekly, if not daily. Each teacher communicated that we were all capable students and that we’d one day succeed in reaching our dreams. There was only one difference, a subtle one to a six year old – less resources. Without similar resources and support, I recognized the difference as being the result of the people and not the system around the people.

In unconsciously blaming the people around me, I struggled to make connections with students who were “so different” than me. I didn’t fit. I didn’t know how to build new relationships with other black kids. Martez was my only friend, which was probably a result of him looking like my cousin Josh. For those years, I was very much an outsider and very much alone. I became more introspective and unwilling to interact with others. A quiet second and third grader found himself trying to understand why he felt so alone.

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Martez is in the front row and to the right of me.  He is wearing a gray shirt, black pants, and black/white tie.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #3: Space will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #1: Bad Genes

Context:

For the past five years, I’ve been reconciling all the hate for myself that compounded over my short lifetime of 24 years. At that point, I was 19 and just starting my journey. Leading up to the middle of Black History Month (February 2017), I found the freedom to tell the story you’re about to begin (There was a long Facebook post). Growing Pains is be a blog series that reflects my personal journey and the semi-universal feelings that came from it. Pain, disappointment, frustration, loneliness, confusion, honesty, compassion, hope, curiosity, love, and peace of mind. My hope is solely to uncover my wounds so that others may see how to heal their own. In sharing this, I aspire to be vulnerable, authentic, humorous, creative, and instructive. Please journey with me from Self-Hate to Self-Love that extends back into a community that has given and still gives me so much joy. I love myself and I love my blackness.

Bad Genes

Bad jeans – I mean bad genes. Sixteen and wishing for color contacts to have the ocean blue eyes like the porcelain skinned girl I had a crush on in the first grade. Five years old, white oxford shirt, smirk, pressed blue pants, Reebok sneakers, Detroit Lions backpack, Hercules folder. I was ready for the first day of first grade at St. Michael’s School, a private school in Southfield, MI. Didn’t even know I was Black. I was a kid trying to figure out which one of the eighth graders was going to push me on the swing set during recess. I was a kid trying to figure out how the Gingerbread Man got from room to room. My mind was bursting open as if the sun was exploding and my imagination was a deep and as wide as the ocean. Day after day there was a new adventure to be had and a new lesson to be learned.

Decades before Arthur memes, I was dressed in a yellow sweater vest and jeans with the fake round glasses on for Arthur Day. We were paleontologists wearing 13-pocket vests looking for fossils in the dirt on Paleontologist Day. We made wax candles on Valentine’s Day after receiving a valentine from every person in the class. On Saturdays, I sat in a rocking chair with a blanket over my legs next to my brother, who sat in a power ranger chair, to watch Saturday morning cartoons while eating a mini bagel with cream cheese and drinking apple juice. I was 85 in a six-year old’s body, assuming that 85 year-olds sit in rocking chairs. Life was good. Life was amazing in fact.

First grade came and went. It was an exciting year full of first crushes, field day, elementary school birthday parties, and the Scholastic Book Fair. Second grade rolled around and I found myself at a new school, Thomas Gist in Inkster, MI. I went from a private school that was predominantly white to a charter school that was predominantly black. My world shook and I didn’t know how to handle. Making friends at that age was challenging enough, but to change school and communities made it even more difficult. My second-grade head was spinning. I was alone in a new place. I imagine I am introverted by nature, but the next few years reinforced that feeling. I didn’t spend much time in the second-grade class though, because what I had learned in first grade at St. Mike’s, they were just teaching in second grade at Thomas Gist. So, I was placed in Ms. Murphy’s third grade class about a month into the school year. Change after change.

This is where my 6-year-old brain started to rationalize what was going on in my life. I mean rationalize as a process, not as being rational about the situation. I had to make sense of the world around me. My best interpretation was “if this school is predominantly black and I’m a year ahead in every subject, then that must mean that white kids are smarter and because I was around them, I was smarter. I wasn’t very rational at 6-years-old, and I was upset because I missed my old friends and teachers. I wanted things to go back the way they were. I just wanted to go back to St. Mike’s.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #2: Where Do I Fit? will be up and ready for your reading.

 

A Year of Generosity, Experiences, and Building.

“Hemingway said we heal stronger at the broken places, but I’ve found that where the heart is concerned, we also heal more tenderly, more open to the miraculous.” Boyd Varty, author of Cathedral of the Wild, spoke about setting intentions for the year in the last chapter of his book, The Om in Motion.

Instead of creating rigid resolutions that I often seem to fail at, I’ve decided to set clear intentions for myself. What do I want to feel more of? What do I want to do more of? How can I express more gratitude? What can I give more, be it time or resources? Am I maintaining strong relationships rooted in mutual respect, dignity, and love?

The world was rocked pretty hard in 2016. A difficult year didn’t come about unintentionally. No matter how you look at it, there were many times of despair, shock, pain, and hardship caused by natural disasters and people. Many of those things hit me at my core, but on the other side of the coin was success, change, exploration, outpours of love and support, resilience, new friendships and relationships, and the maintenance of old friendships. For me, it was a full year that began with traveling abroad and ending with family at home. 2016 was a year of saying yes to myself. It was a year of healing, soul-searching, and personal growth. 2017 will be a year for balance.

My first intention for the year is to be more generous with my time and resources. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive scholarships for grad school, receive free housing and a stipend. This has allowed me flexibility with time and resources. I hope to support causes with time through volunteering and with resources be it monetary or otherwise. I also hope to be generous with my gratitude and to be more vocal in expressing thanks to others. I want give back to the communities that have given me so much.

My second intention is to continue to having valuable experiences that enhance my learning, bring me joy, and feed my soul. There is value in participation and reflection. In 2016, I traveled abroad and domestically quite a bit. It was enlivening and enriching. I hope to read more, discuss important topics, and simply find joy in daily experiences. I want to see beautiful places and meet beautiful people.

My last intention for the year is to maintain meaningful relationships and cultivate new relationships. The concept of Ubuntu, an African philosophy, has become widely known around the world and it means “I am because you are.” In essence, people exist to be part of communities. Without other people, there is little meaning for our lives. It is important to me build trusting, meaningful relationships that are rooted in dignity, mutual respect, and love.

As you can tell these are not resolutions as they are not rigid, explicitly defined, and time-bound. To me, intentions act like the winds that fill sails and propels ships forward; the must be revisited, adjusted, and reflected upon often. 2017 will be a year of building for me and my intentions will guide me. Best wishes to all celebrating a new year or any time of renewal in life.

One Year of Blogging – Number 50

This is blog number 50! I started using The Big Picture to reflect on my experiences a year ago this month. It’s amazing to think about all that has happened in a year’s time and to see it backwards by revisiting certain posts. Some highlights are My Life or Master of None, in which I compare my life with a Netflix Series staring Aziz Ansari, What do you want to be when you grow up?, which focuses on navigating life as a young professional and developing skill to land a job you want, and the recent Office Spotlights.

For this post, I want to talk about the benefits of blogging:

  1. My writing has become more precise and focused. Blogging has been a great tool to practice writing without pressure. I can write at my own pace, revisit thoughts, and make edits after taking a step away from it. Is my writing perfect now? Not particularly, but it has gotten significantly better. Some people are gifted writers. I am not one of them, but that doesn’t stop me from practicing. Progress not perfection is my current mindset.
  2. Reflection is immensely important for learning. I have learned many lessons hours, days, weeks, and even months after having experienced some event, taking a class, or participating in an adventure. Quiet, intentional reflection leads to a deeper understanding of some concepts, a heighten sense of self-awareness, and a strong connection to what I experience. It is one thing to take in new information. It is another to process the information so it can be applied later. (It’s also one of my favorite activities as an introvert.)
  3. Stories. Stories. Stories. Storytelling is powerful! I look back on some of my blogs and laugh my heart out. I look back on others and feel a sense of contentment because of how far I have come. While I have gotten better at storytelling, I must say I have a long way to go before I have mastered this skill. Stories bridge the past with the future, which allows us to revisit moments that are important to us. This was a lesson learned from a friend and mentor, Carlos Cortes.
  4. Lastly, I’ve learned that blogging is a simple way to connect with people. There is a human element to many of my posts and often times they serve as a mirror to what others may have experienced or are currently experiencing. Making simple, yet meaningful connections that are rooted in authenticity is deeply important to me. Being able to do that through blogging is an avenue that is only just opening for me. I’m excited to see where it leads!

Here’s to one year writing for The Big Picture.

 

Office Spotlight – Ellen Wehrman

Today’s Office Spotlight is for the cool aunt that everyone wants to talk to at holidays. The one who looks out for your best interests, but also gives you candy before dinner. Ellen Wehrman joined the Leadership Institute team a little over a year ago and she’s been on a roll since the start.

Ellen is passionate about her husband and kids, sharing desserts, and assessment. I’ve never seen anyone more excited about finding new and INTERESTING ways to gather data and figure out what to do with it. Ellen has also served as a guiding voice for me as a young professional. As one who is passionate about assessment, you can imagine she is passionate about feedback as well. As a young professional with a lot of passion, you can imagine how enthusiastic I am to share my thoughts and ideas. Basically, I need a lot of feedback to flush out my ideas fully.

Ellen has given me tips and coaching on how to balance listening and sharing ideas. She coached me to see that there is power in letting people get their ideas out fully before finishing someone’s sentence or chiming in every few minutes. (I promise it’s the passionate in me). Much like her coaching, Ellen follows this to a T and is a phenomenal listener and coach. It’s been great to have you in the office Ellen and have you as a mentor and coach. We also appreciate the treats, desserts, and candy before lunch!

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Ellen is an Assistant Director in CMU’s Leadership Institute.

Office Spotlight – Hannah Long

From her love of plants to veggie burgers (irony…am I right?), Hannah is a character in the best way! She adds a lightheartedness to the office that keeps us on our toes. Hannah and I had the pleasure of working together during her last undergraduate semester with the Ignite Leadership Program (Miranda Joynt was her co-coordinator).

Last year we shared weekly meetings and now we share the Grave (Grad Cave) w/FeFe. Though we’ll only get one year as grad students together, we’ll definitely have many memories to share. One of those memories is when my mom decided to give her a plant, which happened this week.

If you know Hannah, you know that fun, bulldogs, and bird doubles are not to be missed. That’s the energy she brings to our team. She keeps us fun as well as productive. She stepped into the graduate assistant role right away took off running (not literally). She’s been a great friend and team member in the Leadership Institute and we’re lucky to have her.

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Hannah Long is a graduate assistant in CMU’s Leadership Institute completing her first year of graduate school in the Master’s of Arts in Higher Education Administration.