Telling the truth about your life should feel relatively easy. That’s not always the case with people of color/minority groups/people traditionally seen as outside of the dominant culture.
I felt I was trained to ignore and acquiesce to this growing up. Challenging the status quo, especially it’s designed against your ability to live your fullest life, was asking to make matters worse.
So I didn’t take it lightly when I was invited to talk to a rising class of young leaders from Boston College. I was asked to present a speech that would help them figure out what they were supposed to do with what they learned in college, to make the world a better place. My honest answer will always be politically incorrect. Some may say it would lead young people to make choices that don’t make it easy for them to fit the mold, play it safe and live comfortably after college.
As I wrote my speech for BC, I tried remembering where I was mentally/emotionally after college. I had to remind myself that my audience will be vulnerable to the same pressures of making their parents proud, proving that the investments they made in giving them an expensive education will yield some return.
But if the goal of my GenVolution movement is to disrupt the status quo, to stop the cycles of poor leadership at the highest levels that make life less than great at the lowest levels, I had to find the courage to tell them the truth. Their lives will be far from comfortable if they wanted to actually make a difference, do something of real significance in a way that doesn’t make room for a select few to receive all the glory, power, wealth and respect.
So I opted to tell the truth, and hopefully I did it with love. I’m hoping the speech I delivered on being intentional change agents lit a spark, that either brings light to or burns down a history of inequity and disenfranchisement that so many claim to want to end through social impact work.
The transcript of my entire speech is below:
Good morning 4Boston!
If I’m not mistaken, your theme (“Action is Love Made Visible”) originally came from an Indian social activist named Vinoba Bhave.
I dug deeper into his quote to better understand the context in which he used it. And what he’s saying, based on my interpretation and some commentary I read online, that when we work just for the sake of working (no ulterior motive, no desire for a specific outcome) that work will naturally manifest into an appreciation for life and others.
If we stop there, this interpretation becomes simplistic and misleading. With my story, which for the sake of time I’ll try truncating into three chapters, I’m going to remind us that we should always be in a state of self-interrogation when it comes to this philosophy on work. Especially when it relates to the notion of work as love.
Sometimes work is just a responsibility, whether or not we find romance, passion or desire in it. There’s a line in the poem On Work that says “when you work/ you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when the dream was born”.
In reading or hearing that too fast, you won’t realize it’s just a poetic way to say you were born with a certain responsibility, a certain duty to fulfill. Ironically, a Harvard Business Review article was trending around the time I was writing this speech, which said (paraphrased) that pursuing work based on what we think gives us joy is the worst way to identify work that’s meant for you and that you’d perform with fidelity for the long run.
I want each of you to honestly ask yourself how you’re defining “love” when considering the pursuit of work. Is it self-love via comfort, safety, making lots of money, or experiencing fame? Is it love disguised as pathology, a fixation on the suffering of others; to find self-worth when others are desperately dependent on your work?
By the end of my story, I want us to see that Action is Intent & Results Made Visible.
I tried coming up with a clever way for you to remember – we need more A.I.R.
Most of all, remember that the intent and results we see from our work will reveal what kind of love is at the root.
I’ll start my story. Chapter One is called “Context”.
I have a Master’s degree, graduated magna cum laude, own a consulting firm I built from scratch two years ago and have worked with internationally notable social entrepreneurs across Africa and its diaspora. In my second year as a business owner, I’ve been nominated to deliver six speeches, including a TED talk in Kenya coming up next month.
I’ve reached some significant heights, despite significant lows I experienced as a child. Basically from six years old until my very last day of high school, I was what some would call “at-risk”.
When I said that, some would probably think at-risk of high suspension rates, behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, or the struggles that come from being born into a low-income household.
I was born into a two-parent household, both parents college-educated (one even with a Master’s degree), a legacy of a grandfather who was a diplomat for the Nigerian government…AND yet, I was extremely at risk. How?
Well for starters, despite my parents’ efforts to invest and place me in a safe, conducive learning environment, I was somehow labeled a remedial student. The only time I wasn’t was when I was enrolled in a private and then magnet school in my hometown in Brooklyn, NY. But starting in the first month of my middle school career, I was demoted to an academic setting that well-intentioned people thought would suit me better. Until one day my parents asked me to read a novel for a book report my teacher assigned in my 7th-grade remedial English class. The book was called Things Fall Apart by the renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, which Scholastic ranks at a 9th to 12th-grade reading level. Meanwhile, I read and wrote about it for my 7th-grade assignment.
Now, before I go on with the story you need a little more context. Yes, my parents put me in private school, and yes I tested into a magnet school before being relegated to remedial in a suburban school district in Long Island. But more importantly, my parents were hard-working immigrants that came from a culture that said you worked hard in school not because you were special or gifted, but because it was your duty to succeed academically, no excuses. And I think that was partly to blame for the outcome of that enrollment meeting for my new school in Long Island, where the academic advisor convinced my parents I needed to be in remedial. In hindsight, I think they were willing to listen to whatever advice was deemed necessary for me to “catch up” or be on par with standards set by those in positions of authority, who my parents believed knew best because it was their work to know what’s best.
So now I’ll ask you a rhetorical question: why do you think I was moved to remedial?
Honestly, the answer is I’ll never know because being the quiet, obedient child who didn’t dare question authority, I didn’t ask my teachers or guidance counselor what remedial meant or why I was put there. And I wasn’t trying to prove anyone wrong when I wrote my first assignment on Mr. Achebe. I was obeying my parents’ instructions. Needless to say, my English teacher was FLOORED and impressed by my assignment.
And I always wonder if in that moment she saw it as her duty to make sure I was put on the honors track, or what would have happened if she didn’t bother at all.
Within two weeks of reading my book report and speaking with school leaders, I was moved into her honors English class (was still in remedial for every other subject). I’m grateful for what she did. Honestly, I can’t say that it was enough. Doing what’s right without investigating and understanding why it’s right is an unreliable way to ensure actions consistently lead to the best results. And once again in this scenario, I’m positive folks were making a decision out of what felt good rather than the full context needed.
For example, no one cared to find out that I was extremely depressed. My tendency to please others and be obedient stemmed from being raised in an abusive home. I honestly don’t remember how great of a book report I wrote for Things Fall Apart, but what I do know now is that my depression and anxiety severely hindered my ability to show up fully in classroom settings. Luckily, reading and writing was the most effective way I knew to communicate and interact with the world around me, so I performed really well on those tasks. And I think that led my teachers to overlook my lack of active engagement outside of what was necessary to pass.
This is where my concern for pathology comes from. I believe I was a quintessential case study of well-intentioned people thinking that they were acting out of love for me, when really it may have felt good to tokenize me as an example of an at-risk child defying the odds, making it into their rigorous academic tracks.
Once I became a teacher, I saw that pattern play out a lot. Particularly with educators who realized how much effort their work would require, and who instead decided to take an easier route and pat themselves on the back for at least trying.
Expectations, both for me as a student and in what I saw as a teacher, were still low because people like me were seen as projects to check off a “how to be a good person” list. The intent behind the work became less about us and more about those working on us, and the results were more about how those working on us wanted to feel once they were done, without considering the best interest or consequences for others.
I think about this a lot, but it brought me to tears last week, in particular. Which brings me to chapter two, which I’ll call “Competition”.
This month, I was hired to be a reader for a very prestigious international fellowship program, and I had 40 applications assigned to me from young people in Africa hoping to get admitted.
Out of 40, there were only three applicants who I highly recommended and thought could meet the expectations outlined in our reader’s manual. But in all of them I saw different parts of me, and it was what made me cry.
On the one had I was grateful I was given this work to do. I have a unique perspective being a woman of Nigerian descent, understanding the context within which many of these candidates were living. I knew how to interpret the colloquial ways they expressed their thoughts about circumstances in their countries. I also empathized with candidates’ descriptions of the desperation they and other peers felt over their futures, and literally how life-changing acceptance to this program would be.
On the other hand, I knew we had strict instructions to follow a rubric that asked us to give weight to past achievements, strong command of the English language and extraordinary displays of being the exception in an environment that typically renders people helpless.
Essentially, we were looking for those who, despite countless years of tyranny and disenfranchisement brought on by local and international actors alike, somehow found the will to do something that would impress said actors. (½)
In the pursuit of doing work with good intentions but also ethical results, I’d ask us to be cognizant of the arbitrary and hegemonic yardsticks we use to measure a person’s potential.
There was a meme I found online that showed a goldfish, a bird, and an elephant together in a group, with a man telling them “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam; please climb that tree.” And that meme was supposed to be an illustration of a famous Einstein quote: “Everybody’s a genius. But if you a judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.”
When we go into so-called “developing” nations or marginalized communities, love is not insulting or questioning their intelligence. Actions like giving them a fish or even teaching them how to fish is still keeping them – as Pablo Freire once wrote – in a position of supplication.
Another quote I love from Freire, who by the way wrote the famous text Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”
I started to cry as I reviewed those applications last week because at the very basic level, there was nothing wrong with 90% of the applications I read. The majority of them expressed sincere and transparent reflections of people who each wanted to achieve the same thing.
A lack of degree, list of accolades, or not communicating in standard English didn’t equate to laziness, lack of ambition or lack of ability. Sadly, only a few of them who figured out how to climb those metaphorical trees would get a coveted opportunity, while others still wondered when their opportunity would come. If it ever comes.
As leaders and change agents, let’s be in dialogue —two-way communication— with everyone we encounter. See the people you dialogue with as equals, and relish the opportunity to gain that much needed context to take action, in tandem with them, with good intent that results in both of your best interests being met.
We should ask ourselves, what are the types of opportunities we should truly provide to each other? How do we ensure these opportunities aren’t exploitative, and promote autonomy and agency? How do we meet each other where we’re at, but also help each other reach where we want to go?
For those of us, including myself, in privileged positions: let’s also stop moving the bar arbitrarily. Because for some of us, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’re worried that those who used to be dependent on us are catching up. And that selfish love, as Bhave once said, would have us believe there’s “a conflict between self-interest and the interest of others”.
What I’m beginning to describe is a very complex situation, that requires more time to unpack and a recipe of multiple solutions. There’s no one answer to how to make the world fairer.
There is one solution that should always be in the mix. And it’s in the title of this third and final chapter: Culture.
In the [chwe] Twi language from Ghana, there’s the word “Sankofa”. It’s represented by a bird that looks over its shoulder, reaching for and/or holding a precious egg in its beak.
There’s a lot of power in African symbolism, which is why (whether it was conscious or not) my parents probably gave me Things Fall Apart to read. Up until that point my parents shared very little about the history of my Nigerian heritage. Today I still grapple with things like not speaking my native tongue fluently, or realizing at a very late age the way that the gender roles, tribal traditions, and intellect of my ancestors were mischaracterized.
The unfortunate thing is that many people identifying as African, African-American, Latino, Afro-Latino, Native American, or any other group don’t look back far enough to understand the full richness of their culture. They don’t realize that though they’re labeled a “minority” in one context, there’s nothing minor about them or their legacy.
If these communities, and all of us frankly, took the time to look over our shoulders to the past, we’d find empowering wisdom and insights into who we were and who we were meant to become.
I had the honor of meeting Winnie Byanyima, the CEO of Oxfam International, during this year’s UN General Assembly. At one event, she spoke about a campaign for mandatory development studies courses that teach pre-colonial history. What she described is what I’d actually call an identity studies course, because she emphasized the need for people from the so-called development world to know their rightful place in the global economy and ensure they know and demand their equal position as part of a global citizenry.
If you’re looking for the right action to take with the best intent, that produces the best results, be an advocate for critical pedagogy. In this role, everyone is both student and facilitator, engaging in that dialogue I spoke about earlier. It’s a dialogue that challenges inequity, ignorance, and stereotypes, which are fertile ground for toxic culture characterized by patronizing and domineering actions.
What we should cultivate instead is an understanding of every person’s significance and role in bringing us closer to the utopian society we appear to be after when we say “Action is Love Made Visible”. Society has never been perfect, but many of the problems we face in our current era stem from campaigns of obscurantism – “deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something [or someone] from becoming known.”
Remember that Harvard Business Review article I mentioned earlier? There was a quote from it that said “expressing [or pursuing] your passion [through work] may only help you if your audience already agrees with what you are presenting.”
In other words, unless we each come to our work with the same knowledge, rationale or critical consideration of our motivations for work, how can we ever be on the same page about the goal of our work? And will we ever reach any goal that’s worthwhile or rooted in the right objectives?
An example from my personal life is my experience as a former teacher. I left the education field not because working with children or advocating for education reform wasn’t my passion. I left because I didn’t see enough people armed with the same motives and critical understanding of why this work was important.
Now remember, I did say that sometimes work is just responsibility. Which is why I’m happy to be here talking to students and engaging in some form of instruction the best way I know how. I’m sure the majority of you are here with a sincere desire to make a positive change in the world, and I would hate for you to quit simply because you feel exhausted fighting against attitudes and systemic barriers to change.
That’s why I’d stress critical pedagogy, from K-12 to college to adult/continuing education programs, to always be in your toolkit as a strategy to make your work more intentional, and produce long-lasting positive results.
As much as I’d like to go deeper into that thought, my time with you is limited, so this is where I’ll end.
I covered a lot, but if I wanted you to take one thing away to remember it’s this:
Don’t graduate from college and into the “real world” without a realistic view of your actions.
Don’t graduate with the notion that you’re going to love everything you have to do. Instead of falling in love with your work, fall in love with the reasons why it’s required of you.
And when that’s not enough, or you can’t get to or maintain at that level, stop. Just take a moment to stop doing. It’s better not to act than to act in a way that’s detrimental to the greater society others are working to build.
Not acting doesn’t mean inaction. The best self-care is the right balance of self-centeredness, self-awareness and self-improvement. This is the perfect time to engage in that critical learning.
This work doesn’t have to be esoteric or complicated. Make intentional acts to know and grow a part of your routine. Take a chance and talk to a stranger, take the long route through a neighborhood you’d otherwise avoid.
Put yourself in environments that naturally push you to reconcile what you imagine with what you’re actually see and what you wish you could see around you.
My hope for you is that as you put this into practice, you’ll build muscle memory and the work, though not easy, will become easier with time.