This week I had the pleasure of being invited to speak to two groups of young women from Kenade and Fausac Secondary Schools in Lagos, Nigeria through an event called Inspire a Child. It allowed me to confront and honor some important life choices and continue to see the power of women choosing their own path and working together.
I was tasked with sharing inspirational words and a personal story. While it's easy for me to share the stories of others, my immediate gut reaction was that I had no stories worth sharing and nothing that would inspire a group of girls on the other side of the world. I wanted my words to be meaningful, but I feared that my collection of lived experiences would fall flat and provide little to no connection to their lives. That’s when it hit me. The thought process of being "not enough" or not being able to to provide value is a way of thinking that many teachers particularly women have. We say things like “I’m just a teacher” or “I’m not an expert in anything.” And that was some of the self talk I was having as I fumbled and grasped for something valuable to share.
Why would I immediately think that way? Why would I automatically diminish my stories and my path in life? And more importantly, if I was doing this while spending a great deal of my time working toward equity and sharing stories, then others were probably doing this more often than I was. I started to deconstruct this reflex line of thinking.
As women, we can often feel that our experiences don’t amount to much. We view ourselves through the expectations of others- society, our friends and families. We take on very specific roles like mother or wife making them our identity while forgetting who we really are in the process. We try to be everything to everyone rarely taking the time to step back and think about how far we’ve come, how we’ve grown along the way, or what we really want for our lives.
And then I was a bit mad at myself. How could I be a proponent of others sharing their stories if I didn’t examine and share my own? How have my patterns of thinking and being brought me to this moment in time? And how could I use this as an opportunity for both self reflection and inspiration for these young women?
That brought me to the theme of the Inspire a Child event- “we’re stronger together,” and that couldn’t be more true for women. We can change how we are viewed first by how we think about ourselves and the choices we make each day, and how we support each other as individuals, as humans.
Here’s the example I shared with the girls. I’m 36, not married, and I don’t have children. I don’t own property, and I don’t have a full time job. In many cultures and to many people, I would be considered a failure. In fact, I have traveled to many places where people were very concerned for me and shocked that I did not have these things in my life. Clearly, from their perspective, there was something wrong with me.
You see, when you look at what you don’t have with a deficit view or through the lens of specific cultural or societal expectations, it sounds like I don’t have a very good life. There seems to be so much lacking. But when I change my view and look at what I do have, I see that my life is quite unique. I have traveled and lived in many places around the world, experienced many cultures first hand through exploration and friendship, and taught thousands of children. I have even started my own business and this website that allows people to share their stories with the world.
We are in control of so much more than we realize. Our small decisions each day add up to the contents of our lives. While it may seem that there’s only one path or one way of doing things, my experience tells me that’s not true. Sure, the world is full of things that we can't control, but there are so many things we can do. And it starts with how we use our voice and how we treat each other.
I gave the girls a challenge: don’t decide what you want to do in the future, decide WHO you want to be- what you truly believe in for yourself, for your community and the world and your values for your life. The "what" will come once you recognize who you are and who you want to become. I decided a long time ago that I wanted to be a traveler, a citizen of the world, and the only way for me to to that is to immerse myself in it. Sometimes it means choosing to live in a country far away from my family, but it also means greater understanding of the world and the people who live in it. And through this understanding I can be the other part of myself- helper.
It's a different way to think about things. We ask children "what do you want to be when you grow up?" but what I think we should be asking is "Who are you and who do you want to be?" It doesn't require money or achievements, but energy and passion. Everyone has that inside. You just have to listen. You are the author of your own story. When you make choices about not what you think you should be doing or what other people expect you to be doing, but about what you believe in, then your life becomes your own and you can make an impact.