At one point in a presentation I gave recently, we discussed the importance of being an activist in our anti-bias work. I asked the participants to share their definition of activism. One person mentioned standing up for what we believe in, and another said that just by being a teacher, she was an activist because she changes children's lives. Over the years, I have asked that question many times at staff development workshops, or conference presentations, and usually receive similar responses. However, this time one of the women called out, "Listening to you." For a brief moment, I was taken aback until I understood that she meant that just by listening to me, she was an activist. I stared back at the audience realizing that if listening to me made her an activist, that meant I was one too.
Well, of course I know that I am an activist. I live it with what I teach, write, and aspire to. Social justice issues have always driven my work and life. Especially fundamental rights of children in supporting their emotional development. It is just that sometimes it is such an integral part of my life, I forget how others perceive me. So, a few days ago that teacher's comment came as a surprise to me, and has lingered giving me pause to reflect on my own activism development. Growing up in Africa, I think I must have become an activist as a young adolescent, when I first made the conscious decision to clean my bedroom, because I thought it wasn't fair for the servants to do that. At the same time, I remember washing my underwear myself, feeling it was inappropriate for the servants to do that – especially because they had to do all our laundry by hand.
I have always admired literary characters like Jo March, or Jean D'Arc for their independent thought and courage to do things other women did not dare take on. And I think I always wanted to be a nun, because of their ability to live without men. As a young woman, in my early twenties I loved Vita Sackville West, and then later, of course, Virginia Woolf. Role models literary or real, my brown-skinned African nanny, surrogate mothers, the kindness of strangers, and higher education have supported my growth as an ardent advocate for young children and their teachers.
Yet, through years of therapy and self reflection I find that I am a poor advocate for myself, able to make a stand for everyone but me, whom I tend to think of as undeserving most of the time. This morning, I feel grateful to that teacher, who gave me more food for thought, for I realize that my external advocacy and activism is also a way for me to heal my internal, emotional trauma, and the more I fight for children's rights, bit by bit I learn to stand up for me.