If you’ve ever watched The Wizard of Oz, you know the first few minutes of the movie is all in black and white until suddenly a tornado lands Dorothy in OZ and life becomes Technicolor. That is how I felt at age 16 stepping out of the white world of growing up in Wisconsin into the Technicolor of Senegal.
“Welcome American Sister,” I heard someone say as I stepped off the plane and the wave of summer heat hit me. I smiled. It didn’t feel like going home the way some people describe their first trip to the motherland. For me it was OZ, strange and magical, filled with gorgeous black people I wanted to know and languages I longed to understand. I spent hours just watching people walk, studying the way women wore their clothes. Even my memories of that time seem brighter, clearer because instead of staring out of a classroom window wishing I were somewhere else, I was exactly where I wanted to be amid the white baobab trees and sandy streets of Saint Louis (pronounced the French way: San Lewy).
Going to Senegal gave me a much needed gift. It liberated me from the very narrow box of who I thought I was supposed to be as a black girl. Where I grew up, I was often told I “talked white”. I sported an afro before the neo soul movement made natural hair cool and there was no hiding my nerdy awkwardness. None of these things seemed negative in Senegal. Even being chubby (which was way not cool in the U.S.) seemed to have no bearing on my attractiveness to Senegalese men. Being in Senegal gave me confidence that there was someplace where who I was could be acceptable. I could be beautiful, smart, thick, political, nerdy AND black.
I was only there for a month but it was enough for me to know that the world was so much larger than I had ever imagined. I came back to the States with a new perspective and an abiding desire to go somewhere else. I had to wait a few years, but I did get my chance. My next big trip was to Spain for my junior year of college. After that I worked for two years in Japan, followed by six months in Chile. I now speak fluent Spanish, passable Japanese, beginners French and Portuguese and I have visited and lived in a laundry list of countries on five continents.
There is something about going abroad that grounds me. Through my travels I’ve gained an understanding of the U.S. from an outside perspective that has helped me to better understand my own identity as a black American woman.
In 2006 I received my MA in International Education with a focus on designing study abroad programs and social justice. I chose to pursue this degree because I really wanted to work with youth of color, to provide them with the opportunity not only travel abroad, but to travel with someone who would understand their perspective and facilitate their experience to maximize their learning.
While my travels have been amazing transformative experiences, they have not been without their difficulties and lonely moments. During my time in Spain I was often singled out from the rest of my group. No one believed I was from the States. I was told repeatedly that Americans were white with blond hair and blue eyes. I must be African. And there were times where being perceived as African could be a dangerous mistaken identity because of the racist hostility towards immigrants. I remember staying in a hostel in Barcelona with swastikas spray painted in the basement and wondering if I would encounter the neo Nazis there.
In Japan I met many people who had never met a black person before. One woman greeted me with tears in her eyes and asked how my mother could have left me out in the sun so long. There were times when I felt completely objectified.
Even when I traveled with groups, the demographics of my trips echoed the classrooms I had grown accustomed to. I was often the only black person around. When I had these experiences of being othered I tried to talk about them but was often met with disinterest, confusion, and at times laughter or complete denial that these things had happened to me. I found my way. I figured it out. But I have often wondered what it would have been like to have a mentor who really understood what I was going through.
It has been my mission to become that person, the mentor, friend, and leader I wished for. I have now led over 200 youth on eight trips abroad (three to Hokkaido, Japan and five to Antigua, Guatemala) and worked with high school aged kids from all over and it has been incredible. I have learned a lot through trial and error, through my successes as well as my mistakes…and there have been plenty of both. But I have also felt that something is missing. While I enjoy working with a broad variety of youth, my original intention was to work specifically with kids of color and to build programs with us in mind.
Here in Seattle most of the programs that are geared towards serving populations of color are funded and run by white people. They often hire staff of color, but as staff we are not always able to control the program content. I don’t want to help kids of color, I want to empower them and that nuance is something I have seen get lost in these programs.
So rather than continue to complain, I have decided that this is my opportunity to be the change I want to see in the world. I want to create a program where black is the norm, a program where we can talk about our identities, explore our similarities and differences and experience travel through the lens of identity.
What does it mean to be Black in Seattle, in the U.S., in the world? What are we told by society, by friends and family? What do we believe and how do those beliefs manifest in how we choose to live? How do our multiple identities relate? How does our history impact our present and future?
During this 5 week intensive summer program (3 weeks in the US, 2 weeks in Mexico), participants will be challenged to find the answer to these questions for themselves using the rich Afro-Mexican culture in Veracruz as a catalyst for self exploration.
My program will provide an opportunity for skill building in the areas of digital storytelling, poetry, journalism, social justice, research and building cross cultural competencies.
While I know I have all the skills I need to do this, I have been struggling with my fear. This is something so important to me, I know I have to get it right. If not me, who? If not now, when?
So here I go…stepping out on faith. I will be traveling to Veracruz this August to do the ground work with the intention to take my first group of 15 youth next summer. If you are interested in supporting or just want to know more please check out my Indiegogo page.