I am generally open to challenges. I embrace them actually.
If I haven’t experienced it before, it’s automatically more intriguing to me. Living in another country, learning a new language, eating exotic foods, jumping out of planes; all of those experiences have constantly taught me the value of pushing myself beyond what I think I know about myself. Feeling the inevitable fear that comes with stepping outside of my comfort zone, I take pride in the inner strength and smarts I have that help me to persevere each time.
Unfortunately that way of thinking doesn’t always apply when my intellectual ideas and perceptions are challenged. I have my theories on why that may be. The most prominent of which is that I’ve long been regarded as the “smart child” in my family. When Jahleese speaks, she is usually correct and therefore it makes little sense to argue with her. That kind of thinking can make it hard for one (me) to accept that my perceptions could be biased, outdated, or dare I say, wrong.
Recently I was asked to be on a Girl Scout’s National Young Women of Distinction Award Selection Committee. As a committee member, I was charged with reading applications of amazing high school women who had already been awarded the Girl Scouts’ highest honor, a Gold Award. They had all completed community service projects that included raising thousands of dollars to benefit others, mobilizing communities to build or rebuild structures, and in some cases they singlehandedly educated their elders, peers and youth in their community. These young women took our breaths away.
And all of them were seeking to be considered among the ‘cream’ of the Girl Scouts and receive special recognition and a scholarship. There had been over a hundred applicants for the Women of Distinction Award. There were more than 30 finalists. From that group we had to pick 10.
Nearly freaking impossible.
The advisors from the Girl Scouts emphasized only one guiding principal during our selection process. We had to have diversity in our final list of young women.
It never occurred to me that this one requirement would challenge my personal perceptions so greatly. In my mind, good is good. But better is better. Case closed. So when I was asked to consider, not only the project, but the geographic location, race, and personal circumstances of the applicant in my final decision, I almost didn’t.
I realized that up until that moment I had looked at the concept of Affirmative Action as something that existed for good reason but that also on some level posed a threat to my place in society if linked to me. Therefore, I hesitated to link it to anyone whom I respected.
I went to a private, privileged and predominantly white college in Western Massachusetts and with my SAT scores, resume, and college essay you could not convince me that as a black woman from a working poor family in Central Harlem, I was anything close to a Affirmative Action initiative beneficiary. I just wasn’t. This Girl Scouts experience challenged me to stop looking at Affirmative Action as a way of setting aside standards and helped me to realize that it’s a mechanism that encourages those of us in the position of power to ask ourselves a different set of questions.
Suddenly, deciding on whom to choose did more than require me to ask myself whose project was best. (The fact was all of these young women were going to have an enormous effect on this world, if these projects were any indication.) Instead, it pushed me to take a step back and ask myself what was most important in the end. If we wanted to draw out as many different young women in the country with untapped potential to change the world as we could we had to be deliberate. The power in an underrepresented young woman in the Girl Scouts seeing someone who looks like her, or who comes from the same area as she is getting a top honor, became so much more important to me than I ever expected.
I have no intention of revealing the identity of the applicant that caused much of this reflection. I’m choosing not to do this for two reasons. First, to protect the integrity of the Girl Scouts and to not cast doubt on the abilities on this amazing young woman given those with opposing thoughts on Affirmative Action. Secondly and (I think) most importantly, my personal lesson has little to do with whether she is Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu.
I learned that representation can be extremely powerful and helpful in moving our society forward when we use it to actively bridge our communities by displaying the contributions and potential of everyone.
I learned that sometimes the most important thing we can do to help our society move forward is to inspire one another.
And, I learned that as smart as I am, I’m not always right. In this case, I’m really glad that’s true.