We know from our Ready to Lead report that Black and Latinx girls are the most likely to self-identify as leaders, practice leadership skills, and aspire to leadership compared to girls of other races. Our research also found that racial and gender bias specifically from teachers hinders the leadership of Black and Latinx girls, while mentors — mothers specifically — are key sources of support for their leadership aspirations.
Today, in honor of Black History and Black Futures Month, we are so delighted to share an interview with one of our Black leaders, 14-year-old Nzinga, about her perspectives on leadership. Nzinga participated in a week-long summer Girls Leadership Day Camp at one of our New York partner schools.
What is your experience with Girls Leadership like?
I’m a shy and nervous person by nature and on the first day of the Girls Leadership program, I was reserved and quiet. Over the course of the week, I opened up in a way I had not before. I was able to connect with people I knew at a distance at school and learned a lot about how to take care of myself mentally and physically. But it wasn’t all serious — it was a really fun week. I feel like more people need to experience Girls Leadership!
What was it about that week that made you able to open up?
Before that week with Girls Leadership, whenever I was in a space that talked about mental and physical health, it was usually not led by a person of color; it didn’t feel welcome. The Girls Leadership week was led by Miss Cassandra and Crystyn — they are both Black and women and made me feel accepted. Also, a majority of the girls in the program were Black. I felt like I had a community. I felt accepted and respected and loved. There aren’t that many spaces for Black women and girls so this was a big deal.
Who taught you to be a leader?
My mother. I don’t really consider myself to be a leader but I am detail-oriented and like to make and do things, and I think I take after my Mom in this way. She showed me how important it is to take charge but to also help people in doing so. I feel like there’s a difference between a boss and a leader. A boss focuses on the self whereas a leader helps the group. I would rather be a leader than a boss!
What is one of your favorite leadership moments, or a moment when you felt most powerful?
I have two. On the last day of the Girls Leadership program, we did presentations in response to the “Hey Queen” video. We had to write or draw an art piece to make our version of the “Hey Queen” video. I like to write poetry but I don’t write speeches. So when I wrote what I wrote, I was proud and happy. I was nervous to share my work but was really happy about how people responded to it.
The second moment was from a year or two ago when I performed a poem online for the first time. I have a lot of trouble with public speaking so I was really proud of doing that. I felt like I could do anything at that moment.
What do you want to do with your leadership?
I want to be a multi-business owner. Right now I have a mini bakery, and I am working on a magazine. I want to have an art gallery. I want to write. And maybe I would also work at an after school program because I like taking care of kids!
What do you need most from adults in your life?
Freedom. I know the word freedom does not usually feel connected to the support you might get from someone, but I am graduating early this year and will be going to college. I am younger so people want to push me into a certain box. And then I also have people who aren’t ready for me to be doing what I am doing yet. So what I really need is the freedom to go and be myself and figure out how I want to show up and do all of these things I want to do.
In your opinion what is one of the most important qualities of leadership?
Acceptance. In our Girls Leadership group there were a lot of different people. At one point there was a conversation around sexuality and it wasn’t the normal conversation you hear in the education space where the conversation doesn’t go deep. It felt really positive. I think accepting the freedom we had in the program helped us show up in ways we hadn’t before.
What is your message to younger girls?
Your beauty can’t be taken away from you. Your power can’t be taken away. All of these components that you think are on the outside are on the inside. Be who you are and not conform to society’s standards. I like the word weird. It means you are different from what society wants and that’s the best thing. Don’t be afraid to be weird or negative. If someone calls you “weird” it’s not negative, it’s a compliment.
Do you have advice for girls of color struggling with gender and racial bias?
Block out what society says. Think about what you believe in and who you trust in your community to give you advice. Don’t trust people who tell you to straighten your hair or bleach your skin. You are naturally beautiful and beautiful the way you are supposed to be.
One of the things I saw develop in some of the people who were in the Girls Leadership program with me was a difference in the level of comfort they had with themselves. I saw a couple of people who took more pride in their natural beauty and themselves.