Hope is a Habit: Program Manager Catherine Castillo Cruz on Showing Up in Hard Times

Like all educators, Girls Leadership Program Manager Catherine Castillo Cruz gets up early. There’s always a lot to do, and she has a long commute before she can even start. It’s January in New York and the cold is biting. Catherine checks her phone, hoping for a distraction from the seeping chill, but instead there’s a bombardment of catastrophe, trauma. Genocide. This is the world she’s supposed to prepare her students to enter?

Then something interrupts the bleakness: there’s a quote on her screen from James Baldwin, “You can’t tell the children there’s no hope.” It’s bold and simple and very nearly too much.

“It almost moved me to tears, reading that. You can’t show up without hope, not when you’re going in front of kids,” she says. 

Hope is hard right now. We are living at the intersection of multiple global crises and haven’t had time to recover from the previous ones. Educators especially are aware of how this barrage of bad news is affecting young people, but often feel at a loss for whether or how to engage. Catherine, though, saw a reason for optimism in Baldwin’s directive. 

Rather than a cheerful slogan, hang in there! or good vibes only!, Baldwin understood the painful struggle, and that empathy is what resonated. “It acknowledged the hopelessness while still saying that the work is to keep fostering hope,” she says. Even recalling the quote now, during our brief chat between classes and activities, leaves her looking resolute. 

Catherine wants to bring that same acknowledgement to others in need of validation, whether teachers or students, but it can be hard in a school setting. “There’s a fine line between having some separation and then also being real with kids,” Catherine says. Sometimes teachers feel self-conscious about sharing their vulnerabilities, or afraid that it will undermine their authority. Other times, it feels like inviting conflict, but as Catherine notes, “if we can teach kids to have conversations that include conflict, that’s a gift.” 

Healthy conflict, like acknowledgement of hard topics, is hugely important for young people. Still, managing that process is difficult, and many teachers worry that they may end up exacerbating issues and placing additional burdens on their students–or for themselves, if they don’t feel able to hold all the space needed for others’ emotions. “We don’t want to ask the youth to take care of us. We’re there to take care of them.”

Taking care of young people always means taking care of ourselves first, although Catherine is a little tired of the oxygen mask analogy. “Not waiting for a crisis to take care of ourselves is important,” she says. “It can be journaling. It can be prayer. It can be quiet time. It can be a walk with a friend. It can be voice memos to yourself. Whatever it is, I think everyone should carve out time, even if it’s seven minutes in the car on the way home, talk  out loud to yourself. Say what you need to say. Get imaginative about the routines that you have, so that hopefully when something comes up, you have practices to fall back on rather than trying to implement something really quickly.”

Self-care also means community care; the two are always linked. “I think we try to hold everything on our own, and that’s not what we need. We need the people around us. We need community. So remember, if you’re feeling this way, someone else definitely is too.” 

Showing up for each other makes it that much easier to show up for students. “One of the first things I say to a kid, I don’t care if they come in late or on time, is ‘I’m so glad to see you today. I’m really glad you’re here.’ It’s super simple. But I want them to know that and it’s true. I can’t do anything for you or with you if you’re not here.” And the same is true for educators. “You can have your best day right after you have your worst day. You might have a great first period and a trash fourth period and a great eighth period. But if you gave up and went home, you won’t know who needs to see you that day.”

Showing up, again and again. Taking the time to care for yourself, again and again. Doing what you can, again and again. I spent our conversation asking Catherine where or how she found hope, and I was asking the wrong questions. But of course Catherine is an educator, and so I was grateful to be taught: “I think hope is a habit.”


Educators & administrators (including school counselors, CBO staff, after-school staff, and other youth-serving professionals): You’re invited to join us for professional development trainings and free webinars

Parents & caretakers: We have a workshop just for you! Girl & Grownup workshops (for grades K–8) offer brave and fun spaces for girls to explore the power of voice together. In these Girl & Grownup workshops, you’ll both learn practical communication skills to put into practice right away.

Leave a Reply