We hear it everyday, “Somebody should do something about…” or “this generation needs a good leader”. I have found that in my generation there is hope for such remarks. Many of my peers are not only in agreement but actively pursuing leadership in different ways from leading marches for a trauma center on the south side of Chicago to working Obama’s campaign. I am inspired by the power that we have as youth but also cautious because power without direction can be fatal. I find myself examining my role in this climate of change.
A recent experience in a school caused me to look my responsibility in the face.
On a brisk Wednesday morning I walk into an elementary school on the West Side of Chicago. Up two flights of stairs I find my classroom and stand at the doorway. There are two lines of children facing me with snotty noses and crusted eyes but also with eager smiles on their faces. An eight year old boy leads the pack, walking up to me with a hand outstretched to shake mine, “Good morning, Miss Strong,” he says with an expectant expression. “Good morning,” I respond with an equally large smile and eager expression. This happens twenty-three more times as I nod and greet each young boy and girl who look up to me with wide eyes. They are literally and figuratively ‘looking up to me’.
Reaching this point in life has begged the need to self-reflect. As a fourth-year student at my university, there are constant reminders that I am in transition: Senior Class Gift meetings, graduate plans, and seeing new Black faces all over campus. While I am still looking to others for guidance I have become a source of guidance and encouragement to others. I mean something in the lives of others and that meaning is not static. It may differ as a young Black woman or a college student or an aunt. However, I am committed to knowing myself as Johnaé first before identifying myself in relation to the world. I believe it is important to know who I am before I can know what I am in terms of positive change in the world.
Being Johnaé much like being black is not defined by my education, my age, or my decision to wear my hair natural. Who I am is not even defined by time as I will continue to grow and change things that seem essential to me now. At best, I can tell you that I identify as a child of God with a unique purpose that must be fulfilled. So I ask myself, “How can I be a leader in the midst of personal uncertainty?”
I look to where I have been inspired to achieve in the past and model after the lessons I’ve learned from specific people and actions. I look to my mother who personifies resilience in her unwavering commitment to survival despite any hostile situation or environment. I look to my aunt who lives by working hard and for a purpose so that I can do as she says and as she does. I look to my sister who trailblazes through life by transcending opinions of others to pursue her goals. To the passion that drove Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur to speak unapologetically and eloquently with words for the voiceless people they knew and loved deeply. To the humility and compassion found in Bob Marley, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr. I draw from these people and places both in isolation and in intersection with one another with the belief that all of these qualities exist within me. So even though I may not see all of the above in the mirror, I do believe I have the potential somewhere inside. I fake it until I make it in a sense, but I have something that is tangible and real in others to imitate until I can see it coming alive in me.