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  • Heather Mistretta

It Takes A Village

An essay/speech I wrote for my nonprofit, Women & Girls Education International.

It takes a village--trite but true. The African proverb that originated from the Nigerian Igbo culture, meaning ‘Oran a azu nwa’, reflects the emphasis African cultures place on family and community. Sometimes it’s also shared as “One knee does not bring up a child” in Sukuma or “One hand does not nurse a child” in Swahili.

Our stretch over the past few years into other parts of the world like Africa in countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, South Sudan and Tanzania has made our world a little smaller, in a really good way. It made us realize that our similarities were far greater than our differences. We all have the same basic needs.

In spite of the self-doubt that can be suffocating, I personally finally made the decision to accept myself for who I am. And this is what WAGE wants every girl and boy to do too, to know they are enough right now.

I say all this for a reason. One of the biggest factors in everything we do is self-esteem. For me, it’s that fragile self-esteem that prevents me from doing some things like writing…yes, I know my profession is writing. Believe me, it makes things challenging sometimes.

Having a fragile self-esteem does not mean you are any less intelligent, compassionate, brave or powerful. It just means that for some, there are many things that block the way of a healthy self-esteem—the cobwebs of the past, the scars that strangle, the negative rhetoric that pervades our world lately.

And to foster or rebuild self-esteem on your own is hard. It’s an uphill battle that sometimes gets put on hold when life gets in the way. But please know that you are not alone, no matter how isolating self-doubt can seem sometimes. You all matter.

Mentoring can in part help us achieve that. Some people ask but why girls AND boys? It is everyone’s responsibility to respect differences and protect human rights. Stronger women equal a stronger community—there are tons of examples of this. An estimated 1.3 million are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year, affecting low- and lower-middle-income countries and regions at a much higher rate. One in four girls aged 15–19 (24%) has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Boys who witness violence are twice as likely to abuse their partners and children as adults.

Some of the lives of the kids we mentor or support financially are teetering on the precipice between success and doom. They’re dealing with things that no child should ever have to face. Some of them are evident; others are masked by silence, despondence or an arrogant or misguided skillset of survival skills.

I don’t know violence in the streets and abuse at the hands of those who brought them into this life, but I do know what abuse from someone who says they love you feels like. It’s that bruise that’s sometimes invisible but still hurts when you put pressure or a light on it.

You see, I lived that numb-yourself-til-you-don’t-feel-anything life for a long time. It worked…or so I thought using an unhealthy mind. I stayed in an abusive marriage for several years, for too long. I played damage control, made excuses, accepted empty apologies from someone who was sick because on some level I thought it would work, I thought I didn’t want to offend or insult or make someone else unhappy. Like many women, I am a people pleaser.

In mentoring, we share stories of civil rights heroes, write together, express ourselves through art and learn more about each other and how we can be kinder to each other and ourselves and the environment. I can remember being shocked by how candid they were about sharing stories of violence, but on another day, they wrote poetry that moved me, or inadvertently showed how they spoke at least two languages.

We also take stereotypes like women are supposed to be kind, nurturing, patient and not too loud, and blow them out of the water. We teach them that they are enough right now, that they have always had the power within. It’s just a matter of finding it and tapping into it.

We teach the kids about people like Dolores Huerta, Malala, bell hooks and local heroes like Siarra Morris, who as a teenager growing up in Asbury Park was shot by a driveby shooter, the target meant for someone else. Today, she is a fierce champion for the rights of others.

It's Braelyn who you saw on this video who soaked up as much as he could during our mentoring sessions and who told me that the book we gave him would be a birthday gift for his mom or Ryan who challenged the promise I had made to all of them that I would only give them assignments that I knew they were capable of doing but never make them complete them if they didn’t want to. I never made Ryan complete a couple projects he pushed back on, but I asked him, so when you have that professor…and I know you’re going to college…or a boss who asks you to do something but says it’s voluntary, you don’t have to do it, what are you going to do? Ryan quickly said, I’m going to do it. I said, yes, you’re going to do it every single time so long as it doesn’t threaten your safety or self-worth. You never want to me known as someone who does the bare minimum, right…And I actually got a small smile from him for the first time.

I have learned a lot. That sharing your story isn’t always easy, that the fear of pain can sometimes outweigh the impact it may make on others, that opening our hearts and minds may not always be the best solution for growth. I learned that people are struggling in so many different ways. That timing really is everything and that rejecting the idea that you are a victim can be pretty good for the soul.

I learned that I need to listen even more. I’ve always been a pretty good listener, but probably mostly because I didn’t like to speak up; filling the void with quiet time seemed like the safer choice. Now I listen with intention, with compassion, with no agenda. There’s not always an answer. There’s not always a solution. Sometimes people just need to know that they are being heard. That validation can go a long way.

I have learned that the life plan often takes a circuitous route and needs to be adapted when some things occur that you weren’t expecting, that sometimes a whole different direction needs to be taken.

In those darkest moments in our lives, it may seem as though there is no way out or it may seem just too scary to travel down that dark path, but those glimmers of hope tucked in the caverns of that dark path can sometimes be enough to guide us into the light and a brighter future.

Through WAGE, we are trying to be the best guides we can be.

But as polarization and violence weighs heavily on our minds and hearts lately, I think about how contagious hate is, if the human life is outweighed by power and the authority of being right, and that bandwagon is a ride you don’t want to miss for fear of what might follow.

But isn’t love just as contagious?

In the face of negativity and hate, there are many good people who are trying to create pathways to better lives and access to education for others, particularly for the most vulnerable.

And as I look at your beautiful faces reflecting your beautiful minds and souls, I am encouraged that the future indeed looks bright, that I’m confident that there are many young women who will thrive, carrying other women who may need more help along the way.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. [...] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

At WAGE, it is in these small places that we have hope that we can be part of the growth, one word at a time. In the immortal words of Dolores Huerta, Yes We Can!

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