• Heather Mistretta

On a Power Trip

I haven’t written a blog for either my business or WAGE in quite a while. It would be an easy excuse to make saying that it was because I’m busy. That seems to be a universally acceptable one to use these days, one that we often use after being asked how you are, and I’m sure in part, it’s accurate. But, as I’ve always said, there’s always time to write. Didn’t Mark Twain say something about that? (In fact, he said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”)

The bigger factor is self-esteem, or in my case, the lack thereof. 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, and I write a whole lot more than you think—just don’t always share it.

Having a fragile self-esteem, one riddled with holes, 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.

This is where our nonprofit, Women & Girls Education (WAGE) International comes in. For nearly 10 years, we have operated believing that education is the means to stop or prevent violence against women and girls, that somehow it was our job to “teach” our young people to not be victims or aggressors, to teach them to be smarter in math, science and reading, to strive for successful careers and be financially independent. Dare I say, to empower them. And for the most part, we have not veered away from that mission.

Education is still the key.

But in recent months, I have discovered that the word, “empower” has one, become diluted because of its overuse; and two, it’s a bit patronizing and implies that they are not already powerful in their own right.

Our youth are powerful; it’s just our job to tap into that and help them recognize the talents they bring. And a separate three, when did power become more important than people?

As I read about the UK, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda and of course, the polarization and violence here and in many other places, I wonder if hate is contagious. 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.

Many good people are trying to create pathways to better lives and access to education for others, particularly for the most vulnerable, but they seem to be confronting a tug-of-war with those who believe that being in charge and controlling people are more important, that being willful and proud are somehow good traits.

How did this happen? This is a rhetorical question, of course. I won’t dare propose that I have the answer.

Here’s what I do know.

WAGE started with an idea from our board member, Dr. Datta, that led to us beginning our work in the small town of Asbury Park, NJ. A few of us started mentoring in a middle school, sharing stories of civil rights heroes, writing together, expressing ourselves through art and learning more about each other. 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.

This is something we continue to do today. It’s at the core of what we do because we believe in its value. But we have also realized that branching out to other parts of the state and beyond to countries like India and Uganda became vital to ensuring that we were honoring our mission.

Along the way, that stretch made our world a little smaller, in a really good way. It made us realize that our similarities were far greater than our differences. Add in a pandemic, and those gaps that once were, were gone. We were connecting exponentially to people in India, South Africa, Nigeria, Great Britain and France.

It’s this growth, both in our backyards and across oceans, that I will continue to foster because I believe that in order for our mission to be successful, we need to approach this as a mutual learning experience. The result can sometimes be really beautiful.

Tapping into the perspectives of our youth can awaken parts of ourselves that have gone stale or covered in the debris of life. I recall this past summer in Asbury Park how one child inspired me to work harder and reach outside my own comfort zone. Here I was, a good 40 years older than him, and I was learning from him? It was awesome, to say the least.

I also learned that sharing your story isn’t always easy (I too am guilty of coveting my own story), 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.

Again, you are already powerful.

I learned that lesson plans need to be adapted when these things occur, that sometimes a whole different direction needs to be taken. Because we do not need to adhere to state standards, we have the luxury of flexibility that many teachers do not.

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.

So, getting back to where I started…I always thought the expression, “power trip,” had a negative connotation, but perhaps if we spin it the right way, maybe with guidance, compassion and helpful tools, we can make a journey of growth, a powerful trip toward thriving and inspiring others to be catalysts of change too? It’s our job to help people discover and unearth their own power within. That, in itself, can bolster confidence and be the first building block toward transformation.

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