Teaching and learning the radical act of self love

“Ms. A’Dorian, how do you get your hair like that?”, my girls would ask last summer as they played with my kinks and coils during our program’s free time. For most of them it was their first time being around a black woman who wore her hair “natural”— without it being straightened or weaved. I played it cool and talked about my natural hair regimen — styling it in two-strand twists at night and undoing them in the morning to get a full, afro-curl look for the day.

They didn’t know that I too was still in the process of learning to believe that this thing that was naturally theirs, naturally ours, was something to see as beautiful. Some days were better than others. In almost every aspect of our lives, from the women we saw on television and magazines to the girls thought to be the “prettiest” in school, we were being taught that our natural curls, curves, and colors were meant to be tamed and civilized. For me, wearing my hair in natural styles was my attempt to do what thousands of other Black women and girls transitioning from relaxed or straightened hair styles to natural ones were doing across the country and globe: redefining what it meant to love ourselves. “Well,” I said in the most 19 year old sage but hip voice I could think of, “it’s really easy, but it does take time to get comfortable with your hair being a way that you never usually have it. The more you practice it, the easier it’ll get.”

SHE Wins Leadership Institute is a leadership program designed for girls in Newark, New Jersey who have lost a parent or sibling to homicide. During my sophomore year, I was awarded $10,000 from Swarthmore’s Lang Opportunity Scholarship Grant to launch it this past summer. I have since turned SHE Wins into a non-profit organization, and I have raised nearly $10,000 to fund the 2015-16 fall leadership component and this summer’s next cohort of SHE Wins scholars. Last summer, we began and ended our day with reflection through a “Winner’s Circle”. In our morning Circle, the girls were asked to share a “high, low, and a hope” for the day, and in the afternoon a “high, low, and a shout-out” to another member of the group. In the first week of the program, the shout-outs were usually just the girls complimenting another girl’s cute shirt, KD’s (a popular brand of sneakers I never knew existed until last summer) or her new hairdo.

I was working with a group of over a dozen girls and managing a four-person staff, and everyone was just getting to know each other, so I expected it to take time for them to feel comfortable enough to go deeper in discussion. But it was the way many of them looked to the floor when they spoke, struggled to give each other quality compliments during our “shout out” sessions, or opted to say nothing at all that signaled other issues.

For some of my girls, the act of voicing their emotions, opinions, or fears was the most frightening thing of all. There was a serious habit of self-policing that the girls were accustomed to, even in what was supposed to be their safe space. As they grew to know myself and each other more, many were breaking out of that habit.  By the middle of the program the girls went from complimenting each other on things like new shoes to shouting out the way other girls showed a lot of kindness and support to other girls during that day’s group project. The tendency to always share “lows” would be replaced by multiple “highs”. Over time, they started to find in themselves and in each other the freedom to be vulnerable and still feel safe.

By mid-program, the girls were headed on a three-day trip Washington D.C. for the Girl Up Leadership Conference. For most of our girls it was their first time being away from home for such a long period of time. For all of our girls it was their first time being in a space where they felt almost all the girls around them had something they did not — the privilege of being rich, suburban, and white (of the nearly 300 girls present, my girls made up about half of the 20 or so Black girls). The first day of the conference the girls really struggled to engage with other girls, or even feel confident enough to speak up in workshops. One girl had a breakdown that night where she cried for hours because she just “wanted to go back home to Newark”. Another girl said she didn’t know how “be herself” in a place where she was so drastically “different” from everyone else. To this day I don’t know if they know how much seeing them in that much pain broke my heart. In this overwhelmingly white and class-privileged space, my girls were being forced to deal with how they felt the world saw them and how they in turn began to view themselves. And for the most part, I could not protect them. All I could do was attempt to create a space where they felt safe enough to share what they were going through with each other and support one another through this experience.

When we arrived at the hotel that night, I pulled all the girls into my room and held a reflection, slightly different than I how I usually ran it back home. They were so honest about the fear and anxiety they were feeling as “Black girls from Newark” in a place where even despite having each other they felt so alone. It seemed they questioned everything — their skin, their hair, their clothes, their hometown, the way they spoke — in relation to the way they saw the people around them. I told them about the time I first went to my predominantly white, upper class, private high school that was miles away from our city of Newark, and how even in that space where I felt safe and secure, I still had to constantly remind myself that I had just as much to offer the school as any other student. I told them about how my “jersey accent” made me stand out amongst my friends at school, but made me sound more “white” when at home. I reminded them that they were just as talented and bright as the girls around them, and that they were cheating themselves out of an incredible experience by not believing that they had just as much to offer that conference as anyone else.

Poet Audre Lorde once wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” A self-identified “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, she saw the choice of the most marginalized groups to practice self-love as a revolutionary act. For my girls, self-love means making the radical decision to be ordinary, opinionated, selfie-taking Black girls determined to make it through a world of which many of them have already seen the worst. It means knowing all the latest dances and throwing shade at me for trying them (because apparently the dances are “too cool for old college kids like Ms. A’Dorian”), while also making the honor roll or being named the salutatorian at school so they can be the first in their family to go to college. It means each girl having the everyday courage to do as poet and playwright Ntozake Shange writes and “find god in herself and love her fiercely”.

That night we cried, made jokes, and had a huge group hug before they went to bed. For the next two days of the conference, I saw them return to being the girls I knew — meeting new friends, actively participating in workshops, and making silly jokes only they thought were funny, until it was time to head home.

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