By Lisa Lazare
I am a Black woman. I am Black history. I breathe it, live it, and see it in everything I am and all I do. But, Black History Month creates a unique opportunity to amplify who we are as a people on a broader platform. As I reflect on who I am, I am forced to examine how aspects of my identity can have a collective impact on others.
I was born in Trinidad and came to the U.S. as a child. I grew up in New York in a low-income community and attended high-need schools. I can count on one hand how many teachers of color I had in school, and high dropout rates were commonplace.
So when I learned about the opportunity to impact kids, particularly students of color in low-income communities, through Teach For America I knew I could help serve as a role model I never had. I assumed I would teach in a predominantly Black school, but I was hired to teach in the Rio Grande Valley—a predominantly Catholic and Mexican community.
In my first week, the differences were apparent. The majority of my kids were Hispanic and none of my colleagues were Black. I went from living in a community where my identity was constantly affirmed by my counterparts to one where I felt I had to affirm my true self for others.
How can I relate to my students? Do I have a place in this community? How can I serve as a role model for my kids? These were thoughts that consumed my mind. But rather than become filled with angst and anxiety, I pushed myself to examine the depth of my identity.
Yes, I am a Black woman. But I am also an ally and advocate for friends on the spectrum who have had to battle their true being and question their identity. And though I don’t identify as LGBTQ, for the first time, I could relate. I was now in a place where I would walk in a room and question if I would be accepted or understood, or if anyone shared my lived experiences.
Through this lens, I began to notice my students in this same place; like the transgender girl who was afraid to be herself and didn’t have access to resources or support during her transition. I recalled the LGBTQ clubs that my classmates started in high school, and I realized students in my school had nothing like this. No space to be themselves. No collective outlet to share and learn–nothing.
Despite limited resources, a few of my colleagues and I put the idea of an LGBTQ club in motion. We gauged student interest, reached out to friends and family for direction, found resources, and even connected some kids with LGBTQ mentors. The club gave my transgender student, and others, an outlet and a space free of judgment and fear. This club wasn’t the answer to everything, but they no longer felt completely alone.
Yes, I am a Black woman. But, through these experiences I continued to see my identity evolve in different ways. I was undocumented in America most of my life. I didn’t get my green card until my twenties. For years, I lived with a lot of fear and was even put through the deportation process, but thankfully was granted permission to stay legally. This was all a part of myself I couldn’t share…until now.
I shared my story with my students and discovered that many of them held similar fears and witnessed similar occurrences. Through this aspect of my identity, I was made more aware of the needs and supports for my students.
Despite my degree in biology, I couldn’t apply to medical school because of my citizenship status. I refused to allow my students to be denied the chance to make their dreams a reality. As their chemistry teacher, I was determined to expose them to opportunities in STEM. I wanted them to know that engineering is not something to be fearful of. It’s something they can do.
We recently developed a robotics club that has enabled my students to engage in STEM and find a passion in science like never before. They are learning how to program, build innovative creations, and are participating in robotics competitions with their peers. All they needed was the opportunity.
Yes, I am a Black woman. But I am also an ally, an educator, a friend, and a supporter. While I may not share the same culture or history as my students, I can help shape their trajectory. At first glance, the similarities among us may seem sparse, but it’s the often hidden and interwoven aspects of our identity that bind us together.
So, if you see something: act. If you know something: speak. You, too, can be an ally. You,too, can be a role model. You don’t have to start a club, but you can advocate for our kids or commit to cultivating safe spaces that children can see and recognize.
Regardless of your race, background or whether or not you come from a place of privilege, we can all have a hand in ensuring our kids succeed. It will take courage, but even through our dissimilarities, we can help promote accountability and understanding. Together, we can ensure all students are able to receive an excellent education that affirms their identities and shows they matter.
Lisa Lazare is a 2014 Teach For America corps member, currently teaching 10th grade Chemistry in the Rio Grande Valley.
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