I was born into the loving home of compassionate, patient, and resilient parents. Growing up in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, my father could never have predicted that he would end up falling for my mother, who grew on the outskirts of New York City. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, my mother yearned for someone with a greater perspective for the world. Raised in a wealthy white American neighborhood, ignorant residents alienated my mother for viewing everyone as equal, and she in return despised the judgmental environment she grew up in. The two eventually would meet in Boston College’s School of Social Work and would go on to raise two girls, my sister Sarah and me. My parents raised us to speak up and use our voices for good, and as result, it has shaped who I have become.
I was raised in Arlington, Massachusetts, just six miles outside of Boston. The town of Arlington was predominately white and it impacted my experience as a young biracial girl. I developed many insecurities, the biggest being the texture of my hair. Since my mom wasn’t familiar with styling black hair, my dad took charge–and he was great. He would decorate my hair with beads and braid in patterns that when I looked into the mirror made me feel beautiful. But when I went to school, that beautiful feeling quickly disappeared when people would touch my textured soft hair and pull out my beads. Not only did I feel like a zoo animal, but it was distracting and bothered me. One day I came home and told my dad that I didn’t want him to do my hair anymore. He looked upset and asked me why. It was hard to tell who liked my hair more, my dad or me, but he knew that something had happened. He asked if what bothered me was kids playing with my hair, and I nodded as tears rolled down my checks. Then he said something I will never forget. He told me, “If you don’t like something, you can tell someone to stop.” Later, with my mom, the two explained to me that I had to speak up when something was happening that I didn’t like or feel comfortable with–so I did. The next day I went to school and a classmate tried to touch my hair. I said, “Please don’t do that. I don’t like when you touch my hair.” She stopped and looked surprised, but I didn’t dwell on it because, finally, I felt comfortable.
Being able to use my voice and speak up became a way for me to realize what I wanted, and what I wanted more than anything was to see more of the world. I was eager to look outside the one perspective my town offered, which led me to spend every summer in Uganda where my dad’s side of the family lives. I developed a cultural competence early on and began to see things through multiple lenses. The culture, music, and people being so different from what I was used to in Boston was refreshing. I embraced and cherished all the unique values–some of which I like more than America–and as I got older, each summer became an opportunity to do more meaningful work, like helping my grandma with her nonprofit, the Makula Fund.
When I came back from summer vacations, I was frequently met with judgment about Africa. My friends would ask me if there were any lions by my house and assume that it was a dangerous place to be. I was puzzled. Why would they think Africans would be okay with having lions running around a city? Didn’t they know Africa has cities and not all countries in Africa have lions? If it wasn’t safe, why would I be there? It took me a while to realize that they asked me questions because they were curious. They had pre-existing views of entirely false depictions of Africans.
I felt that, as a friend, I should speak up and use my voice to break down their views. I wanted to start an open and honest dialogue about it, but I was nervous. I didn’t want my friends to feel attacked or shamed for asking these questions. In addition, it was hard to speak to my friends because I wasn’t sure how they would react. I went to my mom to seek advice because as a therapist, she knows a lot about the best way to communicate to people about things they don’t understand. After all, she had to do a lot of that growing up. She told me that if they were true friends they will want to listen and learn. If they didn’t want to change their opinions, then it was their loss. Ultimately, with the help of my mom, I found that I If I spoke to them instead of at them then they could not only understand my experiences better but gain an interest in something I loved.
When picking colleges, Santa Clara University stood out to me for its commitment to service and education. I am a major in Psychology and Sociology and am fascinated by people and groups. I am passionate about learning why people do things and how people and communities can create meaningful change. It was my desire to learn and drive to make a positive impact on the world in a sustainable way that led me to apply for the fellowship. During my first year at Santa Clara, I was faced with many challenges, all of which led me to where I am today. The biggest challenges gave me a new outlook on life and were the result of a traumatic event. After it happened, everything was altered in the blink of an eye. I was lost, confused, down, and broken. With time I started telling others what I had gone through and continue to face as a trauma survivor. What happened to me was awful and shouldn’t happen to anyone, but as I struggled to overcome my trauma, I learned that I was not alone in my pain. As I healed and shared my story, peers, friends, and even family entrusted me with their similar narratives. I realized that my voice was powerful and evoked a common thread among many who otherwise felt alone. It was a challenge trying figure out how I could use my voice to inspire, motivate, and comfort others, but I found and am still finding that empathy is the best way. Empathy, through listening, validating, and understanding people, can encourage others to pursue their voice and passions in return.
Over time, I have come to realize the power that my words have. Being a woman, it is easy to be complacent in the face of numerous barriers. It took numerous challenges for me to realize my inner strength, but with amazing opportunities that have come my way like the Global Social Benefit Fellowship, I have learned to use my voice for good. More importantly, I have learned that empathy is something that I not only want to continue to practice in my relationships, but also in the projects I undertake while discerning my vocation.
Learn more about empathy and how to apply it to a wide variety of real-world situations on Ashoka’s Empathy 101 resource page.