By the time I was 15 years old, I was living on my own, and mostly homeless. My parents were undocumented immigrants. I didn’t know my father, and my family struggled to provide a stable home and support my education. Working to support myself, I flunked out of high school, landed at an alternative school that provided options for students who have a hard time in a regular school and nearly failed there as well. When I was 17, I got arrested.
“Pobrecita.” (Poor thing.)
People who meet me are often surprised by my story, but my struggles aren’t embarrassing liabilities. They’re my sense of strength and identity. They’re the story of my family and my community and therefore they’re part of who I am, not something to be overcome.
When I went to the alternative school, I found the opportunity to create my own path at my own pace with unique resources and programs that worked specifically for me. Growing up in a family that struggled with the trauma of migration, I developed my sense of inner strength. When I was homeless, that experience taught me to take control of my own life, and to believe I could turn any challenge into an opportunity.
We live in a time where racism, sexism, hatred, discrimination and hostility against immigrants happen every day. Right now, there are children who are separated from their parents and those they love. I know what that fear feels like. I’ve lived it. Often, educators project guilt about their own privilege into sorrow. Poor thing.
But what these kids—like most kids—truly need is not pity. It’s love and support.
A Healing Centered Approach
Author and activist Shawn Ginwright writes about the need to shift from “trauma informed” to “healing centered” approaches for students with backgrounds like mine: “A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond ‘what happened to you’ to ‘what’s right with you’ and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.”
While I may not have had the money or other external assets that other students did, I had plenty of internal assets. The limited resources and often unstable environments in my childhood made me innovative, adaptable and aware of my emotions. While many have chosen to focus on my trauma while feeling sorry for me, I chose instead to foster strong connections with lots of diverse and different people who helped me turn my trauma into strength.
The teachers who helped me see those assets helped me the most. Today, as an education leader, I can channel those experiences to help students like me. I was the kid a lot of schools and teachers tend to give up on.
Unfortunately, some educators don’t give students the space or do not know how to channel the power of those experiences. Instead, they too often get trapped in extremes. Some harshly judge their students to the point of invalidating the very real trauma they face. Others pity them to the point of lowering expectations of what they can achieve.
As educators, we have to ask ourselves how we can hold the two truths of our students’ experiences at the same time. How do we acknowledge their difficulties while also celebrating what they derive from them? How can we be compassionate to all they have endured while also encouraging them to meet the same high educational standards as others?
And right now, when our nation has chosen politics over people by using harmful actions and disparaging rhetoric, students from immigrant backgrounds are increasingly fearful. But as educators and leaders, we can support them and show them they are worth more than a political circus.
We must emphasize this to students. I am inspired by those courageous educators and students that are already leading this in our classrooms and schools.
When I talk to students who come from similar backgrounds as my own, I find they have rarely heard how much they can contribute to our society and have rarely experienced instances where they can be their full and authentic self.
Every educator and leader should tell students this:
You come from a rich cultural history, and everything from that history gives you a distinct kind of power. Remain grounded in that story and use it as a way to bring a much-needed new perspective to the table. The goal is not to hide your past, but to acknowledge and understand it and all of its complexity. You are not weaker or lesser for the struggles you face and overcome. You can be stronger and better, and your story is a part of your identity and journey.
As one student in Ginwright’s essay said, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma.”