“Girls Today. Women Tomorrow. Leaders Forever.” An entire roomful of voices spoke in exact unison the motto of Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School (YWLS). These high school seniors, standing at the front of the room, repeated it with as much feeling as they did precision. A young woman in her senior year had just given a speech and the room was still pulsing with the confidence, humor, candor and vulnerability with which she had filled it. The girls stood hand-in-hand, each one of them sobbing. I sat in my seat, in tears right with them.
This was so not like me. Not the crying; I’m pretty sentimental and can well up over the littlest things. But a gender-specific approach to anything almost inherently goes against my grain. It’s not for lack of belief in the challenges women face or in the power of uniting, but I have always approached these issues through my own personal lens. For me, the systemic struggles I—and many others—face are often not due to one factor, but many. How could I separate out my gender from my race from my age from my family upbringing? And anyway, what does it matter when it all makes you feel bad?
But this was different. This wasn’t just about gender. Or race. Or where these girls were growing up. And, though the school’s mission— to provide the young women in their school with a global education that emphasizes science, math and technology—makes me want to get up and cheer, it wasn’t at the root of my waterworks. From the speaker to the faculty to the young women I met in the hallways, it was clear that something different was happening here. They promote healthy lifestyles and choices, they work actively with the students to build confidence and self-esteem. They intentionally cultivate a culture built on encouragement and unity. In a society where we are so often taught to compare, judge, compete with and tear down other women, Irma Rangel’s YWLS is saying support, reach out, build up and love.
And they aren’t just gathering the girls in the bleachers and lecturing them Tina Fey-style. This gets built into the fabric of how these girls exist and interact with themselves and each other. I could see it in their greetings, in their conversations; I could see it in how they chose to express themselves, honoring their own uniqueness and individuality. There was even one young woman praising her college advisor for knowing enough about her advisee to help her “find her tribe”.
I had been trying not to acknowledge my gradual hardening over time. I had let skepticism creep in and quietly usurp hope’s throne. I hated to admit it, but I approached a roomful of women with doubt, cringing and waiting for the tight-lipped smiles and hallmark phrases of coopetition (at best, it’s a mix of cooperation and competition; at worst, it’s competition thinly veiled) like “Wow, what an interesting approach, why don’t you let me explain how I have found so much success with this!” So I guess on this day when it never came, that was enough to break me down.
I truly believe in the principles shared by the folks who wrote Life Entrepreneurs- that happiness is often found when you’re in a place you enjoy, with people you love, fulfilling your purpose. I’ve always been fortunate enough to feel that all these pieces were securely in tact but, since moving home base to Dallas, I’ve been feeling a bit like I’m wandering in a strange land, doing my best to learn its customs and practices while not diluting my own beliefs. I was with people I loved and was fulfilling my purpose but this new place brought with it a whole new set of people and situations I wasn’t always prepared for. I was feeling, well, tribe-less.
In a city where my encounters have included being called a trophy wife (not by my husband) and being asked if it’s difficult for me to relate to other African Americans because of my education, I sometimes walk away feeling like I’m trapped in an episode of Mad Men. I had almost resigned myself to a constant feeling of being displaced.
At the Young Women’s Leadership School I saw in these girls’ eyes and heard in their words hope, optimism, dogged-ness and determination. Pure and untainted by experience or anyone telling them otherwise. I couldn’t help but reflect on how I was at their age and the number of times people would see such unbridled optimism in me and, rather than cultivate it as an actual asset, feel the need to squash it with what they perceived as a “healthy” dose of reality. Why couldn’t we see this hope as the powerful force that it was? Why couldn’t we help it flourish or, at least, allow it to just be?
Seeing it here, in the flesh and in the spirit of these young women gave me the space to feel what I had been feeling slowly over time here. That, little by little, I had been welcomed into a tribe that I can call my own. One of my fiercest ambassadors has been Cynthia Yung, Executive Director of the Boone Family Foundation. She has welcomed me with open arms and candor and pushed me not to be afraid to share my shiny baubles with the world (her euphemism for proud and shameless self promotion). But in the face of my reluctance, she’s been a one-woman bull horn for me in this community.
I’ve been fortunate to meet countless other people through organizations like Leadership Dallas that helped me by providing historical context or others, like Celina Cardenas from Atmos Energy, have invited me to be a part of initiatives that matter. And when I reflect on my experiences, I’ve realized that my tribe is authentic, fearless women.
The women I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter here ACTUALLY SEEM TO WORK TOGETHER! Maybe it’s that a Mad-Men-ish environment necessitates this level of camaraderie for those who want to survive it, maybe it’s that I’m really naïve, maybe it’s that I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have been given the advice, support and mentorship I’ve received here, but I swear something is different about the subset of women in this town I’ve been working with. I’ve been thrown lifelines by women who not only possess knowledge, experience and confidence, but are willing to share it in a candid, sometimes vulnerable, way. Suzanne Smith from Social Impact Architects, put it best, “Too often we’re in a room trying to one up each other. But what we need, what we crave is someone to share our struggles and gather input and advice.”
So while I promise to get back to pontificating on all the methodologies we can leverage to drive change in our country, I couldn’t help but pause and say how grateful I am to have found a tribe of likeminded leaders, a group of women who are working to support, reach out, build up and love. I dare say we would make even the bright stars of the Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School proud.