“I AM SHONTAE SMITH.”
It was the first day of a summer enrichment program where I was serving as a counselor. We asked each young person to stand up and introduce him or herself and most of them stood, talked uncomfortably and inaudibly behind their hands, and then painfully slid back into their chair. And there was Shontae: present and powerful. As it turns out, how Shontae introduced herself was how she lived. Shontae was self-possessed, self-assured, self-accepting and passionate and purposeful about life. Shontae was what we all hope to be at 40. And she was it at 14. It was pretty bad-ass.
Fast forward to a few years later when I asked a friend to be a judge of the Miss Garinger pageant (where I had been Student Activities Director). Each girl had to do a board room interview with the judge’s panel as part of the competition.
When my friend began to ask one contestant, “Should you be chosen as Miss Garinger, to what issues would you bring attention?” She was interrupted at the “Should you be chosen as Miss Garinger” with a very enthusiastic, “Why, yes, I should.”
Dana Robinson? Just as self-assured, self-possessed, self-accepting and passionate as Shontae Smalls.
A decade or more later, I still remember these two stories clearly. Why is that do you think? Sadly, it’s because that kind of self-possession and self-assurance is rare in anyone and especially rare in a young woman. And what a friggin’ shame that is.
We all deserve to be self-possessed, and not because it is some happy, warm and fuzzy gift of new-age goodness. We all deserve to be self-possessed because we all deserve to live ON purpose and, even more than that, the world needs us to live on purpose. It needs us strong and powerful rather than small and scared. A few years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke about why it was time for women to rule the world. And I am with him, it is indeed time. But before that can happen, some of the world’s absurd limits have to be torn down and the absurd limits we- women- set on our selves also have to be torn down. We have to quit playing small and scared. We have to take up the space we were meant to take up; we have to claim our power. If I can do any one thing on any one day, it would be to help someone become further self-possessed so she can confidently, passionately, purposely give her gifts to the world.
On Friday morning, I joined a group of 9th grade female students during their literacy class. Many of them were ESL students. They were lovely. And they were meek. So painfully meek. And so I told stories, I read to them, and then I stressed this point: how people label you is about their own preconceptions, what you do have control over is how you see yourself.
Next up was a series of writing prompts. I gave the young women open ended sentence stems (think: I can, I will, I will not, I hope, I dream, I am proud of, etc). They finished the thoughts on all of their stems. And then I laid it on them.
“Here’s the deal. You all have dreams. You all have plans. And the only person who has control over whether or not those things happen is you. People will say things to you. They will say that you can’t, that you aren’t smart enough, that you don’t deserve this or that. And you can believe them or you can believe you. And here is what I want you to know. You have to believe you. You have to believe in you. You have to be self-possessed. You have to know for sure who you are, what your values are, and what that means.”
And then I made them each claim one of their sentences. But it wasn’t enough for them to say, “I am Desiree. I will graduate from high school” with their voice low and their hand covering their mouth.
“You have to own this statement,” I told them. “And if there is anyone of us in this room that isn’t convinced that you own it, you will have to say it again, over and over again, until you believe it and we all believe it, too.”
Sure enough, soon enough we were going around the circle, screaming our beliefs. At first, it was painful for them. But not long after that, they were shouting, clapping their hands, nodding their heads, high-fiving. They started that class hiding behind their hands. They ended it screaming.
It was a moment. Just one moment. But maybe that moment leads to another moment. And then one more. Because there has to be one moment of self-possession before self-possession can become a lifestyle. And self-possession is the root to living your mission, creating movement.
Have you fully possessed your total strength and power lately? If so, what did it look like? If not, how about today?
Look in a mirror right now and finish this sentence right now, “I am…” and then go out there and be your bad-ass self all day.