The Road less Travelled.
As many of you prepare to walk across this stage and receive a college degree, I encourage everyone- for one second or two- to reflect on what it took to make it here. Think about the moment you set forth on your journey to acquire higher education with the hopes of making a difference all while achieving a nice salary, benefits you know the entire working grown up package.
While you reflect I would like to share a story about a young girl who shared the same dream as you at one point before she realized her perspective was slightly off and distorted.
I am an educator and community activist. And in my time working in both fields I have come across many people-yes I am young ( and some would say young enough to still be wet behind the ears) but I have to throw it out there that I have been a servant to my community since I was 15 years old. As i offer you all this young lady’s story I hope that you walk away with a new perspective.
I am going jam as much of this young lady’s life into about 5 minutes of story telling - so bare with me.
It was the commencement season of 2012, a year that symbolized one of completion. For after six years in her undergraduate program she was finally able to walk across the stage, one very similar to this one in fact. She was elated to finally say she was a college graduate. Not a first generation graduate, but the first in her family to have a received a degree post high school. The life plan of securing full time employment after graduation was not ready to formulate into a reality- the plan of working as an art teacher in the community didn't happen, right away. While the accolades of holding a bachelors degree was brag worthy the reality of her situation was she was a college graduate without the certification needed to actively pursue her chosen field. That left her between a rock and hard place… unable to fully acquire that working grown up package I mentioned earlier. Her life plan was already altered.
As I continue and for this sake of this story let’s just call this young lady Margaret.
Margaret always had the desire and dream to teach art. Coming from a family who believed and supported the arts it was REALLY, her life long dream to open her own arts community center - one that would be open for all young people, no matter how much or how little your family made. Yet somehow this dream always felt too big, so she became content in the idea of teaching art to the disadvantaged young people of our city. The dream of being a teacher was much more attainable if only she could pass that darn PRAXIS exam, but after about 5 or so failed attempts- even missing the mark by 1 point. The back up to her failed post bachelor’s degree life plan was to work in non-profit.
Both dreams were deferred.
Margaret was a young adult with gaining responsibilities also known as BILLS. Post graduation was real and an income was desperately needed so she applied to for a Public Ally internship. I can remember her explicitly telling me she was going to apply to this program and I remembered looking at her with this perplexed expression. I questioned, what is a public ally? Long story short it is a signature Americorps Ally Program that identifies diverse young adults and prepares them for leadership through paid full-time nonprofit apprenticeships and rigorous leadership trainings while working in the non profit sector. Their mission is to create a just and equitable society with diverse leadership to sustain it.
Margaret spent ten months working under the leadership of an amazing community leader, ReDonna Rodgers. She worked tirelessly to promote youth entrepreneurship by developing a curriculum, teaching entrepreneurship skills to high school students across the city of Milwaukee all while re-evaluating what she wanted from her life.
While she didn’t know what the future held for her career her time as a Public ally shaped her perspective on what the city needed for some of its most vulnerable populations. She also met amazing people and made life long connections that continue to shape her understanding to this day. Her exposure to this field opened her eyes, tremendously.
But, it wasn’t long before Margaret realized yet another hurdle would be placed in her path, she was pregnant with her first child.
In the moment of her realizing she was about to be a mother, all while completing an apprenticeship that would end right before her due date she undoubtedly realized that her life plan needed to re-evaluated- yet again.
After successfully completing her internship, she studied for her PRAXIS exam- passed and secured her first working grown up job. In fact at 8 months pregnant she became the chartering art teacher at a brand new charter school whose emphasis was on art-infused education. She did it!
She became the mother of a beautiful baby girl , successfully gained 1 year of teaching under her belt (and loved it) and decided this was the life she always dreamt off. She got comfortable. Her dreams were now achieved. But she still wasn’t happy. I remember during our bi-monthly meetings she would discuss how something was still missing. A large part of her felt empty. That dream of opening an arts center still hung over her like a dark cloud. She couldn’t stray away from it. Making art for herself was missing form her life.
I encouraged Margaret to take a leap of faith and open her arts center. She followed my advice and 6 months later her and her best friend opened BlankSpace MKE.
I proudly watched from the sideline as she and her best friend rallied their savings to create a safe (and affordable) place for urban creatives to come, network and create. After years of dreaming of this place and months of working behind the scenes her very own cooperative arts studio was opened. Built on the premise of collective economics this urban arts center provided invaluable resources, professional development and space to create. Her hard work created a platform that provided residences for 13 Milwaukee creatives to achieve their dreams of becoming an artist.
I stand before you today telling you the business of this young girl to say this…. taking the road less traveled is ok- even if it wasn’t apart of the plan.
You sometimes start a journey thinking you know how its going to end and often times the back up plan is a complete after thought. Margaret is actually me Symphony Swan- Margaret my late grandmother gave me the courage i needed to stand strong in the midst of adversity. She gave me the skills to remain positive even when times got rough. No matter what i did she always made sure i knew she was proud of me. I graduated with a Bachelors of fine art in 2012 with teacher certification today I will receive my masters in educational leadership. The original plan was go to college graduate in four years and get a job. The plan was to go right into teaching. Instead after graduating I worked 10 months in non profit and became a mom, I then gained my credentials and became a teacher. Shortly after that I opened my own art studio.
While today is surely momentous occasion I want to remind you that having a plan for your life is great and encouraged- for it serves as a guide for us as we travel through life. However, I remind you to remember the possibility of the plan not happening as planned and to be open to the option of taking that more scenic route- the one less travelled. I was slightly naive to think my degree was the sure way to achieve grown up happiness. A long the way I forgot about the things that really mattered. I forgot how important the very community from which I come from and grew up wanting to serve is to me, I forgot about the different communities I served while working in non-profit and I surly forgot about the passion and love I hold for the school aged community. While the plan for my life after this degree is to one day become apart of a school’s administrative team I know my plan may not be the one destined for me. There just may be more experiences i need to experience prior to my next career move. Either way i can never allow myself to became consumed with solely the plan but preparing myself to be open for learning and becoming a better leader and educator. learning never stops.
Reflection and meaningful daily affirmations have proven to be the best way to navigate and find some level of understanding with the idea of the road less traveled. Each hurdle in my life prepared me to be in a position to stand before you today.
I am a community activist- I am aware of many issues that plague Milwaukee with access to resources to affect change thanks to my time with Public Allies, I am a art teacher- I am passionate and compassionate about the young people i teach every day. I am a mother- I learned what it means be selfless, I am a business owner- where we strive to create a community safe place. I don't think i would be able to say those things had my plan manifested directly after graduation. I go to work everyday grateful that I am allowed to stand before the very young people who will one day run this city. I do all of this with pride because I really love my city, and ALL the people who live here. My journey has provided me with the confirmation I needed to be ok with the road I’ve traveled on. I have persevered, experienced a lot and learned overall everything happens for a reason!
I have learned that there are lessons to be learned when picking up the pieces after a failure or change in plans occurs- and this is ok!!
As I prepare to close I leave you all with a charge. I charge you to re-evaluate that life plan and ask yourself are you prepared for the plan B. In my class room I always encourage my scholars to shift their mindset from “making a mistake” to taking that error and turning it into a “master piece” for the best things come from making mistakes.
Life is about moving on, accepting changes and looking forward to what makes you stronger and more complete.
I challenge you all to use your experience to fill the void. While we live in a great city, it is not without flaws. BlankSpace was created to fill the void of affordable art studio space on the North side of Milwaukee for urban creatives. Use our degrees, connections, passions to change Milwaukee. We need you in order to make this place even better.
I congratulate each and everyone one of you who will be walking across this stage today. The hard work and dedication has paid off. No matter the journey- the fast or scene route all lead us here. Class of 2016!!!!
Im the mama of Marli Amor and Kingston Ase.