Last week, I was tasked with writing my personal leadership statement for my North Carolina Fellows Program capstone class. The program allows college students to define and enhance their leadership styles throughout their time at UNC-Chapel Hill. The only rules for this assignment were that the statement had to take the format of NPR’s “This I Believe” series, started in 2009, and that it had to be recorded in our own voice. Here’s what I had to say:
For those of you who’d prefer to read it, there’s a transcribed version below.
I was born to a mother who taught me that empathy is the key to life. She taught my brother and I that it is important to live your life with compassion and an ability to see the world, not only from your perspective, but from the perspectives of others. My father taught me that education will open doors for you that no one can ever shut. “No one can take away your knowledge,” he’d say. They both taught me that through human interaction and curiosity, you open yourself up to the lives of others, and in doing so, allow yourself to challenge your preconceived notions about life.
When I was fifteen, I left home for the first time and moved to South Africa to attend the African Leadership Academy. At ALA reflection was necessary, introspection required and curiosity encouraged. It was the place where all the lessons my parents had taught me culminated in the values I still have today:
- Empathy: Being able to put yourself in another’s shoes, no matter how far-removed the situation is. Acting on the compassion you feel towards your fellow man, the environment and all living things.
- Respect: The regard for the wishes, rights and traditions of others, even when you do not agree with them personally. The regard for your own.
- Family: The people with whom you feel safest and in whose arms you feel most protected. Those who challenge you and whom you can challenge.
- Creativity: Exploring music, art, science and life in your own unique way. Combining uncommon elements and making new ones in whatever realm you find inspiration.
- And finally, Curiosity: Being unafraid to ask questions for which you might never know the answer. Dedicating your life to searching for deeper meanings and a better understanding of the world and beyond.
After the most mentally-strenuous two years of my life in South Africa, I thought that I had conquered all the giants I possibly could. I was wrong. I moved to America, and life at UNC-Chapel Hill forced me to put my values into action.
You say you believe in empathy. How do you empathize with someone who hates you because of the color of your skin?
It’s hard. And at times, it feels impossible. But I push myself. I empathize by understanding how powerful ignorance is and how blinding privilege can be. I realize that hatred and anger are results of fear and a lack of knowledge. I try to understand the deepest crux of my opponent’s minds in order to understand how to try to change them.
You say you believe in respect. How do you respect someone who never seems to take accountability for their actions?
I respect them by not reciprocating their behavior. I fight the initial urge I have to roll my eyes so hard that they stick to the back of my head. I listen. I hear their full argument, and then I slowly and meticulously begin constructing my own. I treat them as humans in moments when they fail to see me as such. The moment you dehumanize someone or create a hierarchy in which you are better or more deserving is the moment that you lose the essence of your humanity.
You say you believe in family. How do you continue to love a family member who has mistreated those around you?
I don’t know. I try to fight the idea that I’ve always had about what a family looks like. I learn the art of forgiveness, remembering that we all have demons that we’re fighting. I find the resources I need to begin to heal. I seek out therapy, I meditate, I do yoga, I utilize empathy – all in the hopes of gaining enough clarity to be able to understand what I want from the people around me and what I can offer them.
You say you believe in creativity? How do you stay creative in a world that is begging for you to conform?
I realize that there’s beauty in being different. I remember how it feels to write a brilliant headline or record a song that sounds worthy of winning awards. I do not fear my talents. I balance self-awareness with humility and ask my loved ones to check me when when I don’t. I listen to my soul and do what feels right for it. I listen to the world and draw inspiration from it.
You say you believe in curiosity? How do you stay curious even when it scares you?
I remember that there are multiple truths, and history is only ever written from the eyes of the victor. I listen to older people who tell me what life was like when they were my age and I try to imagine what life will be like when I’m theirs. I try to connect the dots. I talk to people, I travel, I read, I use my imagination. I accept what I think I know and what I’ll never know. I put my faith in the universe.
What do I believe? I’ve spent the last five years of my life trying to figure out exactly that.
I believe in fighting the crippling fear that breeds hatred and a reluctance to explore. I believe in being an advocate and an ally, using my ability to have one-on-one conversations to change a single mind at a time. I believe that I will start my own family one day. I believe in openly welcoming the people who come into my life, and letting those who leave go peacefully. I believe in forgiveness and in healing. I believe in loving even when it is the hardest option available. This I believe.