We Are The Same

Topher asked me to write an article for HeroPress as we sat together in an alcove in the Philly Convention Center. I was in a vulnerable space. My lightning talk at WordCamp US had concluded, and I was settling into the experience of being at another WordCamp. I thought about the life experiences that brought me to my second presentation a year later, and I started to cry. Below is why.

One of my earliest memories is attending my mother’s graduate school graduation ceremony. It was a huge achievement. I wore a pink frilly dress with afro puffs to her graduation ceremony. I am sure I was gripping someone’s leg and hiding behind them. Behind my mother, my aunt or maybe my father. I was painfully awkward and shy. Which didn’t make any sense because my family was constantly telling me, ‘Be quiet’. That could have been their anthem for me. Children were meant to be seen, not heard.

I think of that young Sierra Leonean American girl I was, I think back to that day, and wonder what became of her.

She grew taller, much taller, transitioned from pink dresses to a pink bedroom, and, some say, is poised. But she is still painfully awkward. You wouldn’t know it, but you can catch her at times sitting quietly at an event achingly wishing she were alone and didn’t have to perform.

I project confidence because I was drafted into an oratory competition in middle school. Something about my voice caught the attention of my middle school teacher Mrs. McNeil. She entered me into one. I don’t recall what I read or the outcome. I only remember my mom driving me to my competition and her, my sister and I pulling up to a very crowded parking lot. Everything gets fuzzy after we arrived.

In high school, I didn’t need to be drafted into public speaking. I had strong ideals and opinions, and when it came to debate competitions I didn’t need to fit in and be cool. All I had to do was win. I debated as a Junior Statesmen, entered the Essex County Mock Trial competition, and the High School Moot Court Tournament at Princeton University. During 10th or 11th grade I got commendations for my role as a mother whose son died due to someone’s negligence at school. I argued with the other team’s attorneys. I was distraught. I channeled my inner mother. The judge gave our Mock Trial team extra points because I made the case believable. In 11th grade my partner and I came second place in the Moot Court competition at Princeton.

I live in Maplewood, New Jersey. It is a town that actively engages its children. Our administration and teachers educate us to be competitive academically and in our extracurricular activities, and to actively seek out opportunities for service.

Teachers tell us we can be great – and expectations are that we will be great.

It is ingrained in us that to whom much is given much is expected. I do the best I can to embody what is expected of me.

Truthfully, as an African girl, it was wonderful to be educated like this. At home my parents, aunts and uncles expect nothing less. Outside of home and my classes and clubs, I received mixed messages about who I was and what I could achieve. I was one of a handful of Africans in a diverse community. I didn’t look African or sound African I was told growing up. And I was surprised as a child of how differently I was treated by many of the same color other than my best friend and her family in elementary school. It was fascinating. On one occasion at school I achingly experienced different treatment. A college counselor lost interest in helping me with financial aid when it came up in conversation that I was African. After that conversation she was too busy to meet with me. I went to the head of guidance instead who was fabulous.

Occasions like this make me acutely proud of where my family comes from and the sacrifices my parents made 30 plus years ago when they immigrated here.

I see in them that resilience is a must and that success is accessible through motivation, hard work, focus, education and self-improvement.

As a child, I hurt at the barriers some put up when I told them I am African. And I still do. At times, we are misunderstood and misrepresented. And it doesn’t make me any less proud of my Sierra Leonean heritage.

Three weeks ago, I had dinner with someone I met years ago. I mentioned something related to my heritage. She stopped for a second. She said she was surprised to hear I am African. Her enthusiasm towards me immediately drained. I wasn’t shocked. I pushed away the feeling of disappointment I feel in these occasions. I acknowledged the difference internally and it didn’t stop me from enjoying her company. It’s a situation I’ve found myself in many, many times.

I was told I could be great as a child growing up in Maplewood. I let this propel me forward through each obstacle in my way, and I let this make me stand tall as I take on each daunting task before me. I took this with me to every college class and graduate class I have taken even when overpowered by feelings of inadequacy. I have been to events at places where very few people will ever have the chance to go. There are organizations I have worked for that have a competitive selection process. There are certificates I have earned that make me wonder how I gathered the strength to make it through. And there are presentations like the ones I gave at WordCamp US in 2015 and 2016 where I fought through feelings of inadequacy to stand on stage and speak before hundreds of people in the tech industry.

At these times, I think of the little Sierra Leonean American girl in the pink frilly dress with afro puffs, and wonder how she could achieve each one of these accomplishments.

I wonder how she became so warmly embraced by the WordPress community, invited to plan WordCamp NYC at the United Nations in 2016, and invited to be a co-organizer of Meetups in NYC. It reflects how inclusive our community is.

I think of my gender, my color, and my heritage.

To every woman – we are the same. And, even if we glance at each other and look away, I am you and you are me. We can’t let anyone convince us otherwise.

I think of the African girl on the continent who doesn’t have the choices and resources I have. I cry for her, and I cry for me.

I cry because I may never meet her, never look deeply into her eyes, never tell her that she will be great, give her the resources she needs to fully realize her dreams and give her the space to be embraced by the WordPress community. Make no mistake in this digital age that this little girl is aware of what she doesn’t have, and that she needs us to propel her forward.