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5 things to know as a 21-year-old woman about leadership

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This summer has seen Teach for America Institutes, 5-week on-the-job trainings in summer school classrooms, taking place across our country. Paraphrasing, the mission of Teach for America is the growing movement of leaders who work to ensure that one day kids growing up in poverty all get an excellent education. The two things perhaps most striking about this endeavor in our nation is first, the overwhelming majority of the corps who will begin teaching in our schools this fall are people in their 20s. The other is the vision of teachers as leaders.

The achievement gap in our classrooms, for example

According to the Teach for America website, “Just 8% of kids growing up in low-income communities graduate from college by age 24.” To address this achievement gap, it is essential that these young adults view themselves as leaders and embrace the huge responsibility that comes with being an educator.

The other important news is that in the United States, according to the May 23, 2014 New York Times article by Floyd Norris titled, “Younger Turn for a Graying Nation,”

“There are now more young adults than baby boomers.”

“From 1947 through 2010, the largest single age group in the United States was born sometime in the 18 years after the end of World War II. In 1947, that was zero years old — babies who had not yet celebrated their first birthday. In 2010, it was 50-year-olds.”

“But the Census Bureau now estimates that the biggest such group last year was 22-year-olds. The largest of the baby boom contingents, people who were 53 last year, had fallen to fourth place. The second- and third-ranked age levels were 23- and 21-year-olds.”

Thousands of this year’s corps members across the U.S. are women. Twenty-seven percent of the 2013 corps members were the first person in their family to attend college. Currently, “Teach for America teachers represent between 10% and 15% of teachers hired in high-poverty schools” across its 35 regions, according to the Investing in Innovation Fund in a May 2010 report submitted to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement.

Indeed, it is an impressive group numbering over 600 teachers-in-training even just here in Oklahoma -- where I am a teacher in a Tulsa Public Schools classroom for another week.

As a young woman, what should you know about leadership?

  1. Leadership starts with you. Look inside yourself and take some time to imagine what change you would like to see in your community. Whether it is applying for Teach for America to teach in a classroom anywhere from North Carolina to Oklahoma or volunteering at a local food pantry or women’s shelter, it is important to start somewhere. Make volunteering a habit and just as important as the rest of the activities in your life.
  2. Jobs do not need to be economically advantageous; they can be rewarding too and help you become a leader in your community.
  3. You have a special chance to be a role model for young girls and teenagers in America. Yes, it can be a bit heavy to think about one’s ideals, but it can also be empowering to think that you hold in your hands the ability to impact a child. In all that you do, put scholastic achievement, community service, self-care, such as getting outdoors to commune with nature, art, music and whatever feeds your soul, and hard work ahead of social obligations.
  4. Think about talking with a young girl in your life about what education means to you. It is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you. Encourage all of the young girls in your life to not drop out of school, even if they do not believe in themselves enough to have the confidence to know they can graduate.
  5. Use your voice. Consider increasing your civic engagement, registering to vote and of course, voting. Encourage your peers to help you get out the vote. There are also amazing opportunities to engage in social justice activities if you are inspired to impact policy issues on a local or national level. Two of the most well-known organizations are the League of Women Voters and the National Women’s Law Center. Locally in Colorado, there are New Era Colorado and the Colorado Participation Project, a young nonpartisan program guiding other nonprofits in the creation of voter engagement and advocacy programs.

Where did this list come from? Well, these are all things I wish I had known when I was 21, over 20 years ago. Spending these past few weeks with so many dedicated, bright people in Tulsa who are part of the Teach for America movement has inspired me. Yet there is so much that only comes with a lifetime of experience so one has much to contrast today to.

It is the same when one considers that the United States is only 238 years old today, compared to other countries whose establishment came about over 5,000 years ago. Here’s to 238 more years of progress and ever-increasing visibility and momentum for women leaders in our nation.

“To live constantly above snobbery of word or deed;
to place scholarship before social obligations and character before appearances;
to be, in the best sense, democratic rather than 'exclusive', and lovable rather than 'popular';
to work earnestly, to speak kindly, to act sincerely, to choose thoughtfully that course which occasion and conscience demand;
to be womanly always; to be discouraged never;…”

- Ethel Switzer Howard, 1904

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