Volunteer Day Part 2/3: Discovering Vulnerability to Discover Connection

This is the second post in a 3-part series discussing my recent experience volunteering at a local home for at risk/pregnant teenage girls. I made lunch for 30 people and delivered a nutrition lesson. See Part 1 here.

 Rly cute sign I found inside the dining hall announcing my event!

Rly cute sign I found inside the dining hall announcing my event!

Before I get into the nutrition lesson, I want to write a bit about why I was kind of freaking out about this class, and how I overcame this major hurdle. [This post is more about cultural identity, racial and ethnic bias, and a willingness to grow outside of my cultural comfort zone.]

I had been once to visit this place and to get a feel for the kitchen so I knew what to expect, and during my visit I noticed that nearly every person that worked or was housed here was either Black or Hispanic. I expected this going in so I was not surprised, but when I was preparing my lesson I had to be constantly checking myself to make sure I was able to accurately speak to this audience, which, admittedly I have little experience working with despite myself being Hispanic/Latina.

I have my own identity crisis as Latina woman in America because despite my own deep relationship to my culture, my roots, and my experience growing up here with foreign parents, I still don't seem to fit the national image of what a hispanic person in America is. I know of course that being Latin here means a million different things and that my people are as diverse as the world itself, but being America in 2016, the general view of what Latin American people are is pretty narrow and 1-dimensional. My parents are chief doctors and MBA/finance people and are both senior executives in their institutions. They came to the US over 35 years ago to pursue higher education and ended up staying and raising my sister and I in one of the most affluent areas in the country, where we lived with more privileges than most people could dream of. I'm blessed and constantly humbled by the life I've had and I recognize that in many ways my parents are the icons of the American Dream. My background is distinct only because it is the exception and not the norm for most Latinos in America, but in Latin America directly, while still being part of a privileged class, it is no longer unusual to see educated, wealthy, powerful people living relatively 'normal' lives all around the continent. In my life growing up, all of our family friends were other Colombians and Venezuelans with stories exactly like my parents' - they are PhD's, CEOs, entrepreneurs, architects, doctors, engineers - all people who I consider family and thus my experience of being Latina in America has in many ways felt quite similar to being of a privileged white family in your average suburban neighborhood. Also, it doesn't help that I also look 100% caucasian. 

As you can imagine, despite the fact that Spanish was my first language and its all I speak with my parents at home and deeply rooted in every part of my life, I am Latina as Latina comes, I also recognize that not just because of my complexion but also because of my background, I have been able to ride the coattails of white privilege while also continuing to face plenty of bias as a Latina. Being Colombian is a source of immense pride for me, but the reputation my country has had around the world hasn't always been stellar and my life has been filled with ignorant and offensive jokes about my parents hiding cocaine in our house or about us being drug mules or working for Pablo Escobar. I've been told that I went to a prestigious university only because I was Latina and they needed diversity, and not because of my personal achievements, and my family has faced ignorant and stereotypical discrimination in assumptions about our quality of life as Latinos in America. I could hide under my pale-skinned mask when I needed to, but I was also exposed and unwillingly vulnerable as a Latina, regardless of my skin color, and I felt the pain of the discrimination, judgment, and ill treatment of my people as hard-working contributors to this country. Growing up as an upper-class caucasian-looking Latina in the US is weird and people don't have a name or concept for it yet and I've struggled with an enormous identity crisis my entire life as a result. 

So back to my volunteer day: Knowing that I would stand out like a sore thumb and that my experience, while still Latin, was very different from the girls I'd be speaking to, I looked to J (who has spent many years working with black and latino youth in a social work setting) to help guide me on how to engage and build rapport with teens who might otherwise roll their eyes at me and dismiss me as just 'some white girl' (no offense meant towards white girls - alas, most of my friends are white -- you know what I mean and don't act like you don't!). I discovered after so many roundabout thoughts that ultimately the best way to really connect with them was to simply be vulnerable, be open, and be authentically myself. So I went in with that purpose in mind and embraced my story because it is special and great rather than reject my story under the false belief that it is unworthy of value in this setting. I'm a Latin American woman who has a different Latino story, but one that is true and real nonetheless.

The first and perhaps most important part of my nutrition lesson was when I shared my story as the introduction and got on their level in every way I could (I sat down and joined them at their table rather than lecturing from my designated spot). I told them about how I was a real punk as a teenager when it came to food/health, how I would eat donuts before lacrosse practice, cinnamon toast crunch for dinner, and chips and candy as a perfectly normal snack. I also told them about my culture, about being Colombian, about the amazing Colombian dishes my mom made for us, and about how I understood how deeply engrained our attachments to food as cultural pillars are for our sense of community and identity. I shared my own struggles with body image and my own battles with self-hatred and I shared my own journey from discovering I had seriously high cholesterol to slowly changing my life to save my life. I told the my fears of death and my desire to grow old and have children and grand children, I told them about my dads cancer, my uncle's death from leukemia, the illnesses and diseases that have affected many members of my family, and I also told them about my struggles with ADHD, with acne, with sleep issues, my struggles and eventual conquering of school and academics, and of the magical cure that healthy eating has had for all the ailments, physical, mental, and emotional in my life. I shared my stories of healing, of discovering my best self, of excelling in school and graduating at the top of my programs and continuing on to prestigious jobs and to a wonderfully happy and successful life, all through the lens of healthy living.

Baring my life story like that is uncommon for me - even writing it out here in some ways feels invasive to my own private life - but I knew then like I know here that vulnerability is the key to connection and the only way to reach my audience was to help them see that I was truly like them in all the ways that really matter. Being vulnerable is not my thing - lets be clear. I'm protective over myself in a fundamentally powerful way and I'm terrified of true openness, but its something I'm working on actively and using this group of young girls was a great way to dip my toes into the experience of being authentic. The reason this lesson was such a huge success was because of this one element. I could have talked to them about any subject, not just nutrition, and it would have reached them just as powerfully because our human connection had been established and I had managed to gain their trust. I saw their eyes change when I first came up to the front with my very white-sounding, "Hey guys!" to the moment when I mentioned I'm Colombian - they lit up, like all of a sudden they knew, 'ok, she's one of us'. I've always feared the Latino community might not accept me because my story is so different from so many others in this country, but I guess I've forgotten the most fundamental part about our Latino culture: our warmth and sense of community! We are all family, even non-Latinos - all of us who are not straight cisgendered white men share in the common experience of being a minority in America, and we find a deep sense of understanding in our shared cultural experience. I felt welcomed by these girls, I felt listened to, respected, and admired. There was no greater feeling on earth, and nothing more humbling than to be embraced by a defiant, underprivileged, pregnant teenage girl who rejects the idea of people 'like me'. This may have perhaps been my toughest group ever, but I got through to them and I hope in some way I've been able to make a positive difference in their lives. I could ask for nothing more.

In my next post, I'll share my lesson plan, and tips on how you can deliver a similar lesson if you find yourself wanting to do so!