With early roots as a free child, I have lived fortunately despite all appearances. There were a lot of challenges throughout my early life, true, but none of those were unique. Its the sum of the parts that make me unique, and make me who I am today.
Childhood homelessness, parental addiction, illegal border crossings, constant school-hopping, and eventually settlement into an African American neighborhood with my white, half-Canadian/half-Montanan family formed my identity as a young person. Trying to make meaning of the extreme differences between my interests and the curriculum of schools was a constant experience. As a 10-year-old in a black school, my cowboy boots and corduroy pants clashed with the Air Jordans and parachute pants around me. Feeling alien among my peers as a teen climaxed when I was 19, when I got my first “green card” to let me to work legally in the US. I even felt challenged on the block where I lived, constantly different than the gang members, drug dealers, and basketballers I grew up around.
All these realities created some of the boundaries that formed my identity as a young person. The titles of White, poor, academically challenged, depressed, angry, confused, and unfocused hung on my neck like placards waiting their turn. Exacerbated by a steady stream of popular culture and mainstream media, my labels also included the branding forced onto my generation, which alternated from apathetic to hyper-violent. I wore these titles heavily, and they stayed around for a long, long time.
Luckily, somewhere along the way they didn’t stick too closely to my skin. Despite hearing the mantra, “You just need to apply yourself” repeatedly from my teachers, I didn’t do that in school. Instead, I applied myself outside of school. Youth leadership programs, volunteer opportunities, and other service activities dominated my high school life. I volunteered at the food bank where my family got food when my dad told me to, and I played Santa Claus at the elementary school my younger sisters attended. Over and over, I shook off the berating social conception of who everyone thought I should be by doing what I wanted to do, following my own inner guidance, and listening to the direction of adults in my life who respected me, and who I respected.
When it came time for me to get a job with my new green card, I started working at a nonprofit in my neighborhood. After spending several summers working in a Theatre of the Oppressed-oriented youth program with Omaha’s premier African American actor and director, I knew that I wanted to spend my life working for youth empowerment. I had some early experiences of what that empowerment felt like, and I wanted to share it with others. Since then I have done exactly that.
This is how I grew up a free child. The experiences I had before I was 20 formed the trajectory that I’ve followed for the rest of my life, from serving three terms in AmeriCorps to organizing The Freechild Project, writing dozens of free publications for youth and youth workers around the world and creating my consulting firm.
Today, I continue to live the extent of Neil’s prescription, dismissing fear as readily as it arrives and springing forth every day to do the work that should be done by me!