Vulnerable Young Women Already Have Grit--They Need the Chance to Lead


Some people say youth today need more grit or gumption. Some do. But the truth for those of us like me who've survived being traumatized by violence, poverty, or the doors of opportunity not just flying open when we walk by--well we have true grit to spare.

We have been resilient and are resourceful. We speak up. (Even after we've been told we're too fierce.) And we do like ourselves. Research shows that African American and Latina youth report higher self-esteem than some other populations.

Never was this more evident than at the graduation of The Young Women's Leadership School (TYWLS) of Queens. Today, I had the magical experience of being the commencement speaker for the class of 2014, which is part of the Young Women's Leadership Network of public all-girls schools. This year, nearly 100 percent of TYWLS graduates were accepted to college, and alumnae achieve four-year college degrees at more than triple the rate of their peers.

The graduation also marked a milestone in The Respect Institute, YWLN and our other partners' Clinton Global Initiative commitment to providing 10,000 vulnerable young women ages 11 to 18 in more than ten states through 2015 the tools and coaching (Respect 360) needed to build self-respect in order to improve academic and life outcomes. At CGI America earlier this week, we celebrated that we've enrolled those 10,000 girls in Respect 360. TYWLS Queens students were some of the first to complete the experience in their advisory program. (And I was even able to sneak the girls a message from Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton! She advocated for YWLN early on.)

Yet, I'm still struck at the documented challenges vulnerable girls around the nation face when it comes to the equal opportunity to fully thrive. I wish they all could join the pipeline to college YWLN provides. For this reason, at the graduation today I invited my younger sisters to nourish their self-respect--their most pivotal asset--so they will continue to be the restorative leaders this world needs now.

Here's the commencement speech I was honored to deliver:

We all have our beginnings. My first memory in life is of my mom holding me up as a human shield to try to get my dad to stop beating her to death. I was 2 years old. My parents had hard beginnings too. My father, Artimeo, went to prison at the age he should've been going to college. My mother, Toni, was a teen mom who dropped out of high school.

My parents were a multi-racial couple that experienced a lot of collective adversity. Racism, child abuse, addiction, unemployment, poverty and violence. Perhaps worst of all, they'd often been treated like, and felt like, they just did not matter.

My family and I had work to do. I'm grateful my parents made progress: upward mobility for my mom and sobriety for my dad.

However, two months prior to my high school graduation, I was either going to be the sixth person in my immediate family to not graduate from high school, or the first to cross the stage and pick up my diploma. I had made a career of skipping school and it had caught up with me. If I cut school one more time, I would not be allowed to graduate. Even my friends and family didn't know.

It was time to make a choice despite my circumstances--and if I didn't want my mother to kill me! But how does a young woman who has walked through numerous adverse childhood experiences, trauma and so much shame turn her pain into power?

The answer is self-respect. Self-respect is not your high opinion of yourself. That is self-esteem. And unfortunately our self-esteem is most influenced by outside content: What others say about or to us directly, and through the voice of media or laws and societal standards that determine our rights and value. Self-respect, on the other hand, is "knowing you're a unique contributor to the greater whole" and people with self-respect behave like: "I matter. You matter." It starts from within and is rooted in resiliency. This is not just about semantics. See the difference?

However, our tribes and ourselves haven't always been respected. This fact runs deeper in us--at a cellular level. We haven't always been treated like we are unique contributors to the greater whole. We've been diminished by systems that hurt us or didn't believe in us. And maybe we believed them for a moment. But not today, right?

For this reason, our best bet is to put our attention solely on nurturing our self-respect. Our other assets like self-esteem and confidence will take care of themselves when we operate from this definition of respect and practice The Respect Basics.

What I love is that it turns out you can make self-respecting choices despite your circumstances. Because true respect starts on the inside. In other words, no matter what's happened to you, or is happening around you now, your self-respect is yours to maintain through daily practices. To put it bluntly, you have to "do you."

I have visited The Young Women's Leadership School of Queens three times in the past year, and I've seen you nurturing your self-respect and leading others toward their greatness. I know in your advisories you practiced the eight Respect Basics, including Tell Your Truth, Set Boundaries, Get Help and Have Courage.

As women leaders, you must continue to nourish your self-respect daily. Do you and take care of you. When we nurture our self-respect, we're not overly focused on our packaging or living up to measurements of success we don't value. It's simple: Self-respect helps us stop hating our flabby arms all day, because we're too busy using our hands to change the world instead.

When we nurture our self-respect, we are being leaders in our own lives. And we are the leaders this world needs because, again, we believe and act like: I matter. You matter.

We're at a time, I believe, when women's leadership is the linchpin to healing our world. Your work is needed to create equality for all. We need you to start, fund or run public and private enterprises that serve the greater good and respect people and resources. We need you to course-correct the pressing problems we face: from climate change to global conflict to the opportunity gap for the most oppressed--and not just women and girls, but boys and young men of color too.

Like you, I did make a choice to lift myself through education. Like you, I didn't do it alone. I had the courage to ask mentors, professors, my family and counselors for help. I chose to surround myself with peers who wanted to graduate from college and make a positive mark through their talents and efforts. Like some of you, I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and college.

From there, I was covering the Supreme Court by the time I was a 21-year-old reporter, went on to write my book RESPECT and then committed to a life of service by forming The Respect Institute to make respect the status quo. In May, I even had the honor of meeting President Obama.

Not to be like yeah me, but yeah me! And yeah you!

Without knowing each of you personally, I know you've overcome many obstacles to be here today and to be accepted into college. As you move forward from here, I request that you nurture at least four of The Respect Basics in the next year:

Tell Your Truth. Create a trusted circle of at least three of your fellow graduates and check in once a week during your first year of college. "Tell Your Truth" to each other about the fears and failures you're experiencing. Listen to each other. People who thrive have support circles.

Set Boundaries and Get Help. Tomorrow, write a note to yourself from your Future Self who's living five years from now in 2019. Have her remind you of your strengths, what boundaries you must set, and the help you need to ask for to get to where she is. Anything that hounds you or haunts you, is always an area where you just need to seek more support. "Get Help": It's The Respect Basic that has served me best.

Have Courage. I want you to invite failure and discomfort into your life. Really! Success is to be celebrated like today, but it's not what actually motivates or grows us. That is the job of failure. Befriend it. I fail weekly, if not daily, as a leader, partner and mother. It happens mostly in my communication when I cause drama! Or when I don't win a grant for our work which means we might not get paid. Or when I feed my son pizza seven days in a row in front of the iPad. I have been fired, embarrassed, criticized publicly, and not picked for many teams.Yet, I take outlandish steps I'm not "prepared" to take to move my mission forward. I don't even look at this stuff as failures anymore. It's just living. Learn what you can about your blind spots that impair your leadership impact or well-being. But then leave the rest, "Be Compassionate" with yourself and others (another Respect Basic), and "Have Courage" to keep doing your work in this life.

And we have work to do, don't we ladies?

On Tuesday, I had the great honor of meeting Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. I was invited to take a photo with her at the Clinton Global Initiative America, where along with your Young Women's Leadership Network, The Respect Institute has made a commitment to improve the life and academic outcomes of vulnerable girls like I was once.

In our brief moment together, I could have shared with Secretary Clinton many things: About my adorable son, Tru, our work at the institute, my gratitude for her No Ceilings Project...or I could have asked her for a job. (Maybe later!)

Instead, I spoke with her about what was really on my heart: You. I told her you were graduating and that I'd be speaking with you today. I asked her what she wanted me to tell you on her behalf. And she said beaming, "Tell them I'm so proud of them!"

And we all are so proud of you.

So today celebrate.

Tomorrow: Respect on!

* This speech is an excerpt from The Respect Institute's forthcoming guide for young women: Do You! How to put your grit, self-respect and leadership into overdrive.