From the beginning of time, all humans have sought to tell their stories and the greater human story whether through art, literature, photographs, film, biographies, or Facebook. From the Cro-Magnon drawings of Lascaux to Michelangelo, from Shakespeare to Hemingway, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Twitter, our stories define us and our place in history. Our personal stories and lives are comparable to a minute grain of sand in the desert. But, when we tell our stories by putting pen to paper, the click of a keyboard, the stroke of a paintbrush, or the shutter of a camera, we all seek to leave something of ourselves as a mark on this Earth saying we were here.
People’s stories are so fascinating to me. Where do they call home? What were their foundational years like? What is their passion? What they do for a living? What is their family like? What languages do they speak? I am an insatiably curious person who celebrates differences and embraces backgrounds different from my own. That naturally manifests itself in a desire to hear other people’s stories. Like millions before me I also feel the need to put my story down in writing, not because I think my story is incredible, but so my children will know it and others will understand why I am who I am.
Everyone likes to tell their story because our define and shape us. My story meets at the intersection of Breaking Bad and Edgar Degas and helps explain why I understand the importance of diversity, inclusion, culture, and language.
Like all of us, over the years my experiences have molded and shaped my life, my interests, and my work like a sculptor who takes years to complete a sculpture. Edgar Degas spent nearly his entire career as an almost blind painter and sculptor, crafting his mostly small sculptures in his studio at eye level. His sculptures began as rough, lumpy, wiry, and rather unrefined shapes. Despite this roughness and imperfection, Degas’ sculptures became beautiful representations of the way a form moves through space, imperfectly and yet gracefully. My life and my professional story are a bit like Degas’ sculptures. Not always smooth. Beautifully imperfect. Often fluid. In a state of motion and movement. In fact, while my interests and passions have never changed, the path to realizing them has been rough and unrefined compared to some who have plotted a traditional career course. However, there have always been strong cultural wires that have served as the foundation of that evolving sculpture.
Without a doubt, I have lived a white-privileged life. While I knew nothing different, I realize now how incredibly spoiled I have always been. I have always had food to eat, clothes on my back, a roof over my head, a car to drive, opportunities to travel, and love and opportunity at every step. Thanks to an incredibly hard-working Dad, I needed for nothing. Thanks to a highly community-focused Mom, I learned the importance of giving back. To this day, I am grateful to them that our lives growing up were without hardship and that my parents instilled in me the necessity of the Golden Rule and the importance of a strong work ethic, qualities that do not however differentiate me from any other race. Regardless, my "WASPness" has made my life much easier than many other people's in this country and the world over.
That is not to say however, that I grew up in a white-privileged school system. To the contrary. My foundational years growing up in Albuquerque exposed me to some of the most diversity I have yet experienced. Not just ethnic diversity, but socioeconomic diversity as well. Diversity, language and culture have categorically shaped my perspectives and interests, and made me who I am today.
My cultural explorations began in pre-school and my early childhood years. My immediate next-door neighbors on either side were a Filipino family and a Chinese family. One of my best and longest friends was my neighbor Ben Chen. I remember sharing dinners with his family and eating delicious homemade Chinese food that his live-in Grandmother made. There, I learned that it was completely appropriate to eat rice out of a bowl using chopsticks with the bowl practically attached to my chin! It was a welcome divergence from the traditional American table manners expected at my house. I remember looking at the beautiful Chinese characters on scrolls and artwork throughout his house and wondering what they said and what they meant. The moral of treating my neighbor as myself was an easy and natural one with the Chen family that extended out to my community as a whole.
My school years taught me the importance of respecting others who might be different from me. We lived in the suburbs and our parents were huge proponents of public schools. Due to our districting, my brother and I attended public schools in the inner-city. The hit television series "Breaking Bad" that takes place in Albuquerque, while it doesn’t represent my experience nor most resident’s experience, is quite reflective of some of the drug and gang issues that surrounded us as students and inhabitants of this beautiful city. My middle school, Van Buren Middle School, was in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. In fact, the Albuquerque Police called the area the “war zone” at the time. During my sixth-grade year one of my classmates was pregnant and during our recess one day in seventh grade there was a murder investigation across the street, with a body in the front yard. The designated parking lot I used in high school was off-campus and was shared with the attached methadone clinic. Each morning I would walk past addicts trying hard to beat their addictions. There was a drive-by shooting just off-campus one day during our lunch hour. There was no white privilege there. There were no kids driving BMW’s to school. At Highland High School, I was among the minority. In fact, US News & World Report shows the following statistics for my high school, which likely haven’t changed much since I was there:
This is the breakdown of ethnicity and gender of a school's student body, based on data reported to the government.
Ethnicity/Race Minority Enrollment (% of total)
American Indian/Alaskan Native 6%
Hawaiian Native/Pacific Islander 1%
Two or More Races 3%
Total minority enrollment at Highland High 90%
Copyright 2017 © U.S. News & World Report L.P. | Data are based on the 2014-2015 school year.
Despite an environment that might make some parents sweat, I received an excellent education at Highland, graduating 11th in a class of 350. I fully recognize the influence of supportive parents, a stable home environment and a safe neighborhood in my academic success and recognize that many of the students I knew did not have those important and deserved keys to success in their lives. As important as my success in high school was to me personally, what I now recognize as the most important part of my education was that I learned to embrace and celebrate differences. I learned what diversity means from the classroom to the soccer field. I learned that you find common ground, you respect others for who they are, treat them as you would want them to treat you, and not to fear differences.
Growing up in Albuquerque is something I cherish and value how it prepared me for my experiences studying abroad in college. During a middle school class, we had to do a project that revolved around one piece of artwork and ballooned out to encompass the country from which the artist came. My chosen artist at the time was George Seurat, and then later blossomed into a love and appreciation of Edgar Degas. These early intros into art and culture evolved into a lifelong study of the French language and eventually an immersive study abroad program. Living in France with a host family, speaking nothing but French and immersing myself completely in another culture was the capstone event of my formative cultural experiential years. There I learned that there are many ways to view the world, not just the Albuquerque, New Mexico, blond haired, blue-eyed, white, Protestant, American way, and that they are all relative to our own cultural lens. I learned that just because you don’t agree with or like the way something is done in another culture doesn’t exempt you from respecting and honoring that difference. I learned to look at a culture for what it is while reserving judgement, how history, food, religion, economics, politics, education, climate and art shape it. I learned that my host mom peeled potatoes the exact same way my mom did, which was strangely both shocking and completely normal! I learned that despite our cultural differences, we all want to be loved, to love, be fed, be clothed, have shelter, be educated and to have work to provide for our families. I learned an expanded meaning of what it is to be human and that our humanity is expressed through different cultural lenses.
So, when people look at me from the outside they see a wholesome, blond haired, blue-eyed white-privileged female. But if my experiences, education and background have taught me anything it is that you should look below the surface and seek to know and understand other people's stories to really know them. To know what makes them tick, to learn their story, to learn about their passion, you must “seek first to understand and then to be understood”. Imagine how different our world would be if we all were able to do that with finesse and consistency.
My hope is that through helping others navigate cultural waters effectively through Cultural Intelligence, our world will continue to evolve towards greater understanding of each other and respect for our differences. Perhaps like Degas’ rough and unrefined sculptures, we will find beauty and grace in our imperfect humanity. All of it.