This week I went on one of my first field trips in years. Myself and a few of my colleagues took a group of thirty high school students on a trip to the Denver Police Department and it was awesome.
DPD is one of the many groups that sends their staff to mentor in our classrooms. Out of the 30 students that we took, about ten or so of them have mentors that are cops. It was such a positive and inspiring experience because having cops as their mentors has completely changed their perception of law enforcement. Where these students once saw just a badge and someone who saw them as only a nuisance, they now see a mentor, friend and a role model.
Something that really impacted me from the experience was meeting the Executive Director of safety for Denver. The person that holds this position is in charge of over seeing everything that has to do with safety in Denver, that includes fire, police and the sheriffs department. Pretty much the Executive Director is the head honcho, the main boss and all around a big deal and surprisingly to me an African American woman.
When Executive Director O'Malley, stood in front of us and started welcoming us and sharing about her role and responsibilities, I was mystified. It was so cool to see someone that looked like me and like a lot of the female students that we brought on the trip, holding the highest position in the building and one of the highest positions in the city. I hung on to every word that she shared and when she finished I sat back in my chair feeling like I had just experienced something really important.
When the field trip wrapped up and I walked my group of students back to the train I was deeply moved by the conversations that I overheard.
"I think I want to be a cop someday," one girl said, " I think I want to be like the Director of safety," another young lady shared. Where they once struggled to see possibilities, they now saw themselves represented clear as day.
It is so important for young people of color to see themselves portrayed in high profile jobs and in the media. I am overjoyed that kids that are in school right now are able to grow up having lived through the tenure of our first black president. I'm excited that young ladies are able to see the first African American Bachelorette. More than anything, I'm elated over that fact that my students are able to see people of color holding offices that are impacting their communities.
Mentioning the Bachelorette makes me feel a little silly but honestly I do think that this is monumental for young women of color. For them to turn on their televisions and turn to one of the most popular shows in this country and see someone who is educated, wise, beautiful, composed AND looks like them...that's important.
Representation is a necessity. I was reminded of the importance of that this week. Growing up I so wanted to be a doctor and when I got to college and the road was rougher than I thought, I dropped that dream like a hot plate. This week was the first time, since changing my major and exploring different career options, that I wondered if my choices could have been different. If I had grown up being mentored by a woman of color that was a doctor or if I had a doctor that was a person of color, would I have made a different choice?
Would I have tried harder? Where I saw uncertainty and the impossible would I have thought of her and seen a tangible example of hope? It's hard to tell and since I love what I do so much, I honestly don't want to spend too much time thinking about it. What I do know, is that walking to the Police station none of my girls mentioned wanting to go into Public safety or any career for that matter but on the walk back, they all did.
There is power in thinking about your dream job and being able to recall a memory of people who walk like, talk like and look like you in those positions. There's a confidence that comes and I think in your subconscious a switch is flipped and it tells you that people who look like you have done it and so can you.
Representation is an essential step in giving young people of color the proper tools to be able to achieve their goals. It's the black president, the first Latina Justice on the Supreme court, it's the African American woman saving NASA and the first Muslim American man winning an Oscar.
It's about giving young adults, both male and female, an image to focus on, one that mirrors who they are and what they can be. One that gives them hope, inspires them to dream and allows them to see themselves serving in any capacity that they wish.
I wish every adult that interacted with our students treated them the way that those cops did. They treated them like they were the future, like they had potential and like our city will be a better place because of each and every one of them. They showed them Officers, Commanders and Directors who looked like them. People who told them that the sky was the limit and I think for the first time in maybe their entire lives, our students could actually see it and without hesitation, believed it.