Seeing The Great

Five days ago, Erica Kennedy died. In that time I've seen a whole lot of tweets and blog posts about what a great author and friend she was. Though I was only vaguely aware of her as the author of "Feminista" and "Bling," it seems I follow several individuals on twitter who had a much (MUCH) stronger knowledge of and connection to her. And as I read their blog posts and tweets I found it both stirring and remarkable that they all seemed to say almost the exact same things about her. That she was a genius, and supportive.

The one thing, however, I saw repeated that really has stuck with me is that they all mentioned how she seemed to have the ability to see greatness in individuals who could not see it in themselves. Several individuals mentioned that when invited to join a group of women put together by Erica, they had no idea why only to come to learn that she did it with purpose -- she saw something in each of them that she thought might help the others. She saw the great.

If you've ever had someone see something in you that you can't see in yourself, only to later begin to see it for yourself, you can only describe the experience as magical and touching. As you think back over all the moments and events that got you to that place, you realize that had it not been for that one person who could see the great, you might never have gotten there.

I've had MANY moments just like that and I continue to. As I was cleaning out some of my drawers, I found old tshirts that I really need to get rid of (thinking of a tshirt quilt) but haven't because they all mean something to me. A few of those shirts refer to things I did in high school and they made me think of one of the first times somebody saw the great in me (after my mama who saw it the day I was born, so...). What's interesting is that while I count this as once, it was actually two different people.

Most predominantly white and private institutions of learning, whether K-12 or higher ed will have an organization that functions as both a support group for its minority students as well as a unifying voice. My white, private high school was no different. I avoided joining this group in my freshman year, feeling out of place and not quite connected to them. The first friends I made at this school were white, and I didn't do any of the stereotypical black things that connected the black students so I had managed to make it through both 8th and 9th grade only really connecting to the handful of black kids in my class, and only kinda.

However towards the end of the school year one of my white friends whose sister had been active in this group wanted to go but wanted some "support" and I was the obvious supportive choice (aside from being black, or rather because of it, I was the most likely to agree to even go, though I had turned down previous requests from her). Being at a college prep school, it had been beaten into me that my resume for college needed stuff on it and so I figured there was no harm in going to one meeting and then slapping that on my resume.

We happen to pick the last meeting of the year, where they were electing officers, to randomly attend. In hindsight, I don't doubt that all of the upperclassman present at that meeting knew who I was, or at least knew of me. My class had the most black students - 10 - so it wasn't hard to spot the one black girl who didn't kick it with them. I stuffed myself in a corner (while my friend sat herself up front) and tried to remain inconspicuous. Elections began and it seemed that everyone had already decided who would be elected or at the least, nominated, to many of the positions except for treasurer. No one volunteered themselves, as had been the case with other positions. Finally one girl who had been previously nominated raised her hand to accept the nomination. It looked like she would be the only one and thus the default winner when at the last minute another girl raised her hand and said, "I'd like to nominate Ashley." All eyes were on me and I was confused. In my mind I had spoken to this junior maybe once or twice. I knew who she was but was baffled that she knew who I was and went so far as to nominate me for a position. The president-elect (she was the only one nominated) who was the current secretary asked if I was ok with the nomination and I accepted it.

After the meeting, this junior approached me and said she hoped I hadn't been embarrassed and that she thought I should be on the executive board the next year. Not only did she see the great, but she was someone I had no clue was even paying me attention.

The day of the elections, the president-elect mentioned to me that if I didn't win she had an idea she wanted to run by me but she first needed to speak to the organization's faculty advisor. Of course I didn't win the election and I wasn't surprised -- I actually only voted for myself because it felt silly not to. About a week later, the president-elect emailed me and asked if I wouldn't mind stopping by their faculty advisor's office to talk with her. At our impromptu meeting she mentioned to me that after having served as secretary for a year she knew that it was a lot of work and she thought there might be enough work that having an assistant secretary made sense. She said she specifically wanted me for the position. I was baffled. Twice in one week someone implied that they thought I might be good at something I had never considered: Leadership.

I point to that experience as one of the reasons I went on to hold other leadership positions. The year after I was asst. secretary I became President of the organization (I was elected VP and bumped to President, a motif that played out again, in another org, the following year). I had two people who saw the great in me and acted on it. Not only did they influence my pursuit of leadership positions but they influenced my efforts to see the great in others. That event changed the trajectory of my life, I'm sure of it. If I can do that for others, similar to the way Erica Kennedy did it for many, I'll feel like I really am achieving the great so many have seen in me.

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