by Makayla Wright
On Tuesday March 19th I called my mother. I needed to reset myself and needed a reminder that I was enough. Despite being 30 minutes away from my first keynote experience, I worried that there was some sort of mistake. Why would the Gender Equity Center at Pacific Lutheran University want me to talk for 20 minutes about being a “gender revolutionary and phenomenal leader”?
My identity is complicated as a 25-year-old black queer woman from Kansas. I grew up low-income and was a first-generation college student, constantly reminded that I didn’t belong despite being admitted to Smith College because I worked hard.
My mom didn’t understand my fear when I called her, after all, to her I was her oldest daughter and fully capable. She had raised me to be in front of a crowd advocating. She had me when she was 16, and always believed that there was a reason she became a mother to me and my siblings: In her eyes, we would prove folks wrong and go on to greatness. She sent me to my school’s speech therapist and took me to a doctor when I failed to talk until age 5. She ignored teachers when they expressed concerns about my ADHD and inability to focus. She made flashcards for me, bought me Hooked on Phonics, and she and my stepfather made me practice speaking at home.
They told me to ignore the negative people in my community trying to push me down, but most importantly they reminded me to fight for my community.
As I spoke with my mother and then my stepfather that Tuesday, I remembered all of these things and more. I remembered why it wasn’t a mistake for someone like me to be in this position of leadership. It was my purpose and calling to always advocate for people like me. I got off the phone, grounded and confident.
As I arrived at the event to honor and uplift women and LGBTQ, low-income, and communities of color, I knew that I was in the right place. And so I started my speech with a poem I had written months before, meant to honor my family, community, and ancestors:
I carry it with me, their whispers
They drift across wind, for my ears only
They remind me to stay open, always
At my worst, I carry it with me
At my best, I carry it with me
In my work, it stays with me
“Never forget, always remember”
They chorus, gentle reminders
Sometimes louder, or softer, steadily there
I walk, the weight on my shoulders, the words on my tongue,
Body vibrating, full of energy, from generations before me
I never forget, my mind stays open, I hear them always
I carry it with me, I carry them with me
My ancestors, they guide, remind me
“Never forget, you are our triumph,” I continue
To carry them with me, a tribute to my ancestors
After this, I spoke about the five steps to being a revolutionary, which guide me. The five steps are:
1. Remembering who you are and what your roots are
2. Trusting your gut and instincts
3. Remembering what we fight for as community leaders and revolutionaries
4. Not taking a seat at the table, and choosing to create a more equitable place for your community
5. Lifting up others as you climb
I spoke about my mother, and the young people I worked with and mentored on the Opportunity Youth United Community Action Team. I reminded the room about the importance of lifting your community with you as you climb, and why it is important to share your story and own your truth. I warned of toxic leaders who forget how important it is to support those around them so that they can grow and eventually surpass them.
I saw tears and fingers snapping and I knew the importance of voices like mine.
“To be a community leader means … lifting those around you and remembering why you speak.”
To be a community leader means remembering that leadership does not mean being charismatic or the loudest person in the room. It means lifting those around you and remembering why you speak.
I speak because I want people like me to know that they belong and that their experiences are important as well. Let’s all remember to lift as we climb together.
Makayla Wright (she/her/they) is the Youth Voice Organizer for SOAR, a Seattle-based community coalition working together to promote the healthy development of children, youth and families in Martin Luther King County and the anchor organization for the OYUnited Community Action Team (CAT) in Seattle. Makayla grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas. As the child of former Opportunity Youth who never went back to school to get their GEDs, she realized how important it was to work with young adults in similar situations. Makayla graduated from Smith College and has worked in educational outreach programs, youth residential treatment facilities, charter schools, and as an Academic Coach. As a Black woman from the Midwest, she is passionate about exploring root issues and working with communities, and now advocates for youth and young adults by convening the King County Youth Advisory Council and organizing the King County OYunited CAT.