While I searched for appropriate quotes to highlight some of the influential voices that we lost in 2020, I noticed that most of them had lived their lives, unapologetically, on their terms. They knew what interested them, the thing they loved, what made them truly happy, and did it.
Then I started wondering how these folks discovered their purpose in the first place. What motivated them? What allowed them to succeed?
We could easily chalk their achievements up to their birthright (whiteness, supportive families, good schools, etc.), or even luck. In some cases, yes, it may have been the privilege they were born into, others not so much. When you look closely at their biographies, some folks had humble origins.
For instance, Georgia Rep. John Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers in Alabama and attended segregated schools. His parents actively discouraged him from challenging the inequities of the Jim Crow laws in the south. However, he was profoundly influenced by Rosa Parks and MLK Jr, who inspired him to follow in their footsteps.
Joanna Cole, the author of the Magic School Bus series of children's books, grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a house painter and homemaker. She was fascinated with science as a young girl, and her teacher allowed her to borrow science books each week. She stated, "I thought that reading science books for pleasure was an ordinary thing." Her favorite book as a child was titled Bugs, Insects, and Such, which was a gift from her aunt.
Chadwick Boseman was born in South Carolina. He was the son of a nurse, and a textile factory worker, who also managed an upholstery business. Chadwick wrote and staged a play at his high school after a classmate was shot and killed. He then went to Howard University, where he met his mentor, Phylicia Rashad. She helped raise funds, most notably from Denzel Washington, which allowed him to attend the Oxford Summer Program of the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England.
Katherine Johnson, the brilliant mind behind the calculations, which were essential for manned space exploration, was born Creola Katherine Coleman in 1918, the youngest of four children in West Virginia. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was a lumberman, farmer, and handyman, and worked in a hotel. Her hometown did not offer high school to black children. Because they understood that their daughter had extraordinary potential, her parents enrolled all of their children in a high school on the West Virginia State College campus.
Every single person that I researched had one thing in common - they took risks and followed their curiosity to find their passion, despite what may have seemed like insurmountable odds, at times. Some were actively discouraged, but others had unconditional support - at least one mentor who had their backs, who offered them resources and encouraged them to continue to explore their interests.
All young people deserve this kind of unqualified support. Instead of questioning and judging the number of hours they have spent on what appears to be frivolous activities and redirecting their attention to what may be considered "worthwhile" pursuits, just stop. Then take a moment to contemplate what their interest and focus are potentially worth to them or even the world.
If every young person had the opportunity to pursue their curiosities and passion, to focus on what is important to them at the moment, not only would we raise more artists, scientists, writers, social activists, and problem-solvers, I firmly believe there would be happier and more compassionate beings in our midst.
Social media posts from this past week, honoring a few of the voices we lost in 2020.
Best wishes for a bright, curiosity filled New Year from the entire DRC Crew! Take some risks! Get messy! And, have fun!