What Remembering Ntozake Shange Taught Me About Empowering Young Women (and Myself)

By Reniya Dinkins

This past Saturday, I was devastated when I found out about the passing of Ntozake Shange on Twitter. Several people were quoting the poet’s words from “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” one passage in particular:

i found god in myself
& i loved her/ I loved her fiercely

Ntozake Shange illustrated with her work that a woman having the courage to redefine what is divine by looking within herself is revolutionary. It is often accompanied by a great deal of pain unseen by an outside world that has negative and constricting ideas, expectations, and critiques of her before she even enters it. Yet, every day we witness more and more women breaking barriers by seeing something great within themselves: they are running for elected office, starting and reviving movements, and challenging the world to center their perspectives and experiences.

While things may seem to be going so well for women, it is still important to raise up future women leaders who will move us towards a more equitable world with their rise to power. Our progress does not mean that there is no longer a need to create spaces for young women to comfortably build themselves and grow as people. Many of the challenges that await them are the same ones that awaited us and the women before us. As people, it is so important to have that extra push to encourage us to love and embrace our authentic selves when facing these challenges.

In middle school, I remember being embarrassed about feeling any kind of negative emotions. I would never cry in front of people because my biggest fear was my sadness being minimized to “being such a girl.”” I never allowed myself to feel anger, but instead would suppress it because I wanted to avoid the repercussions of being boxed into the “sassy” or “angry black girl” mold. Like many other young girls, I had internalized negative messaging about being black and a girl and a human, and I felt the need to be less human and more superhuman, refusing to show anger or sadness in order to seem valid to those around me. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that unconsciously suppressing my emotions had become an unhealthy habit that negatively affected the way I entered new spaces and cultivated new relationships.

Being a part of several empowering women’s groups and organizations over the years (Running Start, Girls Inc., the WomanHOOD Project, Sister Circle, and Girl Scouts) has helped me to embrace myself instead. In addition, coming across Ntozake Shange’s iconic choreopoem for the first time at 17 years old gave me a space to feel comfortable with myself as a person with my own experiences, emotions, and flaws. The lady in green, one of the seven narrators, taught me to take ownership of everything that I have to offer the world and to even love my scars. The lady in orange taught me that it is better to be my authentic black girl self than to exhaustingly mask myself out of a fear of being typecast or misperceived.

As a young person in my first year out of college and in the workforce full-time, recently rereading Shange’s work has reminded me of why being authentic is so important. My authentic voice is necessary at the table because no one else has it; the table will never truly be inclusive until everyone has the space to bring their true selves with them.

Shange has also reminded me of why it is so important to foster spaces where young girls can be “half notes scattered with no rhythm,” free to learn and embrace themselves in a way where they feel validated and motivated enough to be revolutionary. These spaces are vital because growing is a part of living, and to feel that there is no place to grow without judgment or hostility is stifling and tragic.

While I acknowledge that not every young girl has my experience, so many of us are faced with the challenges of womanhood within a traditionally patriarchal world. Ntozake Shange’s spectrum of colored girls brings disparate feelings and experiences to the story, and yet, all of the women are connected in that they use their individual stories to motivate and inspire themselves to move to the ends of their own rainbows to reach the ultimate goal of self-love.

While I am so grateful for the work and impact of Ntozake Shange, to carry on her legacy, we must continue to make space for girls, especially the marginalized girls, to grow in themselves so that they can exist freely and change our world.

somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life

let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly

Reniya Dinkins is the Executive Assistant to the President at Running Start. Her advocacy for more women in politics stems from her passion for uplifting the voices of marginalized groups in the US. She is a native Washingtonian, and she has been involved in community affairs since she was 15 years old as an intern in the local office of her congressional representative and as a member of the DC Youth Advisory Council. Reniya loves encouraging and empowering young people, especially young women of color, and she is committed to working in the nonprofit sector to serve underrepresented and underserved communities. She graduated from Columbia University in 2018 with a degree in Political Science and Sociology. Reniya was a Running Start intern in 2016!

Candid About Confidence

“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

I bet you’ve been asked that before. Would you ever try to get your writing published? Tell your crush how you feel? Run for office?

Too many people, especially young girls, are taught that things are only worth trying if there is some guarantee of success. Failure can seem like a miserable dead end instead of what it actually is — the only path to learning, growth, and confidence.

Girls’ leadership researcher Rachel Simmons flips that question on its head: “What would you do even if you knew you would fail?” Translation: what experiences are worth it, even if the end result isn’t a success?

At Running Start, we train young women to run for office, and our message is that the mere act of running is worth it in and of itself. Regardless of whether you win an election, by running, you are building new skills, expanding your network, and setting yourself up to do better on the next try.

The key to all of this is CONFIDENCE. Lately, lots of people have been talking about it. Earlier this year, Rachel Simmons released Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Happy, Healthy and Fulfilling Lives. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman just translated their groundbreaking research for a new audience with The Confidence Code for Girls. Pop stars are even singing about it. This July, Running Start is holding a summit on how to build political confidence by learning from failure.

But what does confidence and failure mean to actual young women? We sat down with four of Running Start’s high school summer interns to see how they see confidence affecting their everyday lives.

What does being confident look like to you?

Caroline: To be confident is to be self-assured and to believe in yourself. Confidence manifests itself in a number of ways, from being outspoken, to not being afraid to present your ideas, to being a leader. To have confidence is to know and to accept who you are.

Sidney: I relate confidence to passion. I’ve found that those who are passionate about something are more confident than those who aren’t. For some people, confidence is a terrifying concept, but if you are truly passionate about something, whether it be derivatives or Charles Dickens, the passion is able to override the fear, and will make you confident.

Mallory: To me, being confident means being able to trust in myself and my abilities. Confidence means presenting my ideas without disclaimers that undermine their credibility. Growing up, I often thought I had to know all the answers or speak the loudest to be confident. However, I now see confidence as being able to take ownership of my strengths while also being comfortable enough to ask questions, learn, and take risks.

Maia: I guess confidence to me is more about unapologetically being myself, and less about not caring what people think about me. I think that this distinction is key because it makes the idea of confidence much more accessible to everyone.

How would you rate your current overall confidence level?

Caroline: Overall I am a fairly confident person. I am generally outgoing, and I feel comfortable in large crowds. I have never felt afraid to speak up in either social or academic situations. I am a take-charge person, and often will be the first to step into a leadership position if given the chance.

Sidney: It depends on the situation. Outside of social situations, I would say that I am extremely confident. It takes a lot of self-confidence in order to attend college abroad, and I’m not scared to speak up for myself in a professional setting. When it comes to social situations, I’m timid, but I’m working on it.

Mallory: I would say that my self-confidence is a work in progress. I often catch myself second-guessing my decisions or doubting my argument if someone in class disagrees with me. However, throughout high school, I’ve gained a greater awareness of these habits and have consciously pushed myself outside of my comfort zone by doing things like running for student government. Today, I’m confident in my academic skills and enjoy embracing new experiences.

Maia: I honestly don’t think I would rate it pretty high. I’m a pretty nervous person and having any sort of attention makes me uncomfortable. However, I do think that since the beginning of high school my confidence has grown tremendously. I have many people to thank for that and I am now someone who is even comfortable bragging about myself.

Do you see a difference between the boys’ and girls’ confidence in high school?

Caroline: In my experience, boys and girls my age have very different levels of confidence. This is especially obvious in an academic setting. Girls tend not to answer questions in class unless they are 100% sure they are correct, whereas boys will just throw out an answer. Girls are afraid to be incorrect in front of a group of people; boys aren’t. In social settings, I feel that young men and women are equally likely to speak with confidence.

Sidney: I would say that there definitely is a difference between boys’ and girls’ confidence in high school. Confidence levels depend on the individual, but generally speaking, the boys are more confident socially while the girls are more confident academically. I think this divide has more to do with perfectionism than anything else; the boys aren’t afraid to make mistakes, leading them to take more risks, while the girls spend a tremendous amount of time perfecting their work.

Mallory: Though I attend an all-girls high school, I participate in weekly Government Club meetings with my brother school. At these meetings, I’ve noticed that the boys give speeches more frequently, and they also frequently do so with little to no notes. In contrast, some of the girls, including myself, feel reluctant to talk unless they have done prior research or have a fully written and edited speech. I think this difference reflects how women often internalize the pressure to be perfect and, as a result, don’t feel confident enough to just stand up and speak their minds.

Maia: I don’t think that there is a difference in the level of confidence between to two, but I think that the boys, that I know at least, all seem to show their confidence a lot more. Meanwhile, the women I know have this wonderful secret confidence that I think they don’t exude as much in everyday life.

How does failure affect your confidence? How do you rebuild your confidence after failing?

Caroline: In school and in sports, we are taught to avoid failure at all costs. There is an incredible pressure to never fail at anything. This means that when people do fail, it is often a huge blow to their confidence. However, failure can in fact be helpful. Succeeding after having failed over and over again can increase your confidence immensely.

Sidney: I find that failure often helps me gain the confidence necessary to not fail in the same capacity again. Oprah once said that, “failure is a great teacher, and if you are open to it, every mistake has a lesson to offer.” I’m a life-long learner, it’s in my DNA. My great-aunt was Superintendent of two counties and her life philosophy taught me to develop a deep appreciation of learning. I don’t think anyone is eager to fail, but I’m definitely eager to learn, and that love of learning helps me to rebound from failure without diminishing my confidence.

Mallory: Simply put, failure never feels good. In the moments and even days after the experience, failure has, for sure, negatively altered my confidence. I distinctly remember one interview that didn’t go as well as I had hoped. When asked about what I could contribute to the program, I found that I could not talk about my own skills. At first, I felt defeated and embarrassed. However, it’s crucial to me to view failures as opportunities to learn. I sat down with one of my mentors, and we discussed what went well and what didn’t during the interview. Her support helped rebuild my confidence. She also told me not to let one experience discourage me. Sometimes the only way to build confidence and comfort is through experience.

Maia: I think when dealing with failure there are short term effects and long-term effects. In the short-term yes, it might bruise your ego and hurt your confidence. However, I also think that the great thing about confidence is that it grows, so the failure will help you learn and in the end make you a much more confident person.

 

Caroline, Sidney, Mallory, and Maia are high school seniors gaining professional experience at Running Start as part of special senior year projects.

Caroline Tornquist will attend Dartmouth College in the fall. The most recent thing to boost her confidence was having her prom photos featured on her friend’s body positivity Instagram account.

Sidney Hobbs will attend the University of St Andrews in the fall. The most recent thing to boost her confidence was her Cum Laude induction in April.

Mallory Moore will attend the University of Chicago in the fall. The most recent thing to boost her confidence was a hug from her sister.

Maia Paz will attend Georgetown University in 2019. The most recent thing to boost her confidence was giving an award acceptance speech.

 

With Jessica Kelly, Leadership & Programs Director at Running Start.